Requiem for the Earth

To know is to understand reality. What do you do if that reality is so discouraging that it threatens to overwhelm you? How do you grieve for a planet and all the amazing lifeforms on it? How do you say a requiem for the Earth?

We live on a thin, fragile shell and it is cracking. We are in the process of a catastrophe that will grow in intensity with each passing year, build on itself with each passing decade until it overwhelms the planet.  It will make life on Earth hell for our children and their children.  We are causing it through our inability to effectively deal with climate change, our over population of the planet, our rampant consumption and our lack of care for other living things. 

Unfortunately, it seems we are not evolved to deal with the predicament we are currently facing. The problem is not with the science, the problem is with human nature. It is hard to give the future the same urgency as the present, it is hard to learn lessons from the past, it is hard to care for strangers as much as for our loved ones. As we move away from cataclysmic events in time, space and intimacy, it becomes harder to imagine what it would be like to endure such events. Yet nothing that has happened in the past comes close to the magnitude of the disaster that may happen to the Earth because of unchecked global warming and many people are simply turning away from this reality so as not to face it. 

The reality is that only 4% of mammals living on the Earth are wild yet even this small proportion are unlikely to survive without a lot of help. On Facebook recently a picture was shared of a mother polar bear clutching its cub. They were perched on a tiny patch of floating ice not much bigger than them. Cute! No! – totally disturbing. Snow covered ice reflects more than 80% of the sun's heat but the darker ocean absorb 95% so once sea ice starts to melt global warming is accelerated. Polar bears are starving because without substantial ice floes they cannot catch seals. All those cute white bears are unlikely to survive much longer. There is no blame here only sadness. 

The Amazon is being chopped down at an amazing rate in order to convert it into farmland to satisfy humans’ insatiable lust for red meat. It is being used to graze cows or for growing soya beans to feed to cattle. Who can blame people for wanting what the developed world already has and squanders? While the Amazon may not provide 20% of the air we breathe it does sequester 25% of carbon from the atmosphere – well at least it used to. Without the Amazon and other major forests, we are in big trouble.

There are over 400 dead areas in the oceans of the world where nothing lives because of pollution. Animals in the oceans are found to be full of plastics bags and other rubbish. When we recycle our rubbish we think we are doing well but vast quantities of this material are simply dumped overseas and turn up in the oceans and on what were once pristine beaches. 

Sea levels are rising because of global warming and as result storm surges pose an even greater threat to low-lying countries.  Storm surges cause immense damage. In the Bay of Bengal in 1970, 300,000 to 500,000 people were killed by a storm surge in a single night. Flooding in Bangladesh in 2004 destroyed 1 million homes, displaced over 4 million people and affected over 30 million people. Storms are becoming more severe due to global warming. The recent storm surge in the Bahamas due to Hurricane Dorian was around 7 metres high.  That is a huge and continuous wall of water. It was devastating to the island. Recently, the pleas of leaders of Pacific Island Nations asking Australia not to open new coal mines and to reduce carbon emissions fell on deaf ears. Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of coal but is ignoring the impact this is having on our future. The main island of Tonga, Tongatapu, has a maximum height about sea level of 65m.  Other low-lying islands in the Pacific have already experienced storm surges that wash over the whole island.  What will Australia do when countries such as the Pacific Islands Nations and Bangladesh are overwhelmed by rising sea levels – turn back the boats? 

We are losing biodiversity at a staggering rate and a conservative and comprehensive UN report shows that around a million species are in danger of extinction and many will be gone by the year 2050. Take the exquisite and unique pygmy possum that lives in the southern alps in Australia. It is facing extinction as its food supply dwindles. This year many are starving because the annual migration of the Bogong moths has not eventuated as it seems the moths have succumbed to the effects of climate change. The annual migration of the Bogong moths has been going on for thousands of years. Aboriginal people used to the depend on it. Not any more! One thing leads to another. 

Already the prolonged droughts and high temperatures caused by climate change are killing thousands of people around the globe. Many cities will become hotter and people will be more vulnerable to heat stroke.  The increasing shrinking of glaciers means that that there is less fresh water for people to drink. India and Pakistan will feel this water shortage acutely. In fact, access to water will be a bigger problem than lack of food and no doubt lead to violent confrontations

These are just a tiny indication of the effects of climate change, development and pollution on natural ecosystems. 

Since industrialisation rapidly expanded in the early 19th century, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have increased by nearly half. The estimates of temperature rises caused by doubling CO2 emissions (climate sensitivity) are consistently between 1.5°C and 4.5°C. One new study, suggests that the upper range could be as low as 3.4°C and most likely 2.8°C. But the authors point out that “There is indeed evidence that the climate system can undergo abrupt changes or tipping points” which exacerbate the impact of global warming. For example, the collapse of the gulf stream, the thawing of carbon-rich permafrost, or the melting of ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica; unfortunately these processes have already started. The abrupt release of vast quantities of methane gas could also be a tipping point. Scientists have measured big increases in the amount of methane, a powerful global warming gas, entering the atmosphere over the last decade. It seems it is not caused by burping cows or fetid wetlands but by methane emissions from fossil fuel production—mainly from fracking in the United States and Canada. We are facing multiple tipping points from which there may be no comeback for the Earth. 

