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UN produces another boring global environmental warning; world continues not caring

The fifth edition of the Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-5) - a global environmental report card by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) - reads like the results for a sedentary, middle-aged…

How bad do things have to get before we want to seriously address environmental issues? AAP

The fifth edition of the Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-5) - a global environmental report card by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) - reads like the results for a sedentary, middle-aged, overweight, binge drinking, heavy smoker. Low points of the report include:

  • evidence of climate change, including a 230% increase in flood disasters and 38% in drought disasters between the 1980s and 2000

  • threat of extinction of one-fifth of all vertebrates

  • collapse of some marine ecosystems due to pollution and overfishing, and the creation of 169 “coastal dead zones”.

Collectively, the prognosis of the GEO-5 report is dire, warning “if humanity does not urgently change its ways, several critical thresholds may be exceeded, beyond which abrupt and generally irreversible changes to the life-support functions of the planet could occur”.

These changes have profound implications for humanity. It is now certain that the future of the biosphere will be very different to what we have been acculturated to believe is “normal” or “natural”. We are yet to discover what it will be like, psycho-socially, to exist in an overpopulated and ecologically stressed world, where everyone knows the environment quality was substantially better for the previous generation.

Is it consistent with a civilisation on the brink of global environmental transformation that there should be a tiny investment in monitoring planetary health relative to, say, making blockbuster movies? The lack of data is a real problem for any accurate predictions of the future, particularly because we are unable to understand how the various components of the Earth system will interact. It is true that satellite imagery now provides excellent global, and in come cases daily, coverage of changes to the atmosphere, and land and sea surface. But there are critical aspects of the Earth system that remain poorly monitored, including assessments of trends (such as functioning of marine and terrestrial ecosystems) and the effects of pollution and invasive organisms.

Relationships between organisms are so complex, and we know so little. Naeem Ebrahimjee

The GEO-5 report acknowledged that the lack of good data makes it difficult to get an accurate picture of the state of the global environment. Problematically, the functioning of the earth system hinges on the interaction of numerous ecological components. Scientists have only a rudimentary understanding of these interrelationships. In some, cases trends may amplify each other; coral reefs, for example, are dying due to synergistic effects of global warming, overfishing and pollution.

The GEO-5 report provides some good news. Successes have included international treaties and agreements, phasing out ozone depleting chemicals and near-complete removal of lead in fuel. This shows humans will respond to immediate and clearly defined threats. There has been a steady expansion of declared national parks (even if funding for their management is insufficient) and increased efforts to slow the rate of deforestation.

Still, we are struggling to come to grips with more diffuse and intractable problems, such as climate change, water management, loss of biodiversity, human population growth and inequitable resource consumption. In these cases there is no simple remedy. Achieving global action has proven to be far more difficult. It needs poly-government policy development and enforcement, technological innovation and adoption. And while we’re working on these, the sheer complexity means we risk perverse outcomes, such as destroying Indonesia’s forests for “sustainable" biofuels.

The report says an “ambitious set of sustainability targets by the middle of the century is possible if current policies and strategies are changed and strengthened”. The question of who guards the global environmental guardians required to enforce these policies remains unresolved. But more fundamentally, achieving global environmental stewardship demands an iron political will at a global scale. And this, in turn, demands global constituency building. Until the global population cares enough, the political will to make changes won’t be there.

Many more people will have to care before international environment actions work. Oxfam International

Effectively communicating to the global community the bad news about the trajectory of the Earth system presents a substantial problem. Doctors know that shouting at a patient with an unhealthy lifestyle does not change their behaviour.

Often the driver for urgently lifestyle change comes from a major health scare. Despite describing a trajectory of unprecedented global environmental changes, the GEO-5 report does not carry enough emotional freight to galvanise global action. And it is obvious that the recent litany of environmental disasters - Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Fukushima nuclear disaster, Black Saturday bushfires, Central America floods, French heat waves, Moscow forest fire smoke disaster and so on – have not prompted significant changes in human behaviour towards the Earth system. Part of the problem is that these disasters can be considered in isolation, framed against “natural” background risk, and thereby rationalised, blunting the clear signal that human civilisation is exposed to tremendous risk from both natural and anthropogenic extreme events.

The current state of the global environment is like a phony war. Nothing particularly bad has happened yet, despite protestation from environmental activists that something grave will happen soon. Nonetheless, the steady stream of data and reports, such as GEO-5, are all signalling that the future global environment will be seriously challenging – real war (literally and metaphorically) will eventually break out.

