Life on Earth now under threat as never before

Below, my opinion article, as it appears in today’s Irish Times:

WHEN WE put our mind to it, it’s amazing what we can learn to forget. Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 hosted one of the most important international conferences in history, now remembered as the Earth Summit. Some 172 governments were represented in Rio, from all ends of the political spectrum –Fidel Castro and George H. Bush were among the 108 heads of state who took part in this groundbreaking environmental congress.

The conference heard a remarkable address from a 12-year old Canadian girl, Severin Suzuki. She reminded delegates that, as adults, “you teach us how to behave in the world. You teach us not to fight with others, to work things out; to respect others, to clean up our mess. Not to hurt other creatures; to share and not be greedy – then why do you go out and do the things you tell us not to do?” On environmental damage, her message to world leaders was simple: “if you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!”

The guilelessness of a child’s earnest appeal captured the zeitgeist and helped shape the tone for the 27 Principles of the Rio Declaration, a bold document drawn up to guide humanity onto a sustainable path with the natural systems upon which we depend. Environmental protection was finally to be placed as a key pillar of all future human progress.

Later in 1992, a panel of 1,700 senior scientists issued a public appeal, headlined: ‘Warning to Humanity’. Humans and the natural world are, they warned, “on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment…if not checked, many of our current practices… may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life as we know it”.

The world, it seemed, had at last awoken to the severe ecological threats and was prepared to confront them squarely.

Then, as the years passed by, something truly astonishing happened: absolutely nothing. “Men occasionally stumble over the truth”, Winston Churchill once observed, “but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened”. Yes, UN institutions were built and treaties signed, but in reality the battle between the forces touting bare-knuckle economic growth and those arguing for planetary stewardship for future generations has been a rout.

What followed instead were two decades of relentless resource plunder, habitat destruction and pollution. This unprecedented, prodigal evisceration of the rich diversity of life on Earth has been celebrated as an era of record “economic growth”.

Fast-forward 20 years to 2012. The Rio+20 conference is now just a pared back three-day affair, with little of substance on the agenda and a clear lack of appetite for action, given that growth, at all costs, is being sold as the panacea for our (growth-induced) woes.

A leaked draft agenda for Rio+20 pointed out that: “unsustainable development has increased the stress on the Earth’s limited natural resources and on the carrying capacity of ecosystems. Food insecurity, climate change and biodiversity loss have adversely affected development gains.”

Many of the world’s leaders, from Barack Obama to Angela Merkel, are expected to snub the event. Ireland, which yesterday unveiled a pre-Rio document entitled ‘Sustainable Future’ (long on aspirations, short on binding commitments) is dispatching our accident-prone Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan to Brazil.

We may as well have sent Jedward. That at least might have persuaded RTÉ that this event was actually newsworthy. Despite its extensive recent coverage of a song contest in Azerbaijan and daily reports from a court case in Mauritius, the station – which last year scrapped the position of Environment Correspondent – confirmed to me that it has “no plans” to cover Rio+20, citing budgetary constraints. It is not about budgets, it’s about priorities.

So what exactly is at stake? A major paper in the science journal ‘Nature’ argued that Earth is on the cusp of one of the greatest ever die-offs. “When we kick over into a mass extinction regime, results are extreme, they’re irreversible and they’re unpredictable”, said Dr David Jablonski of the University of Chicago. Prof Stuart Pimm of Duke University added: “we are living in geologically unprecedented times. Only five times in Earth’s history has life been as threatened as it is now”.

The fact that human activities are propelling this extinction event is in no way reassuring. Just because you pull the trigger doesn’t mean you can stop the bullet. For example, the Greenland ice pack is now losing an average of 250 billion tonnes a year in mass. Beyond a rapidly-approaching tipping point, that entire ice sheet is committed to melting over time, and no force on Earth can prevent it.

A large-scale 2009 study from MIT in Chicago projected, in the absence of policies to drastically reduce CO2 emissions, average global temperature increases this century of 5.2C (with a 90 per cent probability range of 3.5–7.4C). These numbers vary in likely impacts from widespread chaos to an epic extinction event sweeping away most living things.

