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Earth Beware: climate change, sustainability, and the human prospect

Lecture to the Department of Earth Sciences' "Earth Aware" Conference. The Open University, 15 September 2004.

The theme of your conference Earth Aware leads logically to my theme: Earth Beware. We should indeed beware; and this afternoon I am going to explain why.

Let me begin by referring you to a Declaration made by over a thousand scientists from the four great global research programmes at Amsterdam in July 2001. There it stated squarely that

So the problem is real and pressing. It is also on a vast geological scale. No wonder the Nobel prize winner Paul Crutzen with his colleague Eugene Stoermer should have named the current epoch the Anthropocene in succession to the Holocene. The Anthropocene began with the industrial revolution a quarter of a millennium ago. Since then the human impact on the Earth has become manifest in many ways. To understand it we have to see the Earth system - or Gaia - as a whole. Here are some of its critical regulators:

Some of these may seem far from human actions, but they are all directly affected by them. We have yet to reckon with the consequences of these so called teleconnections. Yet during the Anthropocene living conditions for most people, measured in terms of material wealth and longevity, have greatly improved. So far so good.

But while we have been increasing output of goods of all kinds, we have been running down, despoiling and often wasting the resources from which they are derived. Even more important we have been changing the system, pushing some things to their limits, possibly beyond sustainability. If our animal species among millions of others is to survive and prosper, we need to use our unique capacity to think.

The British Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, has recently published a book in which he rates the chances of our civilization surviving to the end of the century at no more than 50 percent. The main threats he sees arise from misuse of science through inadvertence, folly and even criminality. Examples of such misuses are the possible results of genetic manipulation, nano-technology and nuclear experiments.

For the moment there are six other things for us to think about: human population increase; degradation of land and accumulation of wastes; water pollution and supply; climate change; energy production and use, and destruction of biodiversity. Of these factors,

All these issues are interlinked, and all concern the future of humanity.

Climate is a special case. We have just heard both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition making speeches on the subject. The fundamental issue is simple. Successive reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which brings together the vast majority of the world's experts on the subject, show that the human contribution to climate change is now having a significant if not decisive effect. Indeed in its most recent guidance to policy makers in 2001, the scientific working group of the Intergovernmental Panel concluded that

"... in the light of new evidence and taking into account the remaining uncertainties, most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the [human-induced] increase in greenhouse gas concentrations."

How warm would a warmer world be? According to the same group,

"the globally averaged surface temperature is projected to increase by 1.40 C to 5.80 C over the period 1990 to 2100."
This is a considerable increase on the 1.00 C to 3.50 C rise suggested in its previous report of November 1995. It covers a wide range of local variations. But overall
"the projected rate of warming is much larger than the observed changes during the 20th century, and is very likely to be without precedent during at least the last ten thousand years ..."

Many uncertainties remain. What is certain is that average world surface temperature is rising; six of the hottest years of the 20th century occurred during the last decade. The next Intergovernmental Panel Report is not due until 2007, but in the interim many now think that the rate of global warming is speeding up. In Europe the warming rate is now almost 0.2°C per decade, with temperatures projected to climb by a further 2ºC to 6.3ºC during this century.

What would a warmer world look like? Here the uncertainties multiply. Efforts have been made by the Panel to assess possible impacts by continent, but the results are inevitably sketchy. However interpreted, they suggest a different world and a correspondingly different distribution of human activity as people and other living organisms adapt to change. Such change includes new patterns of rainfall and drought, more extreme events, and rising sea levels. For many it could be, as was well said, a genuine weapon of mass destruction.

First there are impacts on vegetation. We are already seeing tropical forest die back in northern Brazil, thereby adding to the deforestation in Amazonia caused by human agency. There could be repercussive effects on hydrology throughout the Amazon basis eventually reaching as far north as the Middle West of the United States. Some believe that with a further 10 percent loss of Amazon rainforest, the entire system could collapse, leading to a massive loss of indigenous species.

At the same time the transformation of tropical grasslands to desert or temperate grassland is increasing in Africa and elsewhere. Its effects can be seen all over the world, be it in Asia, the Sahel, Latin America, throughout North America or along the Mediterranean.

Next there are impacts on water resources, and in particular increased stresses in countries, particularly in Africa, subject to annual variations in rainfall.

