Our de­te­ri­o­rat­ing en­vi­ron­ment

Chronicle (Zimbabwe) - - Opinion/analysis - Analysis Mel Gur­tov

WHILE the sci­en­tists have been do­ing their job in call­ing at­ten­tion to the mul­ti­ple ways in which en­vi­ron­men­tal de­cline threat­ens the planet, we hear less and less from po­lit­i­cal lead­ers. Their fo­cus is on the here-and-now— ter­ror­ism, jobs, im­mi­gra­tion—and not on com­mit­ments to the fu­ture. Last year’s Paris Agree­ment on cli­mate change seems like a dis­tant mem­ory.

Here is some of the lat­est sci­en­tific ev­i­dence, which points not only to the mag­ni­tude and im­me­di­acy of the prob­lem but also to the in­ter­de­pen­dence of its parts:

*Five sci­en­tists from the Global Change Re­search In­sti­tute, Pa­cific North­west Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory, in College Park, Mary­land, give find­ings on the rate of cli­mate change in­crease—“un­prece­dented for at least the past 1,000 years”—and there­fore the need for an ac­cel­er­ated re­sponse.

*To the now fa­mil­iar melt­ing of the Arc­tic ice packs—which the most re­cent study shows is likely to cause a sea level rise of “at least sev­eral me­ters”– should be added the equally if not more dan­ger­ous thaw­ing of the per­mafrost, which means in­creas­ing emis­sions of meth­ane and car­bon diox­ide.

“In­deed,” Chris Mooney reports, “sci­en­tists have dis­cov­ered a sim­ple statis­tic that un­der­scores the scale of the po­ten­tial prob­lem: There may be more than twice as much car­bon con­tained in north­ern per­mafrost as there is in the at­mos­phere it­self.

That’s a stag­ger­ing thought.” (Meth­ane, by the way, seems to be the un­sung vil­lain: all the at­ten­tion to car­bon diox­ide, Bill McKibben tells us in The Na­tion, de­tracts from meth­ane’s equally po­tent heat trap­ping.

In­creased use of nat­u­ral gas, plus frack­ing, are sig­nif­i­cantly in­creas­ing meth­ane emis­sions in the US)

*The world’s largest for­est “car­bon sink,” the Ama­zon basin, is los­ing its abil­ity to soak up ex­cess car­bon diox­ide, a Bri­tish study reports.

In a nut­shell, growth—i.e., con­ver­sion of for­est land to agri­cul­ture—is out­pac­ing for­est sustainability.

*Hu­man ex­pan­sion, such as in the Ama­zon basin, is im­per­il­ing the ecosys­tem it­self. A study by Euro­pean sci­en­tists finds that bio­di­ver­sity lev­els have fallen be­low the point where the ecosys­tem can re­main in­tact.

Species de­cline of 10 per­cent, the sci­en­tists es­ti­mate, is dan­ger­ous; “but their study found that over­all, across the globe, the av­er­age de­cline is al­ready more like 15 per­cent.

In other words, orig­i­nal species are only about 85 per­cent as abun­dant (84.6 per­cent to be pre­cise) as they were be­fore hu­man land-use changes.” Cli­mate change will add sub­stan­tially to this sober­ing as­sess­ment.

*A new UN En­vi­ron­ment Programme re­port cov­er­ing all parts of the globe found that well-known prob­lems are in­ten­si­fy­ing.

Two prob­lems in par­tic­u­lar: “One was wors­en­ing air pol­lu­tion prob­lems, driven, again, by large pop­u­la­tions and the swelling of ur­ban cores.

An­other was wide­spread wa­ter scarcity prob­lems, ex­ac­er­bated by cli­mate change but also greater de­mand in grow­ing cities.” More than 1 200 sci­en­tists from 160 coun­tries par­tic­i­pated in the study.

*The first-ever in­ter­na­tional re­port on de­clin­ing pop­u­la­tions of bees, but­ter­flies, and other pol­li­na­tors un­der­scores the loom­ing threat to world food sup­plies and the agri­cul­tural sys­tem that sup­ports it.

The causes of pol­li­na­tor ex­tinc­tion are well known: global warm­ing, pes­ti­cides, and overuse of agri­cul­tural land.

*New stud­ies of flood­ing con­firm that ris­ing sea lev­els as the re­sult of global warm­ing are oc­cur­ring at a faster rate than ever be­fore.

The coastal flood­ing wit­nessed in re­cent years in Mi­ami, Charleston, and Nor­folk is likely to be more fre­quent and pro­longed in the fu­ture. Ocean lev­els may rise up three to four feet by 2100.

