Tuesday, 29 January 2019

2019 – The Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction

Climate change is only the second most important issue we face.  Even more important than this is the extinction crisis!

Put to one side the point that climate change and the extinction crisis are linked by the human drivers that cause these problems (consumption, economic growth, politics, population etc), but even an awareness of the crisis seems to feature somewhere below the football results in much of the media.

It is difficult to talk about the seriousness of our situation without sounding extreme.  Perhaps a good illustration is by looking back into prehistory.  Some 250 million years ago the earth went through one of its 5 mass extinctions.  That was probably caused by climate change - about 95% of the species on earth went extinct.  It was the great dying.  However, climate change today is progressing even faster and extinction rates are about the same as they were then! 

Of course, species go extinct all the time.  But it has been estimated that we are losing species about 1000 times faster than would be expected for the normal background rate.That’s about 150 to 200 species a day.

But it now looks like even this might be too optimistic with some scientists estimating that extinction might be 10 times higher. So we could be losing species about 10,000 times faster than we should be.  We are indeed in the middle of the 6th mass extinction!

Extinction is the loss of species.  But alongside this is the huge reduction populations of plants and animals.  We are losing bioabundance as well as biodiversity.  Perhaps we’ve focussed too much on extinction – it is the huge drop-off of bioabundance that is most obvious, and most destructive.

WWF Living Planet report looked at about 6,000 populations of vertebrates (animals with backbones) around the world.  The shock discovery was that the average reduction of numbers in all these populations was about 60% since the 1970s. 

Elsewhere scientists have seen a 75% reduction in insect numbers in Germany in just 27 years and this was in protected areas like nature reserves!  Even more shocking was a resurvey of a rainforest in Puerto Rico.  In a time-span of just 35 years the forest had lost 98% of its insect species.  With this had gone much of the bird and mammal life that relied on the insects. 

Furthermore, this is not just something happening a long way away.  Over a similar time-span in Sussex we know that species like turtle dove, eels and water vole have all gone down about 90%.   Once common birds like house sparrow, starling and song thrush are much reduced and the familiar sound of the cuckoo is becoming much less familiar.

Talk about losses like this and we are often asked “is it important”.  A fair question (although you never get the same level of scrutiny when talking about economic growth, beauty products or the cricket scores!) so is this anything other than the loss of unimportant stuff from a past world. 

David Attenborough answers this far better than I can but we are talking about our own life support systems.  Their destruction is already having untold impacts on our economy (but we avoid worrying about that through the simple expedient of not measuring it) to say nothing of the growing human tragedies around the world.  Every mouthful of water you take every piece of food, every breath you make all comes from the natural world.  Even the condition of the climate and our protection from solar radiation relies on a healthy functioning environment.  Is that important enough for you?!  And, by the way, the majesty of nature make life worth living.  Extinction of experience is as big a trajecy as extinction of species.

Instead of just a regrettable loss of a few special species, we are now seeing the crash of bioabundance and the gathering loss of species as the symptoms of the destruction of whole life support systems.  Again Greta Thunberg sums it up neatly – “I don’t want your hope… I want you to panic….I want you to act as though your house is on fire, because it is.”

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

We have 12 years to save the earth!

Maybe I’m being rather melodramatic, more like the start of a disaster movie than a blog, but it really is way past the time when we should have got serious about climate change.

Global average temperatures are now about 1 degree centigrade above what they were before the industrial revolution.  The consensus is that we must keep any future rise below 1.5 degrees in total.  Effects are already serious; above 1.5 degrees the effects become significantly worse.  Our current trajectory will miss 1.5 degrees by a mile!  1.5 degrees will be bad, 2 degrees could be disastrous for civilisation, but at the moment we will probably overshoot 3 degrees by the end of the 21st Century.  Children born today will then be in their eighties and by then the world will not be livable!  No wonder the younger generation are pretty fed-up and starting to be rebellious!

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is one of the largest and most well-respected groupings of scientists on the planet.  It is informed by thousands of scientists, submitting research often on a voluntary basis, carefully scrutinised and peer reviewed.  The IPCC has submitted several reports over the years – huge bodies of work supported by extensive research.  The tone of these reports has become more and more serious through the years as we consistently fail to effectively address the climate situation that we are in.

