5 things that are worse than global warming
Climate change is an important issue, but so are a number of environmental challenges which require solutions right now. Here are five examples.
Fri, Jul 06 2007 at 3:47 PM
On Saturday, over a hundred artists and some two billion people will participate in the Live Earth concerts to highlight global warming. It will be the largest mass musical event in history: a day-long multimedia extravaganza at eight primary venues on all seven continents.
And while public attention is focused on climate change, things elsewhere will continue much as always. During the 24 hours of Live Earth, 214,000 acres of tropical forest will disappear forever. Two billion gallons of human sewage will be dumped into the world's oceans. 10,800 children will die from drought or the lack of clean drinking water. And we'll be 85 million barrels closer to the end of the Petroleum Age.
Granted, climate change is a significant issue. We needn't agree on its causes to realize its potential impact: a shifting climate means the shifting availability of things like fresh water and viable farmland. While natural resources follow wind and tide, human populations do not. The resulting stresses are likely to produce regional instabilities at a very fragile moment in history.
But the effects of global warming, whatever they are, will be measured on a scale of decades or centuries. In the meantime, beyond the unblinking stare of MTV — far from the well-heeled audiences of London, Hamburg and Giants Stadium — away from the celebrity and speechmaking, humanity's collective lack of environmental wisdom is already grinding nature underfoot. While some propose spending billions of dollars to combat the uncertain foe of climate change, more pressing matters already threaten to upend our everyday lives.
We've rounded up five of these issues for your consideration. As you watch the nonstop coverage of Live Earth on Saturday, think about the things which will still be important on July 8th. Then ask yourself what you can do about it.
The end of cheap oil
When we think about progress — economic expansion, advances in food production and the creature comforts of modern living — what we are really thinking about is cheap petroleum.
We're living at a unique time in human history. Throughout our lives, we've taken for granted the availability of plentiful, relatively inexpensive petroleum. This will not be the case for our children, or the generations which follow.
Bring up peak oil at a dinner party, and you're likely to receive the sort of stares reserved for UFO enthusiasts and those who insist the moon landings were all a fake. But peak oil is being discussed today in places such as the boardrooms of Exxon, if not in public.
Peak oil is the point at which conventional petroleum production tops out. There have been few major discoveries of conventional oil in the past decade, and existing fields command a finite supply. Beyond peak oil is a long and irreversible decline in the amount of petroleum which can be brought to market — and this slide will coincide with a worldwide demand which accelerates from year to year.
It's not just the energy. Look around you right now and think about all the petroleum products that touch your life every day, from plastics to the pesticides which make modern agriculture possible. Conservation may help, but all these things will eventually go away — and we have no replacement for them. Unless solutions are found before oil becomes unaffordable, our lives will change radically on the backside of the peak.
And when will peak oil happen? Some people think we may already be there. The so-called Early Peak theorists point to 2010. More conservative analysts say anywhere from 2015 to 2030. Soon enough, in any case. Long before the poles melt. If sea levels rise, they will inundate cities already emptied by the collapse of the economies which make them possible.
The collapse of ocean ecosystems
We are turning our seas into sewers, and fishing marine populations to the brink of extinction.
In the Pacific and elsewhere, massive whirlpools of plastic waste turn slowly in the currents, a source of deadly and inedible food for hundred of marine species. It's not just a question of aesthetics: pollution on this scale disrupts the food chain — a chain which reaches to your local grocery store.
Look at satellite imagery of our coastal areas and you'll see the telltale smudge of massive algae blooms which choke oxygen from the sea and reduce oceans to lifeless underwater deserts. These blooms are the direct result of unchecked agricultural runoff — the dumping of manure and fertilizers into watersheds which eventually find their way to the world's oceans.
Meanwhile, researchers have determined that up to 29 percent of marine species have been overfished or so effected by human mismanagement that they are on the brink of collapse. In some cases, species face 100 percent collapse no later than mid-century. These trends are still thought to be reversible, but each year that goes by makes the ultimate recovery of the oceans less and less likely.
It's difficult to calculate the impact of such widespread change to marine environments, but humanity has always been heavily dependent on the ocean for food and commerce. The problems seem more dire when expanding worldwide population is taken into consideration. There is certainly a link between climate change and stress on marine environments. But the factors over which we have more direct control are the ones doing the most damage, and the window of opportunity for addressing them is rapidly closing.
