Updated: Sep 14, 2020
Covid. Recession. Brexit. Three immediate challenges we should be concerned about, of that there is no debate. But each is dwarfed (and potentially caused/exacerbated) by the far more significant threat of ecological meltdown (of which climate change is a part but not the whole deal). And if we are to avoid a future much worse than our current reality, we can't let these short term concerns distract us from this ultimate concern. Because if we're really worried about the economy and other societal issues, this is the only game in town. To borrow from the 1992 Clinton election campaign: It's The Environment Stupid. And to focus the mind, here are 3 recent reports, looking at 3 very different subjects, that clearly demonstrate this.
Biodiversity is collapsing
The headline stat in the 2020 Living Planet report, produced by the WWF and ZSL, is that animal populations have plunged by 68% since 1970 (rising to an eye-watering 94% in Central and South America), pushing a million species to the brink of extinction.
Which is the same central point as that made by David Attenborough on the BBC's Extinction: The Facts. That cumulative extinctions are accelerating exponentially beyond the natural evolutionary rate, and in parallel with post-industrial human expansion.
Our collective response to this rarely stretches beyond sadness at the loss of some charismatic megafauna (although it's really the microorganism and plant life we should be worried about). But the impact goes way beyond our own sentimental feelings. Looking at the immediate situation we find ourselves in, habitat erosion and the weakening of ecosystems, of which biodiversity collapse is but one symptom, are a significant contributory factor in animal-to-human disease transfer.
So, without action, we will only see more pandemics like Covid19. Self interest alone, says we should act. Particularly given that by far and away the biggest cause factor in habitat destruction is incontrovertibly of our own making: our fixation on growth and efficiency as ends in themselves, and the broken models of production that have followed on from this (particularly in farming/food and mineral extraction), that see the natural world simply as something to be exploited, changed or removed.
And this is only 'now'. Looking longer term, the picture is gloomier still. Without strong ecosystems and abundant biodiversity, ultimately the human race itself will cease to exist. Because we are not 'beyond' nature, separate from it; we do not and cannot exist in an ecological vacuum. Our future health depends on the health of the world we live on.
That's because it's the environment stupid.
The Thwaites Glacier is melting
Whilst climate change may not be the major cause of biodiversity collapse, we can't say the same about glacial erosion. We hear how bad this is (our planet has already lost 28 trillion tonnes of ice since 1994, with the melt rate accelerating rapidly) and see the pictures - only yesterday, it was reported that Greenland's Spalte Glacier has calved 110 square km of ice. Yet we seem unable to grasp the consequences and act accordingly.
Which is why the fact that the Thwaites Glacier is melting is such a concern. Thwaites is a significant ice shelf in the Antarctic, larger than Great Britain. And it holds a lot of water. But a new study from the British Antarctic Survey has identified huge cavities at its base that are allowing warm seawater to undercut the glacier, accelerating erosion with the inevitable result of rising sea levels.
This is not a case of if but when. With a complete collapse in Thwaites delivering a sea level rise of around 65cm globally. And this is just one glacier (see Spalte above). Given the number of major cities that sit at (current) sea level, the implications should be as obvious as they are sadly ignored. Covid may have had a negative impact on the economy, but London's financial district being under water (as is forecast by the end of the century if things continue) is likely to be more problematic.
But again, the fixation of our economic systems on short term returns makes it inevitable that bankers will be wearing waders to work if we don't do what is necessary to halt the otherwise inevitable.
So don't forget: it's the environment stupid.
Population displacement is increasing
Whether you perception is of illegals to be kept out or refuges to be welcomed and helped, population displacement and migration is one of the most immediate and divisive challenges facing countries in the developed North. It's place in Brexit and the rise of popularist politics is beyond doubt. Yet the pressure is only going to increase as the climate crisis worsens.
According to new research from the Institute for Economics and Peace, a thinktank that produces annual global terrorism and peace indexes, 1.2 billion people in 31 countries are insufficiently resilient to withstand ecological threats, and the civil unrest and conflict that will inevitably follow. And as a consequence, they face risk of displacement within 30 years if nothing changes.
That's not because they want to 'come over here'. This is the great popularist myth. Most migrants (whatever the driving factor) would rather not have to leave their home. But the world we are creating by not addressing the climate crisis makes this impossible. Which is ironic, given the popularists who get most overheated by migration also tend to be the least concerned about the ecological and climate emergency which is causing displacement in the first place.
So yes, which ever way you look at it, it's definitely the environment stupid.