Worried about Earth’s future? Well, the outlook is worse than even scientists can grasp



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Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Flinders University; Daniel T. Blumstein, University of California, Los Angeles, and Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University

Anyone with even a passing interest in the global environment knows all is not well. But just how bad is the situation? Our new paper shows the outlook for life on Earth is more dire than is generally understood.

The research published today reviews more than 150 studies to produce a stark summary of the state of the natural world. We outline the likely future trends in biodiversity decline, mass extinction, climate disruption and planetary toxification. We clarify the gravity of the human predicament and provide a timely snapshot of the crises that must be addressed now.

The problems, all tied to human consumption and population growth, will almost certainly worsen over coming decades. The damage will be felt for centuries and threatens the survival of all species, including our own.

Our paper was authored by 17 leading scientists, including those from Flinders University, Stanford University and the University of California, Los Angeles. Our message might not be popular, and indeed is frightening. But scientists must be candid and accurate if humanity is to understand the enormity of the challenges we face.

Girl in breathing mask attached ot plant in container
Humanity must come to terms with the future we and future generations face.
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Getting to grips with the problem

First, we reviewed the extent to which experts grasp the scale of the threats to the biosphere and its lifeforms, including humanity. Alarmingly, the research shows future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than experts currently believe.

This is largely because academics tend to specialise in one discipline, which means they’re in many cases unfamiliar with the complex system in which planetary-scale problems — and their potential solutions — exist.

What’s more, positive change can be impeded by governments rejecting or ignoring scientific advice, and ignorance of human behaviour by both technical experts and policymakers.

More broadly, the human optimism bias – thinking bad things are more likely to befall others than yourself – means many people underestimate the environmental crisis.

Numbers don’t lie

Our research also reviewed the current state of the global environment. While the problems are too numerous to cover in full here, they include:

  • a halving of vegetation biomass since the agricultural revolution around 11,000 years ago. Overall, humans have altered almost two-thirds of Earth’s land surface

  • About 1,300 documented species extinctions over the past 500 years, with many more unrecorded. More broadly, population sizes of animal species have declined by more than two-thirds over the last 50 years, suggesting more extinctions are imminent




Read more:
What is a ‘mass extinction’ and are we in one now?


  • about one million plant and animal species globally threatened with extinction. The combined mass of wild mammals today is less than one-quarter the mass before humans started colonising the planet. Insects are also disappearing rapidly in many regions

  • 85% of the global wetland area lost in 300 years, and more than 65% of the oceans compromised to some extent by humans

  • a halving of live coral cover on reefs in less than 200 years and a decrease in seagrass extent by 10% per decade over the last century. About 40% of kelp forests have declined in abundance, and the number of large predatory fishes is fewer than 30% of that a century ago.

State of the Earth's environment
Major environmental-change categories expressed as a percentage relative to intact baseline. Red indicates percentage of category damaged, lost or otherwise affected; blue indicates percentage intact, remaining or unaffected.
Frontiers in Conservation Science

A bad situation only getting worse

The human population has reached 7.8 billion – double what it was in 1970 – and is set to reach about 10 billion by 2050. More people equals more food insecurity, soil degradation, plastic pollution and biodiversity loss.

High population densities make pandemics more likely. They also drive overcrowding, unemployment, housing shortages and deteriorating infrastructure, and can spark conflicts leading to insurrections, terrorism, and war.




Read more:
Climate explained: why we need to focus on increased consumption as much as population growth


Essentially, humans have created an ecological Ponzi scheme. Consumption, as a percentage of Earth’s capacity to regenerate itself, has grown from 73% in 1960 to more than 170% today.

High-consuming countries like Australia, Canada and the US use multiple units of fossil-fuel energy to produce one energy unit of food. Energy consumption will therefore increase in the near future, especially as the global middle class grows.

