Earth is halfway to being inhospitable to life, scientist says

21 03 2015

A Swedish scientist claims in a new theory that humanity has exceeded four of the nine limits for keeping the planet hospitable to modern life, while another professor told RT Earth may be seeing an impending human-made extinction of various species.

Environmental science professor Johan Rockstrom, the executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden, argues that there are nine “planetary boundaries” in a new paper published in Science – and human beings have already crossed four of them.

Those nine include carbon dioxide concentrations, maintaining biodiversity at 90 percent, the use of nitrogen and phosphorous, maintaining 75 percent of original forests, aerosol emissions, stratospheric ozone depletion, ocean acidification, fresh water use and the dumping of pollutants.

The planet has been our best friend by buffering our actions and showing its resilience,” said Rockstrom. “But for the first time ever, we might shift the planet from friend to foe.”

Image from

Image from

Rockstrom’s planetary boundary theory was first conceived in 2007. His new paper reveals that because of climate stability, which began when the Ice Age ended 11,000 years ago, a planetary calm helped our ancestors to cultivate wheat, domesticate animals, and launch industrial and communications revolutions. But those advances have strained the stability of the planet, and Rockstrom says we have broken four boundaries: too much nitrogen has been added to ecosystems, too many forests have been cut down, the climate is changing too quickly and species are going extinct at too great a rate.

Speaking to RT’s Ben Swann, Professor of Ethics Bron Taylor from the University of Florida said that we have accelerated the extinction crisis through deforestation and ocean acidification, a development which is driving species to extinction.

“[Human] beings have increased, even from 1925, from 2 billion – which is considered to be a sustainable population for human beings, according to northern European consumption standards – to 7.2 billion at this point,” he said.


Humanity is in the existential danger zone, study confirms

19 01 2015

The Conversation

By James Dyke, University of Southampton

The Earth’s climate has always changed. All species eventually become extinct. But a new study has brought into sharp relief the fact that humans have, in the context of geological time scales, produced near instantaneous planetary-scale disruption. We are sowing the seeds of havoc on the Earth, it suggests, and the time is fast approaching when we will reap this harvest.

This in the year that the UN climate change circus will pitch its tents in Paris. December’s Conference of the Parties will be the first time individual nations submit their proposals for their carbon emission reduction targets. Sparks are sure to fly.

The research, published in the journal Science, should focus the minds of delegates and their nations as it lays out in authoritative fashion how far we are driving the climate and other vital Earth systems beyond any safe operating space. The paper, headed by Will Steffen of the Australian National University and Stockholm Resilience Centre, concludes that our industrialised civilisation is driving a number of key planetary processes into areas of high risk.

It argues climate change along with “biodiversity integrity” should be recognised as core elements of the Earth system. These are two of nine planetary boundaries that we must remain within if we are to avoid undermining the biophysical systems our species depends upon.

The original planetary boundaries were conceived in 2009 by a team lead by Johan Rockstrom, also of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Together with his co-authors, Rockstrom produced a list of nine human-driven changes to the Earth’s system: climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, alteration of nitrogen and phosphorus cycling, freshwater consumption, land use change, biodiversity loss, aerosol and chemical pollution. Each of these nine, if driven hard enough, could alter the planet to the point where it becomes a much less hospitable place on which to live.

The past 11,000 years have seen a remarkably stable climate. The name given to this most recent geological epoch is the Holocene. It is perhaps no coincidence that human civilisation emerged during this period of stability. What is certain is that our civilisation is in very important ways dependent on the Earth system remaining within or at least approximately near Holocene conditions.

This is why Rockstrom and co looked at human impacts in these nine different areas. They wanted to consider the risk of humans bringing about the end of the Holocene. Some would argue that we have already entered a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – which recognises that Homo Sapiens have become a planet-altering species. But the planetary boundaries concepts doesn’t just attempt to quantify human impacts. It seeks to understand how they may affect human welfare now, and in the future.