Food supply is obviously affected. There may be increased crop yields in high and mid-latitude countries, such as Canada and Siberia, but decreased yields in lower latitudes. In May this year the US Government's Foreign Agricultural Service noted that world grain stocks had fallen for the fifth year running. Overall production might have increased, but demand is increasing at an even higher rate. Already Africa is dependent on food imports to feed itself, and becoming more so.

Other impacts of climate change will be on coastal communities. Global sea level rise is a major hazard with incalculable consequences. It is also poorly understood. Recent work on the Arctic and Antarctic polar ice sheets shows that if temperature increases by more than about 3ºC, cumulative melting could take place, and sea levels world wide could rise by many metres. At present the Intergovernmental Panel forecast is a rise of between 19 to 88cms by 2100. Anything like the higher figure would put tens of millions of people at risk.

Human health will be affected. Micro-organisms respond rapidly to changes in temperature and moisture. Humans take 20 years to reproduce. Bacteria do the job in 20 minutes. Old diseases such as malaria could return. For instance, the British Meteorological Office estimates that even with stabilization of atmospheric carbon dioxide at 550 to 750 parts per million, a further 215 million people could be at risk. New diseases could arise, and have already done so.

Then there are the two jokers in the pack.

At present the Inter-Government Panel tends to doubt either of these extreme possibilities. But no one knows where the thresholds are. In simple terms the current trends is demonstrably towards warming.

In Britain the Government has made more detailed predictions under its Climate Impacts Programme. It has recently produced its second set of scenarios of future impacts here. First our climate is likely to become warmer. There will be greater warming in the south and east rather than in the north and west, and there may be greater warming in summer and autumn than in winter and spring. High summer temperatures will become more frequent, whilst cold winters will become more rare.

A very hot August, such as experienced in l995 when temperatures over England and Wales averaged 3.4ºC above normal, may occur one year in five by the 2050s and as often as three years in five by the 2080s. We had a painfully hot August last year. At the same time winters are likely to become wetter and summers drier throughout Britain. This will create major problems for water storage.

Round our shores sea level will continue to rise. This may be the most serious change of all. The problem is confounded by another factor: that of isostatic change. Since the last ice age much of southern and eastern Britain has been sinking, and northern and western Britain have been rising in relation to sea level. The map of British coastlines will look very different by the 2080s.

A good illustration of human vulnerability to climatic change world wide lies in the effects of the Nino (otherwise known as the El Nino Southern Oscillation or ENSO), or its opposite the Nina. Relatively small changes can have gigantic effects.

As most people now know, the Nino signifies the arrival every four to six years or so of warm water from the western Pacific which overlies an upwelling current of cool water from the south. It thereby changes weather conditions, first within the region and then in different degrees in other parts of the world.

Around a quarter of the Earth's surface is affected by it one way or another, bringing severe droughts to countries bordering the western Pacific. In the countries bordering the eastern Pacific it is the reverse, with heavy rainfall and the threat of flooding. Further afield, in the southern United States and in Africa, similar patterns occur, while the numbers of hurricanes and typhoons are also affected.

Such perturbations obviously affect the conditions of life in all its aspects. For some organisms - from plants and insects to fish and mammals - it is a disaster, with sharp falls in population density; for others it is an opportunity to be exploited while it lasts; but for most it must be an experience which they are broadly adapted to cope with, or at least to recover from.

Micro-organisms deserve a special word. Floods bring opportunities for the vectors of such diseases as malaria, dengue and yellow fever, encephalitis and schistosomiasis, and for the agents of such diseases as hepatitis, dysentery, typhoid and cholera. Recent research has suggested mechanisms for the spread of cholera in South America during Nino events, while the Nino is also linked to epidemics of African horse sickness.

The Nino illustrates the sort of problems one reasonably predictable climate phenomenon can cause. But effects of global warming will be anything but predictable. We are indeed in an unprecedented situation.

No wonder that on climate the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser wrote in a forthright article in Science on 5 January 2004 that delay in tackling the specific issue of climate change "for decades, or even just years" was "not a serious option", and it represented

"the most severe problem we are facing today - more serious even than the threat of terrorism."

In April the Prime Minister said that climate change was the biggest problem that we faced. He said much the same yesterday.

This is strong stuff. It conforms with the depressing conclusion in the Global Environmental Outlook 2003 report of the UN Environment Programme that almost all environmental problems are getting worse and in many cases the long-term effects have yet to be seen.