The coming water crisis
From the oceans we turn our attention to an even rarer resource: fresh water.
Of all the water on earth, less than three percent is fresh. Of this, some 70 percent is locked in glaciers and polar ice. Our survival depends on the tiny bit which is left.
Over a billion people already lack access to a safe supply of adequate drinking water. These numbers will increase with world population. Here, again, is a clear link to climate change: as rainfall patters shift, so does the availability of fresh water.
But the real crisis is this: right now, our largest cities depend heavily on groundwater. Beijing, Buenos Aires, Mexico City — and perhaps your own community — draws its water from underground aquifers. These aquifers take centuries to replenish, so it's unlikely their use on this scale is sustainable.
The recent corporatization of drinking water is no accident: investors recognize the trends of shrinking supply and increasing demand. This is the reason multinational companies are snapping up neglected municipal water infrastructures and throwing themselves into the bottled water business. Water is the "blue gold" of the 21st century.
How will we replace shrinking fresh water supplies? Desalinization of sea water is an obvious answer, but desalinization is expensive energy intensive. It would require the development of a distribution system that dwarfs the one by which we currently bring petroleum to market.
We will have to seek out new ways to reprocess wastewater and reduce our current demand on groundwater supplies. While changes will necessarily trickle down to the household level and will be neither cheap nor convenient, they are unavoidable if we wish to sustain our current rate of population growth.
There are no equivalents to carbon credits when it comes to water: you can't pay someone not to consume water on your behalf. When it comes to dwindling fresh water supplies, there can be no smoke and mirrors. Stop drinking for a day, and you’ll realize the pressing nature of thirst. The recent drought in the American Southwest and the threat of water rationing in places like Los Angeles are a preview of things to come.
We depend on Earth's forests for the quality of human life. Over half of all known species live in tropical rainforests.
Every second, 2.4 acres of old-growth rainforest disappears, never to return. That's about 78 million acres a year: the area of a medium-sized country. The pyres from the illegal harvest of irreplaceable Amazon jungle are clearly visible from space, and the effects of large scale clear cutting reverberate across the entire planet.
While you might not care or even be aware of the destruction of some exotic tropical species, the reduction of Earth's biodiversity has very real economic and environmental impact on humans. Trees cool our climate and regulate the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. Much of our medicine is derived from plants located exclusively in the world's most threatened ecosystems.
The future is complex, and the sum of many actions. But such widespread abuse of non-renewable resources bodes ill for the planet's long-term sustainability.
Out of sight, out of mind: we like to think the end of the Cold War stuffed the nuclear genie back into the bottle.
But as Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent threat to re-target European cities demonstrates, the idea that the risk of a nuclear war has abated is largely an illusion. It's not really necessary to recount the horrors of a potential nuclear exchange, other than to remind ourselves that a nuclear winter would be the ultimate environmental disaster, and humanity's last insult to the planet.
There remain approximately 20,000 active nuclear weapons, slumbering away in the missile silos, bunkers and submarines we hide around the world. They're a miscalculation or a sharp political crisis away from being called to duty — a sword that's been hanging above us so long that we've come to mistake it for the sky.
If the political resolve being marshaled to combat global warming could be channeled into achieving the complete destruction of these awful weapons, it would go a long way toward the safeguarding of our survival as a species.
We could have easily added a half dozen other issues to this list: pandemics like AIDS and antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis; the enormous economic disparities between the northern and southern hemispheres; and the pervasiveness of industrial toxins in our food and air.
As the old saying goes, the future is unwritten. Humanity is a versatile species, capable of great resourcefulness in the face of challenge. All is not doom and gloom. We have more than sufficient capacity to address the changes of the new century.
The attention focused on global warming has renewed a moribund environmental movement. More importantly, it has people thinking — for the first time in many years — about the larger issues of sustainability and the kind of future we'd like to provide ourselves and our children.
So enjoy Live Earth. Remember, though, that the real job is ahead, as is the task of setting priorities to address it.
Copyright Lighter Footstep 2007
ezioman/Flickr (Oil barrels)
Kevin Krejci/Flickr (Ocean trash)
MamaPyjama/Flickr (Little girl)
Threat to Democracy/Flickr (Deforestation)
Indigo Valley/Flickr (Nuclear bomb casing)
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