Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Time is running out – even Charles of Wales is worried

When Britain’s Prince of Wales shows clear signs of agitation at world leaders’ curious paralysis in the face of the rapid deterioration of planetary ecological conditions, it should send a message to everyone concerned. And that means every human being on the planet, where humans are (supposedly) the custodians of planetary “health” but have been guilty of gross neglect in this regard lately.

Charles has appealed to world leaders to “adopt a better, more integrated approach to issues like climate change”. He did this in a video address to delegates at a UN conference on ecological sustainability in Brazil, stressing that the present widespread inaction is likely to have “catastrophic” consequences, which do not merely concern the phenomena usually associated with climate change – such as rising global temperatures and sea levels – but food and water security as well. Needless to stress, these are potential problems that could tip an already economically unstable world into outright economic and political (if not military) chaos.

To his credit, the Prince of Wales showed himself to be no dullard when it comes to an acute awareness of the unprecedented problems the world faces at present.

He said: “I have watched in despair at how slow progress has sometimes been and how the outright, sceptical reluctance by some to engage with the critical issues of our day have often slowed that progress to a standstill. Already levels of CO2 have exceeded 400 parts per million; 450 parts per million is the tipping point we have to avoid so every day of delay threatens to make the change more dramatic.”

Charles highlighted the fact that the source of his concern is scientific research (and not mere alarmism), which has already outlined the possible consequences of not acting timeously, and in concert on a global scale. If humanity really values science – and in every other respect it seems that science is valued by most thinking people – it would awaken out of its stupor of inaction, and start doing something significant and concrete in the domain of policy in every country on the planet, with the necessary coordination by international agencies such as those under the auspices of the UN.

Charles is in a position to extend criticism to those leaders who do not show sufficient concern about a potential catastrophe – that seems to be looming larger every time a new scientific report on the state of the planet is published – because he was responsible for establishing the International Sustainability Unit (ISU), tasked to promote global sustainability, in this way showing initiative worth emulating by other leaders.

He was addressing Rio+20 (the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development), which is happening this week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 20 years after its inauguration. Referring to the urgency for the combined collection and holistic analysis of adequate data on water, forestry, energy, soil and biodiversity, which is usually collected separately, Charles pointed out: “We do not have long to capture such a comprehensive picture, and so I would appeal to you as you meet here in Rio to make an even greater and concerted effort to persuade policy and decision-makers to act before it is finally too late.”

The Prince of Wales’s appeal to world leaders comes at a time when more and more signs are appearing that present climate change is anthropogenic, that is, caused and exacerbated by human behaviour. A recently published study in the journal Nature provides evidence that the earth is edging closer to what is described as “a dangerous climate tipping point” as a result of destructive human activities and habits.

Among the factors listed by the international panel of authors as contributing to the process moving us towards what may be irreversible biological changes, are the ongoing clearance of the planet’s land surface for agriculture and urbanisation (at the cost of the indispensable “lung” function of rain forests, to mention but one thing) as well as the ever-accelerating growth in the human population of the globe. (At the same time it seems puzzling that these significant changes are being ignored, and in some cases even speeding up.)

They freely admit what many climate change denialists have constantly harped on, namely that throughout millennia the earth has witnessed several serious biological changes, of which many annihilated thousands of the species living at the time. Of the present time they say: “Humans are now forcing another such transition, with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.”

In an interview with the LA Times, professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley Anthony Barnosky – who is the chief author of the paper – remarked that: “The net effects of what we’re causing could actually be equivalent to an asteroid striking the Earth in a worst-case scenario.” He said that he did not want to come across as predicting “Armageddon”, but that, by turning a blind eye to the “warning signs” that are indications of the way that humans are changing the earth, it would not be an exaggeration to say that one may anticipate biodiversity loss of 75% or more.

The scientists’ warning should be clear: it appears to be the case that current generations of humans, by and large, do not really care, or have given up hope that they can do something about, the consequences of their consumption habits and their excessive use of planetary resources. BUT if these practices – including fossil fuel consumption, destruction of forests, overfishing, polluting of the earth’s land and oceans, and rampant population growth – continue unabated, the inheritance of future generations will be “a biologically impoverished Earth”, lacking integrative ecological functions such as those of insects that “pollinate crops, forests that provide clean water, and tropical species that are the source of new drugs”.

What are the chances that human beings will wake up to the seriousness of the present situation? Or would the very people who attach such high value to science choose to ignore the scientists on this issue?

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