It’s been a stable 11,000 years.
Steffen et al

The 2009 paper proved to be very influential, but it also attracted a fair amount of criticism. For example, it has been argued that some of the boundaries are not in fact global in scale. There are very large regional variations in consumption of freshwater and phosphorus fertiliser pollution, for instance.

Phosphorous pollution in croplands.
Steffen et al

That means that while globally we may be in the green, there could be an increasing number of regions that are deep in the red.

Updated boundaries

The latest research develops the methodology so that it now includes regional evaluations. For example it assesses basin-level freshwater use and biome-level species extinction rates. It also includes a new boundary of “novel entities” – new forms of life and novel compounds the likes of which the Earth system has not experienced and so impact of which is extremely challenging to assess. Ozone-depleting CFCs are perhaps the best example of how a seemingly inert substance can produce planetary damage.

Tree cover remaining in the world’s major forest biomes.
Steffen et al

The paper also gives an update on where we stand on some of the planetary boundaries. At first sight, it looks as though there may be some good news in that climate change is no longer in the red. But then closer inspection reveals that a new yellow “zone of uncertainty with increasing risk” has been added to the previous green and red classification.

2/9ths into the red.
Steffen et al

Climate change impacts are firmly within this new yellow zone. Our atmosphere currently has about 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide. To recover back to the green zone we still need to get back to 350ppm – the same precautionary boundary as before.

Perhaps most importantly the research produces a two-tier hierarchy in which climate change and biosphere integrity are recognised as the core planetary boundaries through which the others operate. This makes sense: life and climate are the main columns buttressing our continual existence within the Holocene. Weakening them risks amplifying other stresses on other boundaries.

Reasons not to be cheerful

And so to the very bad news. Given the importance of biodiversity to the functioning of the Earth’s climate and the other planetary boundaries, it is with real dismay that this study adds yet more evidence to the already burgeoning pile that concludes we appear to be doing our best to destroy it as fast as we possibly can.

Extinction rates are very hard to measure but the background rate – the rate at which species would be lost in the absence of human impacts – is something like ten a year per million species. Current extinction rates are anywhere between 100 to 1000 times higher than that. We are possibly in the middle of one of the great mass extinctions in the history of life on Earth.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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28 05 2014

monbiotIt’s simple. If we can’t change our economic system, our number’s up

I’m probably breaking every copyright law under the Sun, but I could not let this article by George Monbiot go.  On the whole, I like George.  Maybe now he has finally seen the light, he may forego his love affair with nuclear power.  Time will tell……..  I like to think any regular reader of DTM won’t learn anything here, but this is surely Monbiot at his best.  Finally.

'The mother narrative to all this is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots.'

‘The mother narrative to all this is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots.’ Photograph: Alamy

Let us imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled one cubic metre. Let us propose that these possessions grew by 4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been by the Battle of Actium in 30BC? This is the calculation performed by the investment banker Jeremy Grantham.

Go on, take a guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The volume of the planet? A little more? It’s 2.5 billion billion solar systems. It does not take you long, pondering this outcome, to reach the paradoxical position that salvation lies in collapse.

To succeed is to destroy ourselves. To fail is to destroy ourselves. That is the bind we have created. Ignore if you must climate change, biodiversity collapse, the depletion of water, soil, minerals, oil; even if all these issues miraculously vanished, the mathematics of compound growth make continuity impossible.

Economic growth is an artefact of the use of fossil fuels. Before large amounts of coal were extracted, every upswing in industrial production would be met with a downswing in agricultural production, as the charcoal or horse power required by industry reduced the land available for growing food. Every prior industrial revolution collapsed, as growth could not be sustained. But coal broke this cycle and enabled – for a few hundred years – the phenomenon we now call sustained growth.

It was neither capitalism nor communism that made possible the progress and pathologies (total war, the unprecedented concentration of global wealth, planetary destruction) of the modern age. It was coal, followed by oil and gas. The meta-trend, the mother narrative, is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots. Now, with the accessible reserves exhausted, we must ransack the hidden corners of the planet to sustain our impossible proposition.