In the meantime, environmental scientists are caught in a bind – the public is numb to shock-and-awe predictions of global catastrophe. And in any case, scientific prognoses are constrained by the overwhelming complexity of the Earth system, which is poorly understood or monitored. There remains little serious science investment compared to the funding for the discovery of fundamental physical phenomena at the quantum or astronomical scales.

Beyond the certainty of dramatic global environmental changes, the only certainty is uncertainty. I suspect that most people have accepted that the environment will be dramatically transformed in their, and certainly their kids, lifetimes. But they are either in serious denial or hoping for the best. It seems collectively humans only demand drastic political change when confronted by overwhelmingly compelling and immediate threats. And as the Arab Spring has taught us, revolutionary moments are not always ordered or peaceful. It is a brave new world indeed.

Join the conversation

38 Comments sorted by

  1. Gary Murphy

    Independent Thinker

    We can be certain of more extreme weather events.
    And we can be certain of insurance premium rises as a result of this.
    Maybe this would be a more effective argument to get the more (dare I say it) selfish and sort-sighted developed world public to care about it.

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  2. Kevin Cox

    logged in via LinkedIn

    As well as charging people if they pollute let us pay people if they do not pollute. More let us make sure all the money from charges and from payments is invested in ways to stop pollution.

    This puts in place a virtuous feedback loop that will rapidly reduce pollution levels to whatever target we set. We stop paying people not to pollute when there is no pollution.

    Pretty simple

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  3. Tim Scanlon

    Author and Scientist

    We seem to be frogs sitting in a pot of water being slowly brought to the boil.

    Pity really. I thought humans were smarter than frogs, more aware of our environment, more able to influence the world around us.

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    1. markus fitzhenry

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Hansen and colleagues presented the GISS Model II in 1988, with which they simulated climate change as a result of concentration changes of atmospheric trace gases and particulate matter (aerosols). The 'scientists' had three scenarios:

      A: increase in CO 2 emissions by 1.5% per year
      B: constant increase in CO 2 emissions after 2000
      C: No increase in CO 2 emissions after 2000

      The CO 2 emissions since 2000 to about 2.5 percent per year has increased, so that we would expect according to the…

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    2. markus fitzhenry

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Anthony Muscio

      The topic is the disinterest in 'climate change'. The reason is the rabidly incorrect assumptions by 'climate scientists'. I'm so sorry that I refereed articles directly relevant to the topic under discussion.

      Cut and paste from all over the net? How emotive of you.

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    3. Peter Sheldon

      Forestry Student, Germany

      In reply to markus fitzhenry

      Directly relevant to one of the topics at hand, and even so - one of a tiny minority. Biodiversity? Water?

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  4. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    "And in any case, scientific prognoses are constrained by the overwhelming complexity of the Earth system, which is poorly understood or monitored. There remains little serious science investment compared to the funding for the discovery of fundamental physical phenomena at the quantum or astronomical scales."

    Agreed, but who's fault is that?

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    1. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale Bloom: "... who's fault is that?"
      What would the answer to that question solve?

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to David Boxall

      David Boxall
      The public get very little say in how funding is spent on research. For example, how much say does the public have on ARC funding. Very little I would think.

      So, if too much funding has been spent on “discovery of fundamental physical phenomena at the quantum or astronomical scales.", then I would think the scientific community is at fault for spending too much funding on “discovery of fundamental physical phenomena at the quantum or astronomical scales."

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    3. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale Bloom: "... I would think the scientific community is at fault for spending too much funding on “discovery of fundamental physical phenomena at the quantum or astronomical scales.""
      With an attitude like that, would humanity have managed even so much as to figure out how to make stone tools?

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  5. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    I agree with the central premise of David Bowman's article - which is that the situation is objectively scary. So much evidence, so little power to make meaningful change. Without detracting from the author's scientific understanding it looks to me that we really are more in need of political psychology than science.

    It appears to me that many people are stuck in the first phase of the grieving process - denial. Real change means that the citizens of industrialised nations will simply have to…

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    1. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      "Hand wringing isn't going to do it. ... Peaceful, mass, non-violent direct action just might"

      I want a fall-back plan. Little effective tablets that will provide a quick, painless way out. We can take them if things start to get too bad. While the air-conditioning still works, and we have all our things around us ......