Then there’s climate change. Humanity has already exceeded global warming of 1°C this century, and will almost assuredly exceed 1.5 °C between 2030 and 2052. Even if all nations party to the Paris Agreement ratify their commitments, warming would still reach between 2.6°C and 3.1°C by 2100.

people walking on a crowded street
The human population is set to reach 10 billion by 2050.
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The danger of political impotence

Our paper found global policymaking falls far short of addressing these existential threats. Securing Earth’s future requires prudent, long-term decisions. However this is impeded by short-term interests, and an economic system that concentrates wealth among a few individuals.

Right-wing populist leaders with anti-environment agendas are on the rise, and in many countries, environmental protest groups have been labelled “terrorists”. Environmentalism has become weaponised as a political ideology, rather than properly viewed as a universal mode of self-preservation.

Financed disinformation campaigns against climate action and forest protection, for example, protect short-term profits and claim meaningful environmental action is too costly – while ignoring the broader cost of not acting. By and large, it appears unlikely business investments will shift at sufficient scale to avoid environmental catastrophe.

Changing course

Fundamental change is required to avoid this ghastly future. Specifically, we and many others suggest:

  • abolishing the goal of perpetual economic growth

  • revealing the true cost of products and activities by forcing those who damage the environment to pay for its restoration, such as through carbon pricing

  • rapidly eliminating fossil fuels

  • regulating markets by curtailing monopolisation and limiting undue corporate influence on policy

  • reigning in corporate lobbying of political representatives

  • educating and empowering women across the globe, including giving them control over family planning.

A coal plant
The true cost of environmental damage should be borne by those responsible.
Shutterstock

Don’t look away

Many organisations and individuals are devoted to achieving these aims. However their messages have not sufficiently penetrated the policy, economic, political and academic realms to make much difference.

Failing to acknowledge the magnitude and gravity of problems facing humanity is not just naïve, it’s dangerous. And science has a big role to play here.

Scientists must not sugarcoat the overwhelming challenges ahead. Instead, they should tell it like it is. Anything else is at best misleading, and at worst potentially lethal for the human enterprise.




Read more:
Mass extinctions and climate change: why the speed of rising greenhouse gases matters


The Conversation


Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Matthew Flinders Professor of Global Ecology and Models Theme Leader for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Flinders University; Daniel T. Blumstein, Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, University of California, Los Angeles, and Paul Ehrlich, President, Center for Conservation Biology, Bing Professor of Population Studies, Stanford University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate explained: why we need to focus on increased consumption as much as population growth


Thomas La Mela/Shutterstock

Glenn Banks, Massey University


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

Almost every threat to modern humanity can be traced simply to our out-of-control population growth (think about arable land going to housing; continued growth in demand for petroleum fuels). Is anything being done to contain population growth on a national and international scale?

The question of population is more complex that it may seem – in the context of climate change as well as other issues such as biodiversity loss and international development.

As a starting point, let’s look at the statement “out-of-control population growth”. In fact, population growth is more “in control” than it has been for the past 50 years.




Read more:
Climate explained: how growth in population and consumption drives planetary change


Population isn’t growing everywhere

The global rate of population growth has been declining from just over 2% per year in 1970 to less than 1.1% in 2020 (and this estimate was made before COVID-19 erupted globally).

To put this in perspective, if the 2% growth rate had continued, the world’s population would have doubled in 35 years. At a 1.1% growth rate, it would now be set to double in 63 years – but the growth rate is still declining, so the doubling time will be lengthened again.

Population growth also varies significantly between countries. Among the 20 most populous countries in the world, three countries have growth rates of more than 2.5% – Ethiopia, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo – while Japan’s population is in decline (with a negative growth rate, -0.3%) and China, Russia, Germany and Thailand all have very low growth rates.

These growth rates vary in part because the population structures are very different across countries. Japan has an aged population, with 28% over 65 years and just 12% under 15 years. Nigeria has only 3% of people in the over-65 bracket and 44% under 15.