On Friday, a few days after scientists announced that the collapse of the west Antarctic ice sheet is now inevitable, the Ecuadorean government decided to allow oil drilling in the heart of the Yasuni national park. It had made an offer to other governments: if they gave it half the value of the oil in that part of the park, it would leave the stuff in the ground. You could see this as either blackmail or fair trade. Ecuador is poor, its oil deposits are rich. Why, the government argued, should it leave them untouched without compensation when everyone else is drilling down to the inner circle of hell? It asked for $3.6bn and received $13m. The result is that Petroamazonas, a company with a colourful record of destruction and spills, will now enter one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, in which a hectare of rainforest is said to contain more species than exist in the entire continent of North America.

Almost 45% of the Yasuni national park is overlapped by oil concessions. Yasuni national park. Murray Cooper/Minden Pictures/Corbis The UK oil firm Soco is now hoping to penetrate Africa’s oldest national park, Virunga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo; one of the last strongholds of the mountain gorilla and the okapi, of chimpanzees and forest elephants. In Britain, where a possible 4.4 billion barrels of shale oil has just been identified in the south-east, the government fantasises about turning the leafy suburbs into a new Niger delta. To this end it’s changing the trespass laws to enable drilling without consent and offering lavish bribes to local people. These new reserves solve nothing. They do not end our hunger for resources; they exacerbate it.

The trajectory of compound growth shows that the scouring of the planet has only just begun. As the volume of the global economy expands, everywhere that contains something concentrated, unusual, precious, will be sought out and exploited, its resources extracted and dispersed, the world’s diverse and differentiated marvels reduced to the same grey stubble.

Some people try to solve the impossible equation with the myth of dematerialisation: the claim that as processes become more efficient and gadgets are miniaturised, we use, in aggregate, fewer materials. There is no sign that this is happening. Iron ore production has risen 180% in 10 years. The trade body Forest Industries tells us that “global paper consumption is at a record high level and it will continue to grow”. If, in the digital age, we won’t reduce even our consumption of paper, what hope is there for other commodities?

Look at the lives of the super-rich, who set the pace for global consumption. Are their yachts getting smaller? Their houses? Their artworks? Their purchase of rare woods, rare fish, rare stone? Those with the means buy ever bigger houses to store the growing stash of stuff they will not live long enough to use. By unremarked accretions, ever more of the surface of the planet is used to extract, manufacture and store things we don’t need. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that fantasies about colonising space – which tell us we can export our problems instead of solving them – have resurfaced.

As the philosopher Michael Rowan points out, the inevitabilities of compound growth mean that if last year’sthe predicted global growth rate for 2014 (3.1%) is sustained, even if we miraculously reduced the consumption of raw materials by 90%, we delay the inevitable by just 75 years. Efficiency solves nothing while growth continues.

The inescapable failure of a society built upon growth and its destruction of the Earth’s living systems are the overwhelming facts of our existence. As a result, they are mentioned almost nowhere. They are the 21st century’s great taboo, the subjects guaranteed to alienate your friends and neighbours. We live as if trapped inside a Sunday supplement: obsessed with fame, fashion and the three dreary staples of middle-class conversation: recipes, renovations and resorts. Anything but the topic that demands our attention.

Statements of the bleeding obvious, the outcomes of basic arithmetic, are treated as exotic and unpardonable distractions, while the impossible proposition by which we live is regarded as so sane and normal and unremarkable that it isn’t worthy of mention. That’s how you measure the depth of this problem: by our inability even to discuss it.

Climate change ‘unprecedented’ by 2050: study

10 10 2013

The Conversation

By James Whitmore, Editor, The Conversation


We have some idea of what the future may look like under climate change, and now, thanks to new research, we have a better idea of when. The research, published today in Nature, shows that the world’s climate will have fundamentally changed by 2050 if we do nothing to slow greenhouse gas emissions.

Experts warn of serious disruptions to ecological and social systems, particularly in the tropics and low-income countries.

The study compared two scenarios: a business-as-usual scenario with no emissions reductions, and a scenario with moderate emissions reduction. High emissions reductions weren’t included because they are currently considered unfeasible.