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    2. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      Strewth Russell. You're giving me ideas...like urging suicide on devoted consumers who can't imagine how they might survive with Mars Bars and SUV's. Paint a bleak picture of a future not worth living...no, wait a minute, get them to watch Cormac McCarthy's film 'The Road' and tell them that this is what life will be like once the carbon tax kicks in. Then sit back and watch 'em drop off the twig. I know it scared the bejeezus out of me.

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  6. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    Is there a conflict of interest with the staff of The Conversation using a picture of their office at the top of this article?

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    1. Jane Rawson

      Editor, Energy & Environment at The Conversation

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      yes, very good.

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    2. markus fitzhenry

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Jane Rawson

      Hi Jane,

      As an aside, how did Clive Hamilton's article get pass this?

      http://theconversation.edu.au/community_standards

      Specifically - We will not tolerate racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia or other forms of discriminatory language or contributions that could be interpreted as such. Allowing him to call intelligent people DENIALISTS out of hate is so wrong on many levels.

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    1. Ian Cocking

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      Mark, because of Japan & Germany suspending operations at their Nuclear facilities in response to Fukishima, thus taking the backward rd to Fossil fuels and more greenhouse gas / particulate emissions. That is the real disaster

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    2. Anthony Muscio

      Systems Analysist and Designer

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      Lost Farm land, Rubbish in the sea, broken lives cancers in people and animals - oh and lots of dead critters !

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    3. markus fitzhenry

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Anthony Muscio

      'Lost Farm land, Rubbish in the sea, broken lives cancers in people and animals - oh and lots of dead critters!'

      What cancers can you site attributable to the event last year, please?

      The rubbish in the seas was and effect of the Tsunami, Anthony. The microns from the Fukishima have had little effect on surrounding land. Nuclear is the cleanest and safest energy known. Empirically so.

      Got any data to show levels of 'critter' loss?

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    4. Anthony Muscio

      Systems Analysist and Designer

      In reply to markus fitzhenry

      Sorry for such a rapid post with too little explanation however the "accident" was caused by and has "worsened" a natural disaster. The impact on local residents and the environment, the generation of contaminated waste including foods grown there and the increase in cancer that WILL come from the contamination is real, even if it is not as instantaneous as Bophal. Cancer is about risks - you know, like smoking.

      And whilst there is a high safety level with Nuclear - it rarely fails, thus the statistics look good, but when it does ?

      And how is Hydro, Geothermal, Wind, Bio and Solar less clean than Nuclear ?

      You may claim Nuclear is clean and safe, but cleanest and safest energy known ?

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    5. Mark Duffett
      Mark Duffett is a Friend of The Conversation.

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Anthony Muscio

      Cleaner? Lifetime, all things considered, wind and solar require 5-15 times more concrete, steel, rare earths etc. than nuclear. That's a lot of embodied emissions. Bio - you've got to be kidding. What do you reckon happens to all those combustion products? Hydro - massive methane emissions for decades from drowned vegetation in impoundments.

      Safer? Hydro? Were you aware of incidents like http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banqiao_Dam? You be the judge:

      Energy Source Mortality…

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  7. Chris Mack

    Student

    At this rate it seems that there will be no real change until the arctic ice caps melt.

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  8. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    You know, I can't help thinking that pig in the top photo looks very very happy.

    What is the saying? Never wrestle with a pig, you both get dirty but the pig enjoys it?

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  9. Andrew Huntley

    Power Systems Consultant

    At the risk of drawing the ire of vested interests currently lobbying flat out to paint this concept as a greens / socialist world domination agenda...
    Until we have effective world government, we're screwed.
    International goodwill and voluntary action have spectacularly failed to eliminate poverty, war, nuclear proliferation, unchecked population growth, and deforestation. it is highly likely that the competitive and adversarial nature of international politics and economics will preclude concerted action to tackle global warming.

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    1. Gary Murphy

      Independent Thinker

      In reply to Andrew Huntley

      I don't think we need world government, I think we just need political parties to stop politicising the issue and get on with finding a solution.

      I mean, the effects of climate change are going to affect all countries negatively - so it is in every countries individual interest to find a solution.

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    2. Craig Read

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Gary Murphy

      The problem is, political parties will politicise anything that interferes with their income streams.
      We really need to stop them being able to take in contributions from any and all vested interests.

