Thursday, February 08, 2018
By Curtis Johnson, Truthout | News Analysis
In 1992, 1,700 world scientists issued a prescient Warning to Humanity that “human beings and the natural world are on a collision course.” They warned that human practices, if not checked, “may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.” The statement argued saving life as we know it meant transforming our species’ interaction with nature; lowering greenhouse gas emissions and eliminating fossil fuel use, reducing deforestation, preserving biodiversity and lowering the human footprint on natural ecosystems.
Last November, 15,000 scientists, the largest scientific grouping to ever co-sign and support a journal article, issued a Second Notice warning humanity. They wrote, “The authors of the 1992 declaration feared that humanity was pushing the Earth’s ecosystems beyond their capacities to support the web of life.” And that since then, we not only haven’t made sufficient progress to address these issues, but, “alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse.”
These warnings, and the new conclusion that things are only getting “far worse,” should shock the collective soul, and rouse people to radical action. These are not rantings by doomsayers searching for a “worst-case scenario” to drum up change. What thousands of the world’s leading scientists are telling us is that human society (as it is presently constituted) threatens the existence of life on Earth. What we must confront is whether we care enough about the continued existence of the natural world — its myriad wonders, including the human species itself — to act powerfully and quickly to save it.
Scientists are now fairly confident that Arctic warming is creating conditions for more extreme weather events in North America.
The dangers the scientists warned of are now pouring down with increasing force. Last year was the second-warmest year in recorded history, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, surpassed only by 2016. Seventeen of the 18 warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 2001. Last year was also a record year of warmth in the world’s oceans, contributing to the most destructive storms in US history, including a series of unprecedented Atlantic hurricanes ravaging Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands, Houston and Florida. One, Hurricane Harvey, dumped rainfall amounts never seen in recorded history, amounts now linked by scientific study with climate change. This was followed by climate change-fueled drought throughout the Western US that led to massive wildfires causing dozens of deaths, destruction of forests, homes and businesses, and episodes of choking smoke impacting millions of people. Following this came more record-breaking fires in Southern California, including the largest in state history.
As bad and destructive as all this was, these were only the latest pieces of an overall puzzle, signs of a profound transformation of life on Earth. A brief look at just a few of the scientific reports from the past two years give evidence of a growing danger of ecosystem collapse.
Unravelling of Ecosystems on Land and Sea
Even with dramatic retreat and advance over millennia, polar ice has maintained and characterized Earth for millions of years, including the entire life of human existence. But that may be ending.
Coming after years of studies documenting the decline of Arctic sea ice, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) annual Arctic Report Card for 2017 found that “the Arctic shows no signs of returning to the reliably frozen region of past decades.” Jeremy Mathis, director of the Arctic Research Program at NOAA, who co-authored the report, said the Arctic is “going through the most unprecedented transition in human history.” The loss of sea ice means more heat from sunlight being retained by darkly colored open water instead of reflected back into the atmosphere, leading to a “runaway effect.” More Arctic tundra is also thawing, further releasing greenhouse gases that warm the planet. The changes are causing disruptions in the Arctic ecosystem, more widespread wildfires and undermining the ability of Indigenous people to sustain their mode of life.
The transformation of the Arctic has stunning consequences for an essential part of the planet’s ecosystem and for causing climate impacts far beyond the Arctic. As one example, Mathis said scientists are now fairly confident that Arctic warming is creating conditions for more extreme weather events in North America. A December 2017 study also linked Arctic warming to increasing the risk of drought in California. More remains to be learned, but the end of the Arctic as we know it marks a frightening tumble into unknown territory.
Arctic melt is only one part of the disappearance of ice at the poles. A recent study in Greenland, which mapped coastal glaciers and the bedrock on which they lie as they flow into the sea, found two to four times as many glaciers as previously thought are exposed to warm salt water at depth — meaning they are more exposed to melt from warming oceans. If all of Greenland were to melt, it would contribute to more than 20 feet of sea level rise.
At the other end of the planet, scientists have been tracking the breaking up of ice sheets in West Antarctica. In December, a team studying ice sheet disintegration and collapse of ice cliffs concluded that taking into account these mechanisms, estimates of median sea level rise by 2100 should be increased from two-and-a-half feet to almost five feet. This would inundate land that 153 million people currently live on. The scientists emphasized there is uncertainty in these predictions, and that these estimates and final outcomes depend on whether global carbon emissions continue to increase or are cut.
As ocean warming increases, ocean ecosystems are being damaged and transformed in frightening ways.
The death of coral reefs would mean the death of some of the ocean’s most important ecosystems.
Scientists warn that kelp forests — coastal ecosystems rich in biodiversity — are disappearing from Tasmania to California. They’re wilting and dying due to the nearly 3 degrees Fahrenheit ocean temperature rise. Kelp ecosystems are being replaced by regions dominated by voracious sea urchins that are barren of other forms of life.
In early January, a National Geographic story titled, “Climate Change is Suffocating Large Parts of the Ocean,” warns, “A new study says warming has reduced oxygen levels in large swaths of the deep ocean, threatening marine life around the world.” In summarizing this study, Science Daily wrote, “the amount of water in the open ocean with zero oxygen has gone up more than fourfold.” Lead author of the study Denise Breitburg, a marine ecologist with the Smithsonian Research Center, wrote that “loss of oxygen in many ways is the destruction of an ecosystem,” and “This is a global problem…. It requires global solutions.”