For comparison, 20% of New Zealanders are younger than 15 and 16% are older than 65. For Australia, the respective figures are 18% and 17%.

Migration also makes a significant contribution in some countries, propping up the working-age population and shaping the demographic structure. History and levels of economic development play an important role too: higher-income countries almost consistently have smaller families and lower growth rates.

Rise in consumption

It’s certainly valid to link population growth (even a more limited “in control” population growth) with climate change and loss of land. Everything else being equal, more people means more space taken up, more resources consumed and more carbon emitted.

But while population growth has slowed since the 1970s, resource consumption hasn’t. For example, there is no equivalent decline in fossil fuel use since the 1970s.

Fuel consumption varies throughout the world.
Flickr/Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, CC BY-NC

This is an area where not everyone is equal. If all people were to use the same amount of resources (fossil fuels, timber, minerals, arable land etc), then of course total resource use and carbon would rise. But resource use varies dramatically globally.

If we look at oil consumption per person in 2019, the average American used almost twice as much as someone in Japan, the second oil-thirstiest populous nation, and almost 350 times as much as a person living in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It is an easy out for us in the industrialised world to say “out-of-control population growth” is killing the planet, when instead it is equally valid – but more confronting – to say our out-of-control consumption is killing the planet.




Read more:
Can your actions really save the planet? ‘Planetary accounting’ has the answer


Population growth slows when women are educated

To come to the final part of the question: is anything being done to contain population growth, on a national or international scale?

Even if we set aside the argument above that population is not the only issue, or even the most significant one, in terms of threats to humanity, what factors might influence population growth in parts of the world where it is high?

Things are being done, but they may not be what most people expect. It has long been shown that as incomes rise and health care improves, more children survive and people tend to have smaller families.

This effect is not instantaneous. There is a lag where population growth rates might rise first before they begin to drop. This demographic transition is a relatively consistent pattern globally.

But, at the country level, the single most significant influence on reducing fertility rates, family size and overall population growth is access to education for girls and women.

Fertility rates drop when girls get access to education.
Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock

One study in 2016, drawing on World Bank population data across a wide range of countries, found:

… the main driver of overall fertility reduction is clearly the change in proportions of women at each education level.

In relation to climate change action, this study specifically notes:

It is education, or more specifically girls’ education, that is far more likely to result in lower carbon emissions than a shift to renewables, improved agricultural practices, urban public transport, or any other strategy now being contemplated.

Recent research looked at how the global population might change if we implemented the aspirations of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. It found the change would be significant and could even mean the global population stabilises by mid-century.The Conversation

Glenn Banks, Professor of Geography and Head of School, School of People, Environment and Planning, Massey University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As Earth’s population heads to 10 billion, does anything Australians do on climate change matter?



The United Nations predicts the world will be home to nearly 10 billion people by 2050 – making global greenhouse emission cuts ever more urgent.
NASA/Joshua Stevens

Mark Beeson, University of Western Australia

As unprecedented bushfires continue to ravage the country, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government have been rightly criticised for their reluctance to talk about the underlying drivers of this crisis. Yet it’s not hard to see why they might be dumbstruck.

The human race has never had to grapple with a problem as large, complex or urgent as climate change. It’s not that there aren’t solutions available. There are already some hopeful signs of an energy transition in Australia. As Professor Ross Garnaut has explained, it would be in Australia’s economic interests to become a low-carbon energy superpower.

To successfully tackle climate change will require some painful transitions domestically, and unprecedented levels of international coordination and cooperation. But that isn’t happening. Global action to cut emissions is falling far short of what’s needed – and meanwhile, though it’s controversial to mention, the world’s population quietly climbs ever higher.

Our growing population challenge

The United Nations’ World Population Prospects 2019 report forecast that by 2027, India will overtake China as the world’s most populous country.