*China, while promis­ing to draw 20 per­cent of its en­ergy from re­new­able sources, is, in fact, con­tin­u­ing to con­struct coal-fired plants—on av­er­age, one plant a week un­til 2020, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est Green­peace re­port.

The ex­tra­or­di­nary fact about this new con­struc­tion is that it cre­ates huge ex­cess ca­pac­ity, the re­sult not of cen­tral gov­ern­ment dic­tates but rather of per­mits for in­vest­ment in coal-fired plants by lead­ers in dis­tant provinces.

Un­less this trend stops, as much as $200 bil­lion will be wasted, and wa­ter avail­abil­ity will dra­mat­i­cally de­cline.

Two pieces of good news: nu­clear power is in trou­ble ev­ery­where, and the ozone “hole” over the Antarc­tic is start­ing to heal.

The lat­est “World Nu­clear In­dus­try Sta­tus Re­port” de­tails the nu­mer­ous nu­clear power plants that have been or in a short time will be shut down. Fi­nanc­ing prob­lems, ag­ing plants, and tech­ni­cal break­downs are a big part of the rea­son; but com­pe­ti­tion from re­new­able en­ergy sources is be­com­ing the most im­por­tant fac­tor.

The fu­ture en­ergy pic­ture is cap­tured in this no­ta­tion: “Glob­ally, wind power out­put grew by 17 per­cent, so­lar by 33 per­cent, nu­clear by 1.3 per­cent” in the past year, and “Brazil, China, In­dia, Ja­pan and the Nether­lands now all gen­er­ate more elec­tric­ity from wind tur­bines alone than from nu­clear power plants.”

Mean­time, thanks to the 1987 Montreal Protocol that phased out ozone-depleting chlo­roflu­o­ro­car­bons, the ozone layer is grow­ing back — a sign that in­ter­na­tional agree­ments backed by a coali­tion of sci­en­tists do work.

Pub­lic opin­ion trails be­hind sci­en­tific find­ings on cli­mate change, ac­cord­ing to Pew Re­search Cen­ter polls.

The ur­gency of cli­mate change is felt more strongly in Europe and Latin Amer­ica than in the US and China.

That fact is wor­ri­some: Amer­i­cans and Chi­nese, who live in the big­gest car­bon pro­duc­ing so­ci­eties, should be the most con­cerned about cli­mate change.

On the other hand, Amer­i­cans’ con­cern is ris­ing again: the per­cent­age of Amer­i­cans polled by Gallup in 2016 who be­lieve cli­mate change is a wor­ri­some prob­lem stands at 64 per­cent.

On the other end of the spec­trum, only 10 per­cent of US adults now dis­count global warm­ing as a ma­jor prob­lem.

But be­fore we cel­e­brate, we need to re­mind our­selves that ex­pres­sions of con­cern don’t equate to what peo­ple are will­ing to do to com­bat the prob­lem, even at the polls.

And if many of them are in­clined to “let the politi­cians fig­ure it out,” or hide be­hind “I’m not a sci­en­tist” dis­claimers, we’re in great trou­ble.

Sadly, cli­mate change is barely on the elec­tion-year agenda. That’s hardly sur­pris­ing in the case of Don­ald Trump, a cli­mate change de­nier. His come­up­pance will be when his prize Florida ho­tel, Mar-a-Lago, goes un­der wa­ter in per­haps thirty years, along with many other coastal prop­er­ties as men­tioned above.

Beaches and streets are al­ready flood­ing in Mi­ami. As for Hil­lary Clin­ton, she has men­tioned global warm­ing of course, but it’s clearly not a high pri­or­ity in her cam­paign.

Whether or not that changes in her pres­i­dency re­mains to be seen.

A fi­nal thought, which comes from an opin­ion piece by Wil­liam Gail, for­mer pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal So­ci­ety: Fu­ture gen­er­a­tions may have to start from scratch in grap­pling with the “new dark age” of cli­mate-al­ter­ing changes.

Their learn­ing process will have been dis­rupted. Mod­els, tech­nolo­gies, and other re­sources used to iden­tify pat­terns, and pre­dict and act on Earth’s dra­matic changes, will be largely use­less.

Our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren have no idea what they are in­her­it­ing. Join the de­bate on Face­book * Mel Gur­tov is Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus of Po­lit­i­cal Science at Port­land State Univer­sity, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Per­spec­tive, an in­ter­na­tional af­fairs quar­terly and blogs at In the Hu­man In­ter­est.

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