Climate change is not the only problem our civilisation has to sort out in the next few decades. If we’re going to provide fulfilling lives and a decent standard of living for all the nine billion people expected to be alive by the middle of the century, we’re going to have to learn to live within a set of planetary boundaries. Last week, an international group of scientists and academics calling themselves the Millennium Alliance for Humanity & the Biosphere (MAHB) launched an appeal to world leaders for urgent coordinated action in five key areas — climate disruption, extinctions, loss of ecosystem diversity, pollution, and human population growth and resource consumption.
Their message is stark:
…the evidence that humans are damaging their ecological life-support systems is overwhelming […] based on the best scientific information available, human quality of life will suffer substantial degradation by 2050 if we continue on our current path.
By the time today’s children reach middle age, it is extremely likely that Earth’s life-support systems, critical for human prosperity and existence, will be irretrievably damaged by the magnitude, global extent, and combination of these human-caused environmental stressors, unless we take concrete, immediate actions to ensure a sustainable, high-quality future.
MAHB’s message, contained in a document titled Scientific Consensus on Maintaining Humanity’s Life Support Systems in the 21st Century: Information for Policy Makers (pdf), makes for depressing reading. We’re well on the way to stuffing up the planet’s climate, we’re causing species extinctions at a rate not seen since an asteroid hit the planet 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs, we’ve transformed 40% of the ice-free land on the planet through farming, logging and building towns and cities, we’re polluting the atmosphere and oceans, and population and resource consumption are growing fast.
All of these impacts feed on each other, and make it more likely that the planet will pass through tipping points that lead to irreversible changes. It’s not enough to work on just one issue — we have to work on all of them at the same time, and quickly. The longer we leave it, the more expensive and difficult it will be to prevent crisis turning into disaster. “Delaying even a decade may be too late,” the statement warns.
This is a huge challenge for the political process around the world. Progress on climate change — a problem first identified in the 1980s — has been pitifully slow. Economic and political inertia, exploited by industries that stand to lose if carbon emissions are cut, have made meaningful international action all but impossible to achieve. Thirty years of fine talk and empty promises mean that we’re now staring down the barrel of irreversible and highly damaging climate change.
It’s difficult to be optimistic that the world is suddenly going to sit up and pay attention. There’s too much money to be made, and influence to be bought, by carrying on with business as usual. Ultimately the planet will find a way to deal with humanity’s impacts if we don’t, and the outcome is unlikely to be pretty.