If we don’t act to reduce emissions, most of the world will experience unprecedented climate change by 2047. If we act to moderately reduce emissions the date is pushed back 20 years to 2069.

Unprecedented climate change means climate variables – such as temperature, evaporation and precipitation – that have moved permanently outside the range of historical variation.

For the study future temperature scenarios were compared to the historical period 1860 – 2005. The earth has likely already experienced single years already outside the range of historical variations. The study calculates the date at which every year will be outside historical variation.

Modelling of different climate variables showed different results, with temperature most consistent across the globe. Ocean acidity is already outside the bounds of normal variation, having passed the threshold in 2008.

The research found the tropics will be the first regions of the world – as early as 2020 – to experience unprecedented climate change, probably because the tropics currently experience little natural variation in temperature.

The study particularly considers effects on tropical people and biodiversity. Five billion people currently live in areas that will see dramatic change by 2050 without climate action, most in low-income countries.

Most of the world’s animals and plants are also concentrated in tropical hotspots such as rainforests and coral reefs. According to modelling these areas are likely to experience unprecedented climate change much earlier than the global average.

Australian cities are likely see change earlier than the global average, with Sydney to see unprecedented change by 2038. Brisbane and Perth follow in 2042, and Melbourne and Canberra in 2045.

Ryan Longman, PhD candidate at University of Hawai’i and an author on the study, said the findings are a call to action.

“The worst thing we can do is nothing. We are hoping that our work connects people to the issue in a way that helps them accept the changes that need to be made.”

He warned that low-income countries, most of them in the tropics, will suffer most despite relatively low contributions to greenhouse gas emissions.

“By implementing mitigation efforts we may buy these countries the time they need to cope with these changes.”

New ways of seeing

Dr Sarah Perkins at University of New South Wales said the study is a “new methodology” giving us a fresh perspective on an old problem.

The findings also provide a new insight into tropical regions, which have gone under the radar in other climate analyses. Dr Sophie Lewis at University of Melbourne explained:

Tropical areas aren’t usually represented in metrics that represent absolute climate change, for instance the 2C guardrail that’s often talked about. This paper identified the tropics as important because although 2C might correspond to a small shift in climate, the rapid change could be difficult for biological and humans systems to cope with.

Professor Stephen Williams at James Cook University warned that the results presented in the study reflect changes in average climatic conditions, not extremes.

“When your variability goes so far outside normal variability what you’re really doing is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme climate.

“It’s not so much the increase in the mean that matters, or even how far outside the current mean, it’s the fact that we’re going to get record-breaking heatwaves, record-breaking droughts, record-breaking floods. That is probably the single biggest impact on anything.”

Sarah Perkins also cautioned focusing on a single year instead of the bigger climate trend.

“The average time of emergence from historical variation is 2047, with an 18 year margin either side. If we focus on one year the study could be misinterpreted.”

Tropical biodiversity

The tropics – home to more animals, plants and other lifeforms than any other region on Earth – are uniquely vulnerable to the changes forecasted by the study.

Stephen Williams explained:

Even though the tropics are the hottest place on earth they’ve actually got the least variability in temperature. They’re the most stable in terms of rainfall and temperature across the year and from year to year. That means animals and plants have quite a narrow range of tolerance.

Prof Williams said reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates are particularly vulnerable because they are already close to their limits of temperature tolerance.

Parts of the tropics are already stressed thanks to human activities such as logging and land clearing. The combination of human pressure and rapid climate change would likely lead to dramatic changes in tropical ecosystems.

To read more on changes to tropical ecosystems, see analysis from Professor Stephen Williams here

Our sustainability crisis didn’t start and doesn’t stop at climate change

9 09 2013

The Conversation

An extraordinarily timely article from the Conversation……  why don’t ideas like these win elections…?

What would happen to the world if, with the snap of our fingers, we shifted all our energy supplies to renewable sources overnight? You might be surprised at the answer: not much, at least for biodiversity and ecosystems. Certainly, it might solve the climate problem, but I have canvassed this question…

Steb Fisher

Steb Fisher

Sessional Lecturer in Environment and Sustainability at Monash University


What would happen to the world if, with the snap of our fingers, we shifted all our energy supplies to renewable sources overnight? You might be surprised at the answer: not much, at least for biodiversity and ecosystems.