As if this isn’t bad enough, large sections of the Great Barrier Reef off the Australian coast have been killed by two straight years of coral bleaching caused by ocean warming. In January 2018, Coral reef expert Terry Hughes and colleagues released a new paper that found tropical sea surface temperatures occurring under today’s La Niña (colder ocean cycle) temperatures are warmer than El Niño (warmer ocean cycle) temperatures of three decades ago. Hughes’s paper studied bleaching histories of 100 reefs globally and concluded, “Tropical reef systems are transitioning to a new era in which the interval between recurrent bouts of coral bleaching is too short for a full recovery of mature assemblages.”
Without insects, we could see a collapse of whole ecosystems.
The consequences of coral bleaching, combined with overfishing, destructive storms and pollution in reef systems worldwide are enormous. The death of coral reefs would mean the death of some of the ocean’s most important ecosystems, home to 25 percent of the world’s marine life and nurseries to a fourth of the world’s fish. Not only are we facing the wiping out of enormous natural beauty and diversity, this would mean disappearance of a good portion of the food supply literally hundreds of millions of people rely on to live. The ending of coral reefs that is already underway means destruction of a key world ecosystem that must be prevented.
The extinction of species — what many scientists have called a “sixth extinction” — is underway on land as well as in the oceans and waterways. In October 2016, a landmark study conducted by the World Wildlife Fund and the ZSL Institute of Zoology released data revealing “overall global vertebrate populations are on course to decline by an average of 67 percent from 1970 levels by the end of this decade, unless urgent action is taken to reduce humanity’s impact on species and ecosystems.” This precipitous decline is being caused by deforestation, pollution, overfishing, the illegal wildlife trade and climate change.
There is also growing concern about declines in populations of insects. North American honeybee colonies have declined by 59 percent since World War II. A recent report of a study at 63 nature reserves across Germany found flying insects declined 77 percent in the last 25 years. One of the study’s authors, Dave Goulson from Sussex University in the UK, wrote, “We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects, then everything is going to collapse.” There are still remaining questions about if these results were particular to this region, but this is another worrying wake-up call. Insects are the most populous group of animals on the planet. Human agriculture relies on them for pollination of crops. And they are the base of ecosystems worldwide. Without insects, we could see a collapse of whole ecosystems.
Capitalism is incapable of interacting with nature in a sustainable way.
Humanity is on a path of ushering in the rapid disintegration of the natural world as we know it. Given the lateness of the hour, what is called for is an emergency effort to mobilize humanity to save the planet. We are confronted by the necessity to quickly act on all the scientific warnings issued over many years: to end fossil fuel use and transition to sustainable energy development; to create planetary reserves, especially for key ecosystems and areas of biodiversity on land and in the oceans; to restrict and walk back grazing and animal agriculture while reforesting and rewilding large areas on the planet; to stop the endless expansion of human development eating up green space and natural habitat; to move against pollution, stop use of destructive pesticides, and overharvesting in the oceans and land.
All this and more could be done, and would give us at least a fighting chance of preventing some of the worst destruction to come, including the possibility of an overall collapse of living ecosystems that threaten human survival. Standing in the way are not people per se, but the pattern of organized economic life under capitalism. Capitalism, driven by competition, profitability and national economic/political interests, is incapable of interacting with nature in a sustainable way. It is incapable of meeting the challenge of these times to prevent life on Earth from slipping away.
This is true to greater or lesser extent in the entire capitalist world, but especially so in Trump’s United States. At the very moment of frightening decline of planetary ecosystems and accelerating climate change, Trump, his regime and cohorts in Congress, have launched a scorched-earth campaign against the environment — a war on nature. Trump and his ilk aren’t like Nero fiddling as Rome burned; they’re stoking the inferno with whole forests.
They have purged climate change from government websites, while denying its existence. They’ve chastised scientists for raising the connections of last summer’s hurricanes to warming oceans. Trump has ordered the Clean Power Plan scrapped, is moving to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement and has called for drastic cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) budget, especially targeting programs to deal with climate change. This administration loves fossil fuels and hates renewable energy so much it announced a plan on February 1 to cut research on renewables 72 percent.
The EPA and Interior Department have been turned into shameless instruments of environmental destruction. Scientists and officials in the EPA, the Interior Department and the National Park Service have been forced out, let go, blocked from advising or have resigned in protest. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the last remaining truly pristine wilderness areas left on the planet, is now open for drilling, a provision snuck through in the Republican tax bill. Bears Ears and Grand-Escalante National Monuments — with all their archaeological and cultural treasures, and particularly precious to Indigenous people — have been gutted and eviscerated. Now Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, Trump and Republicans in Congress have their sights set on more monuments and national lands to pry open for extractive interests. In January, the regime declared almost all US coastal regions open for drilling. There is no regulation to protect land, water, air, wildlife or people’s health that these eco-destroyers are bound to respect.
Many factors are involved in these decisions being fully implemented, including whether drilling in many regions is profitable. Dozens of court cases have also been filed to stop many of these actions, and opposition is widespread. So, all of this is not yet decided. Much could be stopped. But that’s up to us.
Trump isn’t just the most environmentally unfriendly, pro-business president ever. As Noam Chomsky recently put it, “There has never been an administration, here or for that matter anywhere, which is committed openly to trying to undermine the prospects for organized human life in the not very distant future.”
This is a man with a disdain for (and complete lack of acquaintance with) reason, science, compassion and evidence-based thinking. What this war on nature is about: feasting, plundering and unmitigated profit-making for capital. It’s also about fascist nationalism; harnessing nature and all its bounty like a set of draft horses to the goal of US “energy dominance,” as part of dominating the globe by whatever means necessary, including nuclear war. The war on nature links up to, and is part of, the Trump regime’s overall efforts to remake the country in a fascist way.
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Curtis Johnson is a research scientist and freelance writer who has reported on the Gulf oil spill, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the extinction crisis and the climate crisis, as well as other environmental topics. Follow him on Twitter: @curtisjohnson70.