In early May, my first post appeared on The Currency, a business-oriented subscriber-only website launched by journalists Tom Lyons and Ian Kehoe and specialising in in-depth reportage. It’s not where you might typically expect to find a fairly downbeat assessment of the climate crunch, our heavily constrained future and a critique of many of our fundamental assumptions about economics, including the belief in perpetual growth, but I felt it was an opportunity to reach a different audience and was pleased to chip in the below article:
“Amid escalating climate emergency, business-as-usual is a road to unmitigated ruin”
An enduring legacy of the coronavirus crisis may be the widespread new awareness of the extraordinarily fragile state of our world, how utterly we are at the mercy of nature, and how quickly everything we take for granted can unravel.
In early January, 2019, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof penned an article titled: ‘Why 2018 was the best year in human history’. A year earlier, his January column carried the identical title, this time describing 2017 in similar terms.
Returning to the theme, Kristof’s column on December 28 last was titled: ‘This has been the best year ever – for humanity overall, life just keeps getting better’. He outlined what he saw as as the three most important global trends in the early 21st century: ‘our progress toward elimination of hideous diseases, illiteracy and the most extreme poverty’.
Three days later, on New Year’s Eve, the World Health Organisation (WHO) was formally notified by the Wuhan Municipal Health Committee that 27 cases of pneumonia ‘of unknown aetiology’ had been detected.
One month later, with almost 10,000 cases of the novel coronavirus confirmed, the WHO on January 31 formally declared a global public health emergency. Humanity’s ongoing battle to eliminate hideous diseases had just suffered its largest reverse in over a century.
What the coronavirus has brought into dramatic recent focus is an understanding that Earth scientists have long since internalised: human civilisation, our economies and our societies, are wholly owned subsidiaries of a functioning biosphere, our planetary life support system. If this system fails, then the 100-century story of human progress and flourishing since the end of the last Ice Age comes to an abrupt, harrowing end.
To be absolutely clear: this system is failing. Or, to be more precise, it is in the process of being destroyed, wittingly or unwittingly, by human actions. And as this destruction rapidly comes home to roost, we may yet look back on the early 2020s, coronavirus notwithstanding, as among our halcyon days.
‘Our species is now at the pinnacle of its numbers, its geographic spread, its power, and the fraction of the Earth’s productivity that it commands. That is the good news’, according to anthropologist Jared Diamond. ‘The bad news is that we are also involved in the process of reversing all that progress much more rapidly than we created it. Our power threatens our own existence’.
Diamond’s book, ‘Collapse – how societies choose to fail or succeed’ charts the slow rise and often sudden unravellings of civilizations throughout recorded history. While the circumstances and factors triggering major failures vary greatly, he notes two common threads: the first is resource depletion and the second is that societies on the verge of collapse remain almost invariably completely blinded to the nature of their predicament, choosing to reject evidence of their vulnerability even as the proverbial walls begin to crumble.
A contrarian approach to growth
Take economic growth. As everyone knows, it is essential for a functioning economy, and it is something we confidently expect to continue ad infinitum. What’s more, all our modern economic models are predicated on this fundamental axiom.
But is the assumption correct? American economist, philosopher and co-founder of systems theory, Kenneth Boulding identified what he believed as a crucial error when he wrote in 1933: ‘Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist’.
Boulding’s injunction towards caution was swept aside in the unprecedented period of frenzied economic expansion that kick-started as World War II came to an end in 1945 and continues to this day. It is known as the Great Acceleration, and it has involved near-exponential growth in global GDP, primary energy use, fertilizer consumption, urban population, foreign direct investment, transport, telecommunications and international tourism.
For the 20th century as a whole, global population quadrupled, the world economy grew 14-fold, while global industrial output grew 40-fold. To fuel this explosive increase in activity, energy use increased 13-fold, water usage grew 5-fold and coal production went up by a factor of seven.
The toxic by-products of this era have piled up equally rapidly, including a 17-fold increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that plays a critical role in determining global temperatures. Sulphur dioxide grew 13-fold, while global air pollution increased 5-fold during the tumultuous 20th century.
All these trends have intensified through the first two decades of the 21st century, with the coronavirus shutdown the first significant setback on this insatiable and seemingly unstoppable growth trajectory.
In fairness to Kristof, he is entirely right to point out that humans, as a species, have never had it so good. The share of the biosphere now sequestered by a solitary species (and its agriculture, industry and domesticated animals) is entirely without precedent, as are the impacts of our planetary dominion.
Consider the half century since 1970. In that time frame, human population has more than doubled and average life expectancy has increased from 59 to 72 – an astonishing advance in a single generation. Progress, however, turns out to be a zero-sum game. As humans have gained, countless other species and ecosystems have lost heavily.
A major UN report published in 2019, based on a review of over 15,000 scientific and government sources, found that 75% of terrestrial and 66% of marine environments had in this period been ‘severely altered’ by human actions.
The same study found that around one million species are now threatened with extinction as a result. “The overwhelming evidence of the (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) report presents an ominous picture,” according to IPBES Chair, Professor Robert Watson.
“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide”, Watson concluded.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been producing its annual Living Planet Report for decades, and it is considered the gold standard in the field. Its 2019report found that the wild populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians have declined, on average, by some 60% since 1970. That means that almost two-thirds of the world’s wild animals, the products of millions of years of evolution, have disappeared in just the last 50 years.
While destroying biodiversity is catastrophic for animal and plant life, researchers point to the growing number of zoonotic diseases (those passed from animals to humans), from Ebola, bird flu and Sars to coronavirus, that have emanated from human incursions into the natural world.