Certainly, it might solve the climate problem, but I have canvassed this question in a number of different places, and the answers usually converge on this: we would still wreck Earth’s ecosystems. And what’s more, we’d still wreck them on a timescale similar to the trajectory that we’re on already.

The reason is that climate change is a problem, not the problem. At the moment much of the focus is on climate and there’s no doubt this is a problem that requires emergency action now to see if we can avoid the worst of the tipping points. But there are many “showstoppers”, any and all of which can bring humanity and biodiversity to a sticky end.

Without biodiversity in all its forms, which creates the complex web of interrelated systems that hold the biosphere in homeostasis, things that we take for granted such as temperature, the level of oxygen in the atmosphere or the even concentration of salt in the sea, will no longer support the life we know.

Something other than climate change is driving the current mass extinction. The impacts of climate change, though potentially catastrophic, are in the main yet to come – albeit sooner than we have previously expected.

The current trajectory of biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse is being driven by cutting down forests, over-fishing, chemical pollution, soil degradation and erosion, habitat destruction, desertification and so on. These activities are all a function of the vast amount of energy we have at our disposal. We have too much and, as we use it, we damage ecosystems.

We are well outside the reasonable limits of our energy and material use. Globally about 51% of all energy use is industrial, 20% is transport, 18% residential and 12% commercial. But all is interconnected and almost all demands over and above our basic needs lead back to increased physical and chemical destruction of ecosystems.

So what are the reasonable limits within which we can operate? I think that there are four main factors to consider.

First, according to the Global Footprint Network, we are already consuming 1.5 times more than the earth is able to renew each year. To bring our material and energy credit card back into balance we need to reduce our resource draw by 33%.

Second, world population is almost inevitably going to increase by another 25%. To accommodate these newborns, we must reduce our resource draw by a further 25%.

Third, on a scale of wealth, the top 20% of humans are 40 times richer than the bottom 20%. This is morally and geopolitically untenable. It would seem reasonable for the top 20% to reduce consumption by a factor of 4 and the bottom 20% to increase by a factor of 4. The gap between rich and poor would then be a more reasonable factor of 2.5 times. The reduction associated in resource draw for countries like Australia would be a further 75%.

Finally, we need to build in safety margins. When we build a bridge, we build in a resilience factor. According to the New South Wales government, the safety factors for the steel in the Sydney Harbour Bridge ranged from 1.9 to 2.5.

The steel chosen by Dorman, Long & Co. Ltd. for the main beams of the arch was silicon steel. In compression these beams were between 2.2 and 2.4 times stronger than the expected stress on them. Equally, we should not consider using Earth’s resources with no margin for the unexpected. If we were to choose a factor of 2 for planet Earth, then this implies a further reduction in resource draw of 50%.

Multiply these factors together and we end up with a reduction to about 6% of what we currently consume in energy and materials in Australia. That is 16 times less than we now use.

This is the goal we need to set, without which we have little chance of hitting the target – survival. I hope that survival is what most people want.

Suppose we, humanity, survive the current planetary sustainability crisis relatively unscathed and, in 100 years time, can say that we have stabilised global ecosystems. By this I mean: biodiversity has ceased its dive into mass extinction; CO2 is under control; global population is in a manageable decline; chemical and physical damage to ecosystems is being reversed and healed; and we are living within our planetary means.

To countenance such a deep and radical change requires us to rethink the entire way we organise humanity, politically, economically and socially.

I am sometimes asked where to start; I don’t think the problem is technical. It lies deep within us. At present we have adversarial systems of governance – both political and economic. These work in an open system, a world with few humans, where wounded places and populations can be abandoned for new territory.

But in a closed system, full of humanity, these wounds must be healed. Only cooperative systems of organisation, both political and economic, can achieve this.

We need to be talking about what might work and experimenting with different ideas. We don’t have long to do this, but it does offer the opportunity of an extraordinary renaissance.