      They're supposed to be leading the country/state/territory for the good of the people, not for the good of the individuals and companies who slip them a few thousand dollars here and there. If they don't have the money to advertise on their salaries, they need to get off their lazy butts and do their politicking the old fashioned way (going out and speaking with the people they're supposed to be representing).

      What's currently happening in Victoria is a classic example. A Toorak bred real-estate man (Ted) helping out his property developer mates, while screwing Melbourne over for the next few decades (if not longer).

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  10. Mark Harrigan

    PhD Physicist

    I think this article encapsulates the real problem of climate change and the effective action required (notwithstanding the noisome pseudo-skeptic denier troll posts that litter the internet).

    These statements summes it up for me

    "Until the global population cares enough, the political will to make changes won’t be there."

    "humans will respond to immediate and clearly defined threats."

    "Doctors know that shouting at a patient with an unhealthy lifestyle does not change their behaviour…

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  11. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    Just to point out that for a very long time now a lot of people have changed their lifestyle, minimised their ecological footprint, developed traditional, high skill, low technology capabilities, know how to hunt and do without, to live frugally, expecting I guess that when the time comes a lot of people lacking such preparation will die while they prosper . . . .

    As if life were like that . . . more likely they'll be hit by a truck while riding their bike to work . . . .

    Sorry guys, there's…

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    1. James Sexton

      Network administrator

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      That's exactly why it seems that the world doesn't care. For most of the population today, from birth people have been inundated with proclamations of doom. We've been on the very precipice of disaster for decades, and nothing ever happens.

      It is the doomsayers fault. They went to the well once too often. No one will listen to the chicken littles when that all that they hear from them.

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  12. Chris Booker

    Research scientist

    "We are yet to discover what it will be like, psycho-socially, to exist in an overpopulated and ecologically stressed world, where everyone knows the environment quality was substantially better for the previous generation."

    I'd say we've already passed that point actually, just look at the disasters you cite in this article.

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    1. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Chris Booker

      Victorian bushfires have regularly occurred. An incompetent Police Commissioner and an inadequate preparation and an inadequate response led to a more disastrous result than usual.
      The next disaster is on the way as more and more dead wood is left beside the Hume Highway.

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  13. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    David, thanks for the challenging but important article.

    You state: "these disasters can be considered in isolation, framed against “natural” background risk, and thereby rationalised, blunting the clear signal that human civilisation is exposed to tremendous risk from both natural and anthropogenic extreme events." The real problem is that none of the messages that should be getting out to the public are directed to them as individual people. Rather than people hearing personal messages about…

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  14. Philip Dowling

    IT teacher

    An election in Greece this weekend is of more importance to most than the concerns of this article.
    Besides isn't the world going to end later this year?

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  15. Berthold Klein

    Civil-Environmental engineer

    When more and more people realize that the pretend scientist aka "climate scientists " have been lying to them, they stopped listening to the Henny Pennies!
    Mann-made global warming is a total hoax. The weather thought out the world has shown that the "models used by the "climate scientists"are just crap.
    The world has been lied to by the "environmental whachos" and the money being spent to "correct" a non exist problem is hurting every country in the world. People are tired of having their…

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  16. davidweek

    logged in via Twitter

    Perhaps we might ask this:

    Why was fixing the ozone hole so easy (politically), and fixing global warming so hard (politically.)

    In the case of ozone:

    1 Scientists find hole
    2 Scientists find causes of hole
    3 Scientists describe consequences of hole
    4 Everybody trusts the scientists
    5 Politicians regulate hole out of existence.

    Fluorocarbons were a nasty pollutant. Now carbon is a nasty pollutant.

    And remember DDT, lead, and 800-or-so other pollutants now banned, without a whince or a speech in parliament.

    What are the key points that make it such a difficult pollutant to deal with?

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  17. Berthold Klein

    Civil-Environmental engineer

    The answer is very simple: There is no creditable experiment that proves that the "greenhouse gas effect" exists!!!! Therefore Man-made global warming does not exist.!! All the supposed evidence that the AGW frauds claim proofs the GHGE is circumstantial at best, and much of it has been shown to be manipulated and not factual.
    People prefer to believe in fairy-tales and fiction, just look at the size of the "Entertainment industry". Look at the influence of the "stars" who have no knowledge of…

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