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Mainstream, VOL L, No 29, July 7, 2012

Time to Confront Most Urgent Survival Issues

Tuesday 10 July 2012, by Bharat Dogra

“There is a very high possibility that by the end of the century, the earth is going to be a very different place.”

This statement by Anthony Burnosky of the University of California, who authored a study by 18 scientists based on a review of research on climate change and ecology to discuss future trends, made headline news recently. Writing in the prestigious journal Nature, this team of prominent scientists from various parts of the world warned that the world is headed towards a tipping point marked by extinctions of plant and animal species and huge disruption to crops.

At certain thresholds, putting more pressure on the environment leads to a point of no return, Mr Barnosky said.

While this warning by scientists is very important, it needs to be pointed out that more serious warnings by larger groups of scientists have been given before.
In 1992 as many as 1575 of the world’s most distinguished scientists, including more than half of all living scientists awarded the Nobel Prize, signed a statement titled “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity”. This statement issued a clear warning: “We the undersigned, senior members of world’s scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to he avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”

This statement maintained that “the environment is suffering critical stress” and added that “the irreversible loss of species, which by 2100 may reach one-third of all species now living is especially serious”.

Emphasising the need for significant change, this statement went on to say: “If not checked, many of our current practices put at risk the future we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdom, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.”

The statement added: “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course... Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring.”

Another distinguished team of scientists wrote in 1997 (Science magazine, July 25): “The rates, scale, kinds and combination of changes occurring now are fundamentally different from those at any other time in history; we are changing the Earth more rapidly than we are understanding it.”

Due to several complex reasons, we are in the middle of, to use the words of John Tuxill and Chris Bight writing in the State of the World Report, “a mass extinction—a global evolutionary convulsion with few parallels in the entire history of life”. As this report adds, unlike the dinosaurs, we are not simply the contemporaries of a mass extinction, “we are the reason for it”.

WHILE several aspects of ecological ruin played a big role in accentuating the crisis of survival, there is growing consensus that the biggest danger now comes from climate change and related factors. There is a very real danger that within this century, our world may pass into such a stage of catastrophe (related to climate change) so as to be beyond our capacity to control the worsening drift.
Even a 2°C change in temperature will cause fairly large-scale disruption in several life-sustaining activities apart from leading to the loss of vast low-lying areas (related to rise in sea-level) and worsening ‘natural’ disasters. But beyond 2°C, the earth’s natural processes begin to break down and cause more warming. Massive amounts of warming gases stored in the Siberian permafrost can melt and get released in the atmosphere. Humid rainforests can lose their humidly and begin to burn down, again releasing stored warming gases. Beyond such ‘tipping points’ the situation can get out of hand.

The challenge before us is to link such survival with justice issues. This challenge has to be met at three levels. Firstly, the world’s best available expertise has to be assembled to prepare a mutually consistent plan that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions adequately while also meeting the basic needs of all people. This will necessarily include a disarmament plan as without significantly curtailing weapons production (in fact all wasteful production) such a plan which links GHG emission reduction with meeting basic needs of all just cannot be prepared.
Secondly, people’s movements for environment protection, peace and justice (as well as other relevant movements) have to cooperate and work together to create a mass movement of support for such a plan.

Thirdly, international organisations have to be put in place which will implement this time-bound plan. As a first step we will need a demo-cratic international organisation which has the power to implement the essential agenda of providing basic needs of all, adequately reducing GHG emissions and enforcing disarmament.

The author is currently a Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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