A 3.4°C increase of global temperatures would be devastating to the Earth, an increase of 2.8°C would cause massive changes, even 2°C would make things very difficult. There is still a possibility that doubling the CO2 emissions could cause global warming of over 4.5°C and a 10% chance of more than 6°C of warming which would threaten the existence of any life on Earth. The problem is that whenever a choice of scenarios is given humans seem to opt for best case scenario and ignore the others. Being ever optimistic by nature we tend to put terrifying ideas into the deep recesses of our mind and hope that something will turn up. I call it reality denying and most of us are pretty good at it, it is in our nature. A far more useful approach would be to hope for the best but plan for the worst.

You would think the possibility of losing the Earth would be a wake-up call for profound and sustained action by governments. Many are doing great things but some of the key players are doing little.  Only 43% of Australians surveyed think climate change is a serious issue but only 18% of Chinese people think that global warming is a serious problem. More Americans than ever are concerned about climate change, 45% surveyed think it is a serious problem, but when asked if they would be prepared to pay a $10 a month levy or even a $1 levy to address climate change the answer is no. It is just too much of a sacrifice it seems. For many people that might be true but most people in developed countries are spending more on luxury items than ever. People eat out more, have bigger homes, consume more red meat, buy lots of coffee at cafes, and somehow have managed to find the monthly funds required to support mobile phones, I-pads and other electronic paraphernalia. 

Even today, despite all that we know, and the good actions of many people, organisations and governments, we are facing a losing battle to save ourselves and our most precious planet. We will not be able to limit global warming to 1.5°C because we need everyone to act together in good faith. That just isn’t happening. To move to a sustainable global economy we need global transformative change to bring about a fundamental, system-wide reorganization, taking into account technological, economic and social factors, as well as changing our paradigms, goals and values. That isn’t happening either. There are those who simply don’t want to make any changes because they have vested interests in the status quo. Many people and businesses are wealthy because they have been able to exploit natural resources heedless of the consequences. Many political parties are beholden to such businesses and individuals to stay in power. 

Action to ameliorate climate change will come at a cost, a cost too high for some, so there are governments around the world controlled by politicians who are climate deniers. Global warming is an inconvenient truth so they simply reject the science, do everything they can to discredit scientific and other bodies and individuals who support action on climate change.  Governments now specialise in misinformation. Scientists are forced to spend enormous amounts of their time defending their work. Never in the course of human history have politicians lied so effectively. Environmentalists and others who campaign for action to stop climate change are being targeted by governments and the media in order to remove any form of protest, for example, untrue allegations about GetUp and Extinction Rebellion are designed to hamper their advocacy of action on climate change. Government bodies are forced to put a spin on everything even if it means hiding the truth. As Alexander Nix, the former chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, said “It sounds a dreadful thing to say, but these are things that don’t necessarily need to be true as long as they’re believed.”  Hitler worked on that principle.

The United Nations says climate change is the defining issue of our time and now is the defining moment to do something about it. It says there is still time to tackle climate change, but it will require an unprecedented effort from all sectors of society.  You need to be part of that effort. Protest! Protest! And protest some more. Join your children and grandchildren on 20 September at the student climate strikes around the world to show that you care about their future. It is being held three days out from the UN’s Emergency Climate Summit. As David Attenborough said “we cannot be radical enough”. He believes radical action was needed to tackle the climate emergency and he found reason for optimism among young people who were “already making themselves and their voices very, very clear”. Help them be heard, it is their future at stake.

If family is your number one priority, then you need to demonstrate that value by acting to give them a decent future. To do this you might need to move out of your comfort zone. Think about what you value, do other living things have a value other than what they can do for humans? Think about what sort of life you want for yourself in 20 years’ time, and what sort of world you want for your children and grandchildren. Show your children and grandchildren that you care about our planet, our one and only home. Demonstrate to them that you can have a full and happy life without the relentless pursuit of personal wealth at the expense of everything else.  

Do something to make a happier future happen. Write to politicians and newspapers, post on social media, sign petitions, donate to environmental groups, support scientists, live more modesty, stop buying so many luxury goods, avoid using plastic bags, support birth control, help people in developing countries, support free and universal education for all, limit your travelling, leave your money to environmental groups when you die. Go the extra mile, make the sacrifice to make the world a better place in the future not a worse one. 

Another thing you can do is to become informed on the issue. Many of the scientific reports on this issue have been summarised in highly accessible language. Finding the facts is only a Google away but be sure to choose a reputable website. Science is up against prejudice, ignorance, apathy and self-interest. It is heartbreaking that this issue is beyond reason. The truth is that the Earth could warm to 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052. The reality is that to have any hope of preventing the temperature going over 1.5°C we have to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030, cut out fossil fuels by 2050, and implement technologies to remove vast quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the trend is that we will deny the reality we can’t face and ignore the truth we don’t want to hear. We will not do what is required in time. What a pity!


Image from rawpixel.com / NASA (Source)