The US Centers for Disease Control now estimate that some 75% of new or emerging diseases infecting humans originate in animals. The persecution of wild animals for the so-called wet markets of Africa and Asia helps provide ideal opportunities for viruses to jump from one species to another, or for dangerous new strains to be incubated.
Surface temperature and biodiversity
While it achieves the most attention, wildlife destruction is not restricted to mammals and birds. Insects have existed on Earth for at least 400 million years, and possibly as far back as half a billion years, which is long before even the dinosaurs evolved.
The insect kingdom survived the asteroid impact 66 million years ago that wiped out all non-avian dinosaurs and have long been the bedrock of life on Earth. For every human, there are an estimated 200 million insects and arthropods outweigh us by around a factor of 70. Yet this world too is crumbling.
A major European study published in 2017 found that the biomass of flying insects in Germany had fallen by an astonishing 76% since 1991. Anyone over the age of 40 will understand this viscerally. I clearly remember driving at night during the summer in the late 1980s and early 1990s and having to use the wipers repeatedly to clear the ‘bug splat’ from the windscreen.
Today, you could drive the length of the country at night and only encounter the occasional flying insect. The reasons for this precipitous decline in insect life are manifold but overall there is no great mystery. While pesticides are deadly to insects in even the slightest concentrations, globally farmers spray an astonishing 2.5 million tonnes of pesticides a year, with Irish farmers accounting for well over 3,000 tonnes annually, according to data from the Department of Agriculture.
Herbicides are equally deadly to insects, by selectively wiping out the wild plants they depend on for food. Over 136,000 tonnes of Monsanto’s ‘weed-killer’ glyphosate are sprayed annually. Insects are a critical food supply for a host of other animals, from birds and bats to frogs, hedgehogs, moles and toads. Insects are also key pollinators for the bulk of the world’s flowering plants, while healthy soils depend on the work of legions of arthropods.
The only form of agriculture that is not actively destructive of wildlife is organic farming, yet despite Ireland making much play of its ‘Origin Green’ credentials, less than 2% of Irish land is farmed organically, making us the second least ‘green’ country in the entire EU.
While the chemical warfare on the natural world by agri-industrial giants continues unabated, the chemistry of both the global atmosphere and oceans is also changing rapidly. Largely as a result of fossil fuel burning, atmospheric CO2 levels have risen by over 30% since the 1950s. This is by far the fastest rate of change in Earth history.
Globally, average surface temperatures have already increased by over 1ºC versus pre-industrial. This may not sound like much, but it’s already the largest and most rapid global temperature shift in over 10,000 years. UN scientists in October 2018 published a report indicating that the danger line for global warming is just 1.5ºC.
Even at this level, severe impacts will have already occurred, but at 2ºC and beyond, significant parts of the Earth will in the near future become too hot for human or animal life to exist unless sustained by air conditioning.
However, on current projections, global temperatures this century are set to increase by 3-4ºC, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). To look at what a 4ºC world would mean, the World Bank published a report in 2012, titled ‘Turn Down The Heat’. Its president, Jim Yong Kim described a 4ºC world bluntly as a “doomsday scenario”.
A world 4ºC hotter is one in which people and countries ‘would experience severe disruptions, damage, and dislocation…there is no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible’. Based on current warming trends, the United Nations is projecting a median figure of some 200 million people being climate refugees by 2050, while acknowledging that this number ‘might reach one billion’ in this time frame.
The geopolitical instability and chaos triggered by hundreds of millions of desperate refugees, combined with widespread starvation as global agricultural systems fail would likely lead to the collapse of many nation states and the effective end of globalised trade and travel by mid-century.
In 2015, that most conservative of institutions, the US Department of Defense warned that climate change ‘is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water’.
In short, and however wrenching it may be for us as individuals to accept, the science is crystal clear: business-as-usual is a road to unmitigated ruin, and the only sane choice remaining is to do everything in our collective power to change course while change is even possible.
The phrase ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’ is sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill in describing the unlikely wartime alliance of the US, Russia and the UK that led to the formation of the United Nations. In the three decades in which intergovernmental processes have been in place to tackle global carbon emissions, these emissions have in fact increased by over 60%.
However, according to the Global Carbon Project, the impact of the pandemic in 2020 could see a 5% reduction in global carbon emissions – dwarfing the 1.4% (temporary) decline that followed the financial crisis of 2008.
This is likely the largest emissions cut since World War II, yet it still falls well short of the estimated 7.6% rolling annual emissions reductions we require, according to UN scientific estimates, to avoid dangerous and irreversible climate impacts.
Crucially, we need to engineer a way to achieve compound reductions in emissions of this scale, year after year until the global economy is effectively completely decarbonised. If that sounds like an impossible ask, bear in mind that if we fail, we face ruin on a scale that will make the coronavirus crisis pale into absolute insignificance.
We now have to do the unthinkable to avoid the unimaginable.
This is, by some distance, the greatest collective challenge humanity has ever faced. Failure is not an option as its consequences are too terrible to even consider.
Ultimately, I believe the most enduring legacy of the coronavirus crisis may be the widespread new awareness of the extraordinarily fragile state of our world, how utterly we are at the mercy of nature, and how quickly everything we take for granted can unravel.
Tackling the pandemic has also underlined the need to restore the primacy of expertise and, crucially, to heed the warnings of science. We have also been forcefully reminded that responding to global threats requires strong national and global governance and well-funded and managed institutions.
True freedom, in short, isn’t free. It’s not even cheap.
John Gibbons is an Irish environmental journalist and campaigner and the founder of the climatechange.ie