In 2000 the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan launched the UN Millennium Goals with targets for 2015 covering poverty and hunger, primary education, sex equality, child mortality, maternal health, and such diseases as HIV/AIDS and malaria, and environmental sustainability.

According to Kofi Annan, four years on, progress has been patchy. On poverty and hunger there has been little or no progress in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, while in western Asia poverty has increased. Sub-Saharan Africa is also struggling to meet its goals for primary education enrolment, reducing child and maternal mortality while the AIDS pandemic continues unabated in the region, and has invaded India and China. Least progress has been made on the goal of environmental sustainability which examines trends in forest loss, access to clean-drinking water and sanitation.

So what on Earth - a familiar phrase - are we going to do next? Not surprisingly the scale of the changes that climate change in particular could bring has brought the world together as no other environmental hazard could have done. Governments have long realized the need to try and work together on environmental issues.

There were the World Climate Conferences of 1979 and 1990. Following the report of the Bruntland Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was set up. It has since reported in 1990, 1995 and 2001, and its next report is due in 2007. One of the achievements of the UN Summit Conference on Environment and Development at Rio in 1992 was the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Its objective was - and is - to stabilize

"greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system."

How this should be done has been discussed at nine successive meetings at the Parties to the Convention. Recent meetings have concentrated on the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol agreed in December 1997. This was never more than a modest beginning, and it has still to come in effect. It committed 38 industrial countries, including the United States, to a global carbon dioxide emissions reduction target of 5.2 percent between 2008 and 2012. The tenth meeting will be in Buenos Aires in December this year.

Russia seemed on the verge of signing in May, but opinion there appears more divided than ever. It had been hoped that the Russians would ratify by 6 September this year, allowing the Protocol to come into force before the Buenos Aires meeting. An official Russian government report is awaited, but will not now appear until December.

Until recently the rest of the world, including India and China, regarded the problem as one for the industrial countries. But increasingly such countries have realized how much their own future welfare is involved. Indeed the poor countries of the world will be the main victims of the practices of the rich. China, with its massive population, may soon overtake the United States as the world's largest carbon emitter.

In fact the Chinese, unlike the Americans, have actually reduced their carbon emissions in real terms. The US Natural Resources Defense Council has found that China's carbon dioxide emissions declined 17 percent between 1996 and 2000, despite economic growth of 36 percent. These cuts were achieved as a result of the reorganization of Chinese industry and attempts to reduce their dependence on native coal.

All this may look positive. But even if the Kyoto commitments were met, itself highly doubtful, greenhouse gas emissions would still be some 30 percent up on 1990 by 2010. But event this has not been accepted by the biggest polluter of all. The United States, with less than 5 percent of the world's population but around 24 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions, is a major villain of the piece.

Its unwillingness to accept binding treaty obligations is not new. With American society still based on cheap energy (gasoline prices are still lower than bottled water) and vested interests being close to the heart of the current US Administration, it is no surprise that President Bush has refused to ratify the Protocol. A combination of individual US states, from California to New England, has however decided to take up a variety of steps to reduce carbon emissions.

The European Union countries, including Britain, ratified the Protocol in New York on 31 May 2002. The Union now has an overall emissions target of 8 percent below 1990 levels for the period between 2008 and 2012. The British government has decided to do still better and has adopted a legally binding target of 12.5 percent. Since then, as global warming seems to be proceeding faster than expected, the government has also adopted a voluntary target of 23 percent reduction by 2010. More recently it has set itself a still more ambitious target in line with the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution: a 60 percent reduction by 2050.

So much for climate change. What of other developments in the field of sustainability? The World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 was supposed to bring together the disparate strands of sustainability, and as the agenda developed, examine the problems of the human condition. A recent review of the Summit by the International Institute for Environment and Development talks of a chasm between expectation and results. Perhaps the most damning comment came from Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela. He said,

"Sometimes our heads of state go from summit to summit, while our people go from abyss to abyss."

Even those who accept the premise of the need for change have very different priorities. It is easy to bleat about the problems but more difficult to set priorities for action. My own are as follows:

It is easy to say all this, but much more difficult to do anything about it. Many have foreseen a kind of bottleneck in the middle of the century through which human society will have to pass. The narrowness of the bottleneck depends on you and me, our children and our grandchildren.