By 2050, the UN predicts that the world’s population will be nearly 10 billion, up from 7.7 billion now. Nine countries are expected to be home to more than half of that growth: India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Indonesia, Egypt and the United States. The population of sub-Saharan Africa is expected to double by 2050 (a 99% increase), while Australia and New Zealand are expected to grow more slowly (28% increase).

The world’s population growth rate in recent years.
World Population Prospects 2019, United Nations, CC BY

Given how difficult climate politics have been here in Australia, why would we expect it to be any more politically feasible in say, India, which claims the right to develop as we did? However self-serving Australian coal supporters’ arguments about lifting Indians out of poverty are, the underlying questions of national autonomy and the ‘right’ to develop are not easily refuted.

Even talking about demography is asking for trouble – especially if it becomes caught up with questions of race, identity and the most fundamental of human rights, the right to reproduce.

While reducing population growth is plainly important in the long-term, it isn’t a quick fix for all our environmental problems. In the meantime, research has shown that supporting education for girls in poor countries is one of the single most important things we can do now to address this issue.

How Australia can show leadership

I think we need to understand that global emissions don’t have an accent, they come from many countries and we need to look at a global solution… – Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Insiders, ABC, 12 January 2020

This is the central defence of business as usual: there’s no point in Australia making huge sacrifices and ‘wrecking’ (or transforming, depending on your perspective) the economy if no one else is doing so. We contribute less than 2% to global greenhouse emissions, so – some claim – we can’t make any real difference.

As outlined in my 2019 book, Environmental Populism: The Politics of Survival in the Anthropocene, nations such as Australia can play a useful role by showing what an enlightened country, with the capacity and incentive to act, might do. If we don’t have the means and the compelling environmental reasons to make tough but meaningful policy choices, who does?

But even in the unlikely event that Australians collectively retrofitted the entire economy along sustainable lines, there would still be a lot of the world that wouldn’t, or couldn’t even if they wanted to. The development imperative really is non-negotiable in India, China and the more impoverished states of sub-Saharan Africa.

Will China lead the way?

From the privileged perspective of wealthy Australians, the ‘good’ news is that the ecological footprint of the average Ethiopian is seven times smaller than ours. India’s average is even less, despite all the recent development. However, people in India and Ethiopia may not think that’s a good thing.

One of the paradoxical impacts of globalisation is that everyone is increasingly conscious of their relative place in the international scheme of things. The legitimacy of governments – especially unelected authoritarian regimes like China’s – increasingly revolves around their capacity to deliver jobs and rising living standards. Where governments can’t deliver, the population vote with their feet.

As naturalist Sir David Attenborough warned last week, Australia’s current fires are another sign that “the moment of crisis has come”. He called on China for the global leadership we’ve been missing:

If the Chinese come and say: ‘Not because we are worried about the world but for our own reasons, we are going to take major steps to curb our carbon output […]’, everybody else would fall into line, one thinks. That would be the big change that one could hope would happen.

China has arguably already made the biggest contribution to our collective welfare with its highly contentious, now abandoned one-child policy. China’s population would have been around 400 million people larger without it, pushing us closer to the crisis Sir David fears.

To be clear, I’m not advocating compulsory population control, here or anywhere. But we do need to consider a future with billions more people, many of them aspiring to live as Australians do now.

Looking ahead, will Australians try to keep living as we do today? Or will we decide to set a new example of living well, without such a heavy ecological footprint? Resolving all these conundrums won’t be easy; perhaps not even possible. That’s another discomfiting reality that we may have to get used to.The Conversation

Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Overpopulation’ and the environment: three ideas on how to discuss it in a sensitive way


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Ints Vikmanis / shutterstock

Rebecca Laycock Pedersen, Keele University and David P. M. Lam, Leuphana University

Should we give up having children to save the planet? Recent news articles and scientific papers have once again raised concerns about “overpopulation” and the environmental implications of having too many humans on Earth. Many people consider bringing fewer children into the world to be the logical solution. If you read the comments section of these articles, you’ll find out what anyone who’s been in a conversation about overpopulation knows: such exchanges are polarised, emotionally loaded and conflict ridden.

