By the Blouin News Science & Health staff

Avoiding extinction: What next?

by in Environment.

Getty Images

Getty Images

Graciela Chichilnisky is a Professor of Economics and Statistics at Columbia University in New York, as well as the Director of the Columbia Consortium for Risk Management. The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author of this blog are hers alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of Blouin News or Louise Blouin Media. This blog is part one of a series.

For the first time ever, humans dominate planet Earth. We are changing the basic metabolism of the planet: the composition of gases in the atmosphere, its bodies of water, and the complex web of species that makes life on Earth. What comes next?

The changes we are precipitating in the atmosphere are fundamental and can lead to disruptions in climate and global warming. Signals abound: in the Southern hemisphere melting glaciers are observed and ice sheets are melting in Antarctica; in the Northern hemisphere Alaska’s permafrost is melting, sinking entire towns whose inhabitants are being relocated at a cost of $140,000 per person. Greenland’s ice sheet is gone, creating hostile climate conditions for a number of species like the polar bear that are now close to extinction. In Patagonia and the Alps we observe mountains without ice or glaciers, reducing the ability of these regions to store water needed for human consumption. In the Caribbean seas 50% of corals are already extinct. Desertification has overtaken 25% of China’s land mass. Climate’s instability has led to Australia’s longest draught on record, followed by the worst floods in that continent’s history. We observe disappearing summer ice in the Arctic Seas and soil erosion and storm surges in Alaska. Where is all this coming from? The rapid industrialization of wealthy nations during the last century is responsible for most of the changes and for the risks they entail. Historically OECD nations originated 70% and now still 60% of all global emissions of carbon, emissions that most scientists in the world, including those in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, believe to cause climate change. China’s inexorable industrial growth of the last two decades is a sign of things to come: it accelerates the risk of climate change and underscores that in 20 or 30 years into the future most emissions could come from today’s poor nations as they assume their turn to industrialize.

Water expands when it warms. Since the seas are warming, they are rising all over the world. This irrevocable upward trend is well documented: slowly but surely the rising waters will sink the Maldives and most other island states – there are 43 island states in the United Nations representing about 23% of the global vote and most or all could disappear soon under the warming seas.

The current shift in climate patterns has led to habitat changes for many insect species and therefore vector illnesses, for example, new outbreaks of malaria in Africa. 25 million people are reportedly migrating due to drought and other climate change conditions, and the numbers are increasing rapidly.

In the U.S., the consequences are less extreme but they stack up: the mighty Colorado River is drying up, its basin under stress prompts orders to turn off farm water. Lake Mead’s waters in Nevada exhibit record lows threatening the main supply of water to Las Vegas, and arid areas spread quickly as Vegas’ new sites double water use. Wild fires from drought conditions multiply and spread rapidly around the region, and in California since 2006.

The world is aware of the connection that scientists postulate between climate change and the use of fossil energy. The largest segment of carbon emissions, 45% of the global emissions of CO2, originate in the world’s power plant infrastructure, 87% of which are fossil fuel plants that produce the overwhelming majority of the world’s electricity. This power plant infrastructure represents $55 trillion according to the International Energy Agency, about the size of the world’s economic output. New forms of clean energy are emerging such as wind farms in Scotland and solar farms in Spain in an attempt to forestall carbon emissions. But the process is necessarily slow since the world’s fossil power plant infrastructure is comparable to the world’s entire GDP, and therefore changing this infrastructure can take decades. This timeframe — several decades — is too slow to avert potential catastrophes that are anticipated in the next 10 – 20 years. What is the solution?

Below I propose a realistic plan that involves market solutions in industrial and developing nations, simultaneously resolving the problems of economic development and climate change and the global climate negotiations. But the climate change issue is just one of several global environmental areas that are in crisis today. Biodiversity is another: industrialization and climate warming threaten ecosystems. Endangered species include sea-mammals, birds like cockatoos, polar bears, and marine life like coral, sawfish, whales, sharks, dogfish, sea-turtles, skates, grouper, seals, rays, and bass, and even primates, our cousins in evolution, are at risk.

Scientists know that we are in the midst of the 6th largest extinction of biodiversity in the history of Planet Earth, and that the scope of extinction is so large that 75% of all known species are at risk today. The U.N. Millennium Report documents rates of extinction 1,000 higher than fossil records. The current 6th largest extinction event in planet Earth follows the dinosaurs’ extinction that took place 65 million years ago. But today’s extinction event is unique in that it is caused, created, by human activity. And it puts our own species at risk. There is a warning signal worth bringing up: all major recorded planetary extinctions were related to changes in climate conditions. Through industrialization we have created environmental conditions that could risk our own species’ survival. 99.9% of all species that ever existed are now extinct.

Are we the next?

Will humans survive?

The issue now is how to avoid extinction.

– Graciela Chichilnisky

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