But are there alternative paths? “Economic growth is mistakenly seen as synonymous with well-being”, according to the prime minister of Bhutan, Jigmi Thinley. “The faster we cut down forests and haul in fish stocks to extinction, the more GDP grows.” Worldwide, fossil fuel subsidies are worth over $400 billion annually, six times more than global spending on renewable energy. Tackling this perverse incentive to polluters alone would be an enormous step towards stabilising the climate system.

Mistaken ideologies and distorted politics make a resolution of our ecological crux all-but-impossible within the prevailing growth-fixated paradigm. “The current political system is broken”, according to the UK government’s chief science advisor, Dr Bob Watson. “Nothing has changed in 20 years, we are not remotely on a course to be sustainable”. In the same 20 years, Ireland’s average temperature has increased by 0.75C, exactly in line with a projected 4C calamity this century.

Tragically, there is little on the table for Rio+20 capable of putting a dent in our trajectory towards global system failure in the coming years and decades. And not only is humanity failing to act, we in Ireland don’t even want to talk about it.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator. He is online at Thinkorswim.ie and tweets @think_or_swim

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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  • Marcrafferty

    Great article, we must however keep trying…..send me an email at marcrafferty@gocar.ie as I would like to meet you, I run Irelands only car sharing service and we are planning to expand, our effort in a crazy world.

  • http://twitter.com/iamreddave David Curran


    For example, the Greenland ice pack is now losing an average of 250 billion tonnes a year in mass. Beyond a rapidly approaching tipping point, that entire ice sheet is destined to melt over time, and no force on Earth can prevent it.’

    ‘ In a business-as-usual scenario of greenhouse-gas emissions, in the long run humanity might be aiming at 8 degrees Celsius of global warming. This would result in one fifth of the ice sheet melting within 500 years and a complete loss in 2000 years, according to the study. “This is not what one would call a rapid collapse,” says Robinson. “However, compared to what has happened in our planet’s history, it is fast. And we might already be approaching the critical threshold.”‘ 
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120312003232.htm

    It is pretty hard to estimate what forces there might be on earth in 2000 years time.

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    Thanks Marc. Have dropped you that note and no doubt we’ll be in touch.

  • Des

    Until there are global institutions with legitimate authority to define
    and enforce policies on science, technology, economic and social
    development, there is little hope for sustainable ecology.

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    I wouldn’t be holding my breath waiting for the above global institutions to achieve sufficient authority to ever compel competing governments, blocs and transnational corporations to put aside their self-interest in favour of something as nebulous as the common good. Just can’t see that, and I suspect you may not either.

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    David, the above two statements are not contradictory. 8C guarantees the sure and certain end of the cryosphere – every ice pack and glacier on Earth will disappear over time in that scenario. Positive feedbacks along the way are likely to accelerate this process in a non-linear series of lurches. This means 70 meters of global sea level rises – that puts most of Ireland and practically every major city on Earth under water. That much is certain. Is it reversible? Yes, but only in geological time frames – tens, even hundreds of millennia. 

  • richardhiggins

    Your piece is a stimulating and provocative read.  Thank you.

    I was puzzled, however, by one of your examples of climate change.

    Having researched a little, the evidence I have found suggests that the Greenland Icesheet is now cooling (Comisco, J of Climate, 2000; Doran et al, Nature, 2002), accreting ice on its interior at c0.6cm/yr, and melting round its periphery so it is close to mass balance (Johannessen et al, Science Express, 2005). 

    Evidence for the polar caps is similar.

    I am but a novice, but this suggests to me that we are not living through the global temperature rises that computer models project.  It seems difficult enough to predict tomorrow’s weather, let alone weather for the next century.

    Just some thoughts.

  • Liam Murtagh

    Hi John, Good to see that you continue to articulate in such a coherent way the challenges faced by humanity and the totally inadequate response internationally. All we tend to hear / see / read on the main media outlets relates to the current phase of the economic cycle rather than the bigger picture.

    By the way I was just wondering  what was your source for the sentence ”Worldwide, fossil fuel subsidies are worth over $400 billion annually, six times more than global spending on renewable energy”Thanks, Liam