Regardless of whether you think that overpopulation is the defining issue of our time, don’t think it is a real problem, or lie somewhere in between, it’s absolutely crucial we can have these conversations without further polarising the debate. In a recent comment in Environmental Research Letters, we offer three tips for having conversations about overpopulation in a more ethical, thoughtful and sensitive way.

1) Recognise the limits of individual action at home

An individual person (or a couple) acting by themselves can only do so much. It can seem like the most impactful action one can take is to have fewer children, but our capacity to act collectively can have far greater impacts than any one (or two) people can alone.

Environmental problems are so large that they are hard for us to wrap our minds around. When people are encouraged to think about these problems as individuals, it can cause them to go into denial about how much impact they can genuinely have. But research has shown that highlighting a collective responsibility for addressing environmental issues actually leads to a greater desire to act.

Often recommendations for how to be more environmentally friendly are targeted at things you do in your personal life: recycle more, eat less meat, fly less, and so on. However, businesses, universities, hospitals, churches and charities all have big environmental footprints, too. In fact, these are usually much larger than any one individual’s footprint. Therefore, individuals acting professionally within these organisations can substantially reduce their environmental impact.

For example, the head of purchasing of a large organisation may be able to make bigger reductions in their organisation’s carbon emissions through changing purchasing guidelines than they could ever make by having fewer children. So organisations, or people working on behalf of organisations with big environmental footprints, are often much more strategic actors to target when striving towards larger-scale pro-environmental changes.

2) Acknowledge some humans consume more than others

When we’re talking about population as an environmental issue, it’s important to remember that it’s not the number of people per se but rather the consumption habits that lead to environmental degradation. Seven billion Americans using as much water, plastic, petrol and meat as they do now, would be a global disaster. In many countries, however, individuals use a fraction of the average American, and Eritrea has the smallest per capita ecological footprint of all.

The average EU citizen creates 31kg of plastic waste a year.
Roman Mikhailiuk / shutterstock

So few children are being born in most developed countries that without immigration, populations would be declining. For example, in Canada, the fertility rate was 1.6 children per woman in 2011 (well below the replacement rate of 2.1). So if you think about it, the real environmental impact here has to do with how much people are consuming – and this varies widely both between and within countries.

3) Be clear: is family planning a human right?

Suggestions to have fewer children are very closely linked to the idea of birth control. Birth control has an ugly history and its knock-on effects can still be seen in China and South Korea today. In these countries, birth control led to the abortion of many female embryos as families preferred to have boys for several cultural reasons. However, today these countries face the problem of having more men than women of childbearing age which is one reason behind the trafficking of young women from other countries, such as Vietnam.

Against this backdrop, in 2012, the United Nations Population Fund declared family planning a human right. But still about 12% of women aged 15–49 globally don’t have access to family planning. This is a modern-day human rights violation happening right now.

This is why, when the suggestion of addressing environmental issues by having fewer children comes up, the conversation often switches to overpopulation and becomes fraught. Overpopulation is usually seen as a problem that puts future generations at risk. Therefore when it is raised in conversations about family planning, it’s read as a value statement: my children’s rights being violated in future are more important than the rights of those being violated now. This may not be your intended message, so be clear: should women have the right to choose when and how many children they have?

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The Conversation

An expanding human population is a collective challenge which incorporates values, emotions, different worldviews, and the alignment of different interests. So next time you find yourself wading into an exchange about overpopulation, be clear about your underlying assumptions. This is a conversation with many layers and we need to approach it with open minds, sensitivity, tact and compassion.

Rebecca Laycock Pedersen, PhD Researcher, Keele University and David P. M. Lam, PhD Researcher, Institute for Ethics and Transdisciplinary Stustainability Research (IETSR), Leuphana University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.