Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

31 Oct 2022

When will we reach the tipping point?

Posted by Michael Keating

We in the high consuming and high polluting industrialized nations have to face a hard question. When will we reach a tipping point where we become so afraid of the consequences of our ecological destruction that we stop over consuming and over pollluting? If we don’t stop we will reach ecological tipping points when we trigger irreversible environmental changes, such as species extinctions and a climate crisis for us humans.

The evidence of ecological change, particularly climate change is becoming ever clearer and more frightening. A United Nations Environment Programme report recently said there was still no credible pathway to meeting the 2015 goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C. In fact, with current promises from governments we are headed to 2.5 degrees or more above historic temperatures, which will bring a catastrophic climate breakdown.

Forest fire burns house Credit: Park Insurance

Even with warming only 1 degree C above pre-industrial levels we are already into more severe droughts, floods, storms and wildfires that kill people and destroy their homes and food supplies. The British medical journal, The Lancet said that extreme heat is worsening the effects of heart and lung diseases, pregnancy outcomes, and is disrupting sleep, increasing injury-related death and limiting people’s capacity to work and exercise. Forest fires, which are becoming more extreme, are causing very unhealthy air. This year, Vancouver was one of world’s most polluted cities during forest fire season.

Climate change threatens species from one end of the Earth to the other. Polar bears have long been at risk as the ice they need for hunting continues to disappear. Now we find that climate change threatens Antarctica’s emperor penguin with extinction, again due to the loss of the sea ice it needs to breed, feed and protect itself from predators. Climate change is just one of the reasons the world’s wildlife population keeps shrinking. The Living Planet Report published by the World Wide Fund for Nature [WWF] with data from the Zoological Society of London said on average, wildlife populations tracked by scientists shrank by nearly 70 per cent between 1970 and 2018.

Polar bears at risk

When it comes to climate change, most of the greenhouse gases have come industrialized nations but some of the worst impacts have been felt by poor nations with relatively low emissions, especially per person. This summer, severe monsoon rains flooded almost the entire country of Pakistan affecting some 33 million people and killing about 1,700. The UN’s refugee agency said in late October that flooding had displaced more than 3.4 million people in west and central Africa. On the east side of the continent, Somalia was hit by one of the worst droughts in its history, with more than seven million facing starvation. It’s not just emissions. High consumption in rich countries leads to destruction of the remaining tropical forests so we can have luxury woods as well as beef, soy and palm oil from these cleared lands.

There has been some progress but not enough. There is reforestation in some countries, more people buy electric cars and renewable energy projects are increasing, but around 80 per cent of commercial energy still comes from burning fossil fuels. Greenhouse gases emissions are still rising.

Given the trends, we are headed toward an ecological cliff. We are creating a world that will have fewer natural resources and a more extreme climate that will hamper food production, destroy more forests and kill more people with air pollution and extreme heat waves. The burning question is when will the public fear of the effects of climate change outweigh the desire to maintain our destructive lifestyles? We need political leadership, but politicians will not move until they think the public is ready. I remember a Canadian environment minister telling me years ago that as politicians ‘we pretend to be leading but are waiting to see where people are going then we run to the front of the crowd.’ The unfortunate reality is that we will likely need more frequent and severe disasters to turn public opinion. By then, the climate will be well on a path to overheating and all we will be able to do is try to limit the damage and adapt to unpleasant changes.

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