Opinion: Climate disruption is not the whole story of our sad predicament
A coastal town was flooded after Hurricane Sandy passed to the west of the island nation on Oct. 25, 2012. Photo by Logan Abassi/UN
Jan 9, 2013
We risk a global collapse of our civilization as we know it. Climate change is just one of our problems. We cannot avert calamity without tackling it and other pressing ecological concerns in concert.
Ehrlich perspective in Proceedings of the Royal Society: Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?
By Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich
During the 2008 presidential campaign, a press conference was held at the National Press Club with the goal of trying to inject environmental issues into the debates. It failed miserably, but it was also informative because every question asked by a reporter was about global warming.
Then, as now, a major portion of the press and the public seems to think that "global change" and "climate change" are synonymous, and that the latter is either the sole or the most important environmental dilemma. This single-minded focus is a mistake we make at our peril.
Numerous other serious components to the "perfect storm" of environmental problems now threaten a collapse of global civilization. Most of these interact with each other – and with climate disruption. All need our attention.
In short, in addition to more floods, droughts, killer storms, temperature extremes and coastal flooding, humanity faces an accelerating loss of biodiversity and the crucial ecosystem services it provides. We also face increased exposure to toxic chemicals – many of them endocrine-disrupting compounds that are dangerous in miniscule quantities – which have spread from pole to pole.
Society is also suffering increasingly severe resource depletion, forced to exploit minerals that are less concentrated and more difficult to locate and extract. We are increasingly reliant on more distant water sources and inferior soils. The resource wars could all too easily go nuclear and wreck the planetary environment. And we also are facing a greater possibility of vast epidemics.
This is not a list of independent, unrelated problems; it's a tangled web of dilemmas, all the parts interacting and often reinforcing one another. A good place to see those interactions is by considering humanity's most important activity and its largest industry: Producing food.
It was, after all, the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago that set Homo sapiens on the road to planetary dominance. Agriculture's history has coincided with an unusually long period of relatively stable and favorable climate to which it has adapted.
In modern times, agriculture has turned industrial. Greatly expanded production has created great vulnerabilities, especially in a heavy dependence on fossil fuels, antibiotics, pesticides and fertilizers.
Today at least two billion people are still hungry or poorly nourished, and the FAO estimates that we must increase food production by some 70 percent to adequately feed a human population that could be 35 percent bigger by 2050. Meanwhile, human activities, especially fossil-fuel use, are ending the era of favorable climate, an end that could ravage food production.
Farming itself is a major source of greenhouse gases, as well as toxic chemicals. And it is a prime contributor to the loss of biodiversity that agriculture depends on for pollination, pest control and soil fertility.
If humanity is very unlucky with the climate, there may be less food available in 2050 than today. Rising temperatures already seem to be slowing previous trends of rising yields of basic grains. Moreover, yields from many oceanic fish stocks are falling because of widespread overfishing, while warming and acidification of the oceans threaten coral reefs and the protein supply of some of the most nutritionally vulnerable people.
But here's our sad predicament: We cannot tackle these problems separately, in isolation from the others, and hope to solve them. Yet the United States has just completed a presidential campaign in which none of these potentially civilization-destroying environmental problems were subjected to significant discussion. Even climate disruption was ignored by politicians and the public alike until Sandy cast a spotlight on it.
Neither political party shows the slightest inclination in 2013 to address the two basic drivers of the human predicament – overpopulation and overconsumption by the rich – or the plight of the billions of people who are hungry or poverty-stricken. The appalling prospect of having to care well for 9.6 billion people in 2050, when we can't do it for 7.1 billion today, is never mentioned.
Political leaders and most people seem blissfully unaware that we are sawing off the limb upon which our civilization is seated. As the old saying goes, "it is the top of the ninth inning and humanity is hitting nature hard. But everyone must remember that nature bats last."
Paul Ehrlich is the president of the Center for Conservation Biology and the Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University. Anne Ehrlich is a senior research scientist and the associate director of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford. The two, who are married, have co-authored several books on overpopulation and ecology.
The Daily Climate is an independent, nonprofit news site covering climate change. Views expressed by the authors are their own and not the opinion of The Daily Climate. Contact editor Douglas Fischer at dfischer [at] DailyClimate.org
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