What lies on the other side is unknown. It could be a world in which humans have learnt to live in balance with the rest of the environment and its resources. Rather than 6, 7, 8, or even 9 billion people, the population could be down to 2 billion (which was the population of the world the year I was born).

Or it could be a global version of what happened a few centuries ago on Easter Island, when excess population, excess consumption of resources, and excess degradation of the ecosystem led to a total collapse of organized society. When European visitors arrived at the beginning of the eighteenth century, they found a tiny bewildered population living uncomprehendingly among ruins from which they could not escape.

Let us assume that we survive this century. In peering further ahead it may be useful to jump a few hundred years, accepting that our ability to look even 20 years ahead is extremely limited. If statistical projections from the past have value, there will certainly have been some sudden disruptions before 2500, whether volcanic explosions, earthquakes, impacts of extraterrestrial objects, or even destructive wars using unimaginably horrible weapons. The global ecosystems will be very different, as after other extinction episodes in geological history. Human health will be affected by the development and spread of new pathogens.

How our successors, if there be such, will react to these new circumstances we cannot predict. We must always expect the unexpected. But it is hard to believe that there will be anything like current human numbers in cities or elsewhere. Communities are likely to be more dispersed without the daily tides of people flowing in and out of cities for work. People may even wonder what all those roads were for.

At present about 20 percent of the world's people consume between 70 percent and 80 percent of its resources. That 20 percent enjoy about 45 percent of its meat and fish, and use 68 percent of electricity (most generated from fossil fuels), 84 percent of paper, and 87 percent of cars. The wealthiest 500 people in the world control more wealth than the poorest 3 billion. All this is scarcely sustainable.

The dividing line between rich and poor is not only between countries but also within them. Already the geographical divide between North and South, or so-called developed and so-called developing countries, has become increasingly meaningless as new élites in such countries as India and China acquire similar purchasing power to the middle classes in industrial countries. Increased meat consumption by middle class Chinese already threatens to perturb world grain markets as more cereal is needed for cattle feed.

Greater prosperity in such countries as China and India is good, the increased depletion of global resources is not. Better ways of sharing must be found world wide. Happy middle classes are good for stability; insular, wealthy élites are not. The major rift then as now may be between the globalized rich and the localized poor.

There is also the possibility, however sinister, of differentiation of the human species. H. G. Wells invented Eloi and Morlocks (those up above and those down below), and at the time, more than a century ago, it seemed an amusing fantasy. No longer. Redesigning humans has become a real possibility. Through genetic manipulation humans could split into distinct varieties and over time into subspecies. It is worth remembering how vulnerable even the Eloi were. Some of these ideas were explored by Lee Silver in his book Remaking Eden in 1998.

Then there is the development of information technology and its myriad implications for our lifestyles. On the one hand humans may take enormous advantage from such technology and thereby be liberated from many current drudgeries. On the other hand they may become dangerously vulnerable to its breakdown, and thereby lose an essential measure of self-sufficiency.

Already dependence on computers to run our complex systems, and reliance on electronic information transfer, are having alarming effects. Here industrial countries are far more vulnerable than others. Just look at the effects of single and temporary electric power cuts, or of acts of terrorism. More than ever individuals feel out of control of even the elementary aspects of their lives.

The implications for governance reach equally wide. Already there is a movement of power away from the nation state: upwards to global institutions and corporations to deal with global issues; downwards to communities of human dimension; and sideways by electronic means between citizens everywhere. There is a wide range of possibilities including forms of dictatorship and disaggregation of society.

The problems of politics will be as difficult as they are today: how to ensure greater citizen participation without creating chaos; how to establish forms of accountability to ensure that governance is by broad consent; and how to establish checks and balances to protect the public interest, and ensure enforcement without abuse.

Let us hope that by then humans will have worked out and will practice an ethical system in which the natural world has value not only for human welfare but also for and in itself. They may also be involved in spreading life beyond the Earth and colonizing Mars or other planets. The opportunities for our species seem as boundless as the hazards. But the time may well come when the hazards become overwhelming. What would the world be like without us? Some have imagined rats as big as dogs, pigeons as big as turkeys, and a whole new zoo of micro organisms. The tough bitch who is Gaia would take new forms which - by definition - we will never see.

And what will our descendants think of us? They could well look back on us as a messy, short-sighted, wasteful, crude and aggressive lot. Is that what we are? In the meantime let us admit: cheerfulness will keep breaking in.


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