The IPCCs recent report is again a huge body of work.  Chapter 3, for example, looks at the climate impacts of the 1.5 degree rise and has some pretty sobering reading. Alone it is nearly 250 pages long and 60 of those pages are references to supporting scientific study.  Once again it highlights the need to urgently bring our greenhouse gas emissions down.  It is difficult to highlight some of their conclusions without sounding melodramatic!  The climate is now changing.  This is no longer about vague possibilities sometime in the future.  In many respects it is changing faster than predicted; in fact, it seems to be running ahead of the “worst case” scenarios presented a few years ago.  The IPCC therefore stresses that we need to drive a significant turn-around in the next 12 years.

All sorts of statistics could be marshalled to illustrate our predicament.  The analogy that shocked me, however, regards the amount of extra heat going into the world’s oceans because of climate change.  Global warming has heated the oceans by the equivalent of one atomic bomb explosion every second for the last 150 years!

The tone of climate scientists has become more and more dire over the decades.  30 years ago we were warned that we had a few decades to sort this out.  That was probably the time when a sensible, planned transition could have brought us to a new economy that stood some chance of maintaining a stable climate.  By the end of the 1980s / early 1990s we might have got away with immediate action.  At the turn of the century we should have planned an emergency decarbonisation of society.  Today, even the emergency ending of fossil fuel use is unlikely to stop us experiencing at least some climate breakdown.  Prevarication must end – we need to get on with this!

Of course, the response of some is to deny reality – as ever.  But, as one of the IPCC scientists said, “you can deny gravity but if you walk off a cliff you are going to go down”.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

New year resolution, or rather revolution!

New year resolution revolution

2018 should have been a momentous year for important news.  I don’t mean Brexit, Donald Trump or the state of the economy – these are all second or third level issues.  The important news was all environmental. 

We’ve had warnings about the dire state of the environment for decades.  The effects are now becoming obvious and scientists the world over are issuing reports and statements to try to get world governments to pay attention.  Not that you’d know this from the news outlets.  The media seem more interested in Megan Markle having to open her own car door than they are in the livability of the planet we inhabit!  And, while you would need sharp eyes to spot this in the media, you might have found it even more difficult to see what politicians and leaders around the world were actually doing about the most important issues of our time.

Climate change, the extinction crisis and a rapidly declining environment have led to more than 15,000 scientists around the world to issue “Warningto humanity: a second notice”, possibly the most scientists to ever co-sign and formally support a published journal article, reinforcing the original warning of 1992.  Did you see this as front-page news?  Did you hear about it at all?!!

This invisibility in the media, and dereliction of duty by politicians has led to the growth of “extinction rebellion” a movement that is gaining strength. They claim that governments and media together have broken their social contract with the public they should aim to serve.  Demonstrations are now happening around the world – maybe I’ve missed something, but I’ve heard hardly a whisper in the press.

The message of my generation to the younger generation is “we’ve had our fun now you can clear up the mess”.  Unsurprisingly, there are now many young people who are objecting to this and themselves starting a strong movement to call power to account.

Bella Lack (15 years old), for instance, gave an inspired talk at Chris Packham’s excellent “Walk for Wildlife” (10,000 people marching through London to deliver The People’s Manifesto for Wildlife to No 10, but the eyes of the media seem to have been elsewhere).  Bella rightly criticised older generations for removing the vibrancy of nature that all people have a right to expect.  

And the younger generation has found an international voice in Greta Thunberg, a 15 year old school student from Sweden.  Greta goes on regular school strikes because she feels that there is no point learning science if world leaders do not act on the science they already have.  Her powerful speech at the recent UN conference on climate change effectively told off the 200 world leaders in attendance. Virtually every line of her talk is quotable and I strongly recommend you follow this link and see her giving us all a well-deserved dressing down!  A key theme that again comes out in her TEDtalk is that she can’t work out why there isn’t a vast amount more discussion about the crisis we are in.  Indeed, why are we talking about anything else?  The media should be full of thoughts, discussions, actions and solutions instead of the soap operas, celebrity worship and political pantomimes that we seem to have to sit through.  It’s as though a world war is underway but no one is talking about it.  “You are not mature enough to tell it how it is.  Even that burden you leave to us children”.

Maybe it’s children that will eventually spur us into action.  Some people woke up in 2018, let’s see if the rest of the world rises from its slumber in 2019.  There  is little enough time left!