FOCUS: Millennial warning

OUR PLANET 10.2 - UNEP - Looking Forward

FOCUS: Millennial warning


makes a plea for the integration of the biosphere into the whole of human thought

As we approach a new millennium it is natural that people should want to look both backward and forward, reviewing the legacy of the past and reaching for a vision for the future. This is a time for taking stock, for learning lessons and for considering how we might improve the management of progress. Nowhere is all that more important than in responding to the environmental challenges we face. There is a significant body of evidence to show that the way in which we have been consuming resources and energy is increasingly damaging the biodiversity on which the survival of our planet depends. With the mystical aspect that attaches to pivotal dates, it is perhaps worth emphasizing that the closing of the millennium has been marked by violent climatic activity provoking catastrophic fires, floods and hurricanes. These might in ancient times have been accepted as omens - and for all our modern pretensions to sophistication we might also do well to take them as dire warnings.

Of course, climate change is something it would be quite reasonable to expect to see over a few thousand years. Nature does not stand still. But it is now obvious that what we are seeing is not merely a changing climate but alterations in global weather patterns that are being driven forward at an unnaturally rapid pace by human activity.

The Earth has, throughout its long history, slowly absorbed climatic shifts and adapted its systems to take account of new conditions. Forests have always acted as something of a barometer for such changes. During the glacial ages, for example, the tropics became cool and dry and their rainforest areas contracted. Long periods of drought caused once moist undergrowth and leaf litter to dry up, leaving the forest vulnerable to fires sparked in neighbouring grasslands.

Human causes

Today, however, as drought appears again in tropical zones, the rainforests burn mainly because fire is a tool used to clear them for agriculture. And, as we have seen in Asia and Latin America, these man-made conflagrations run out of control, not only destroying thousands of hectares of rainforest but also adding hugely to the production of carbon dioxide (CO2) that is driving rapid climate change and further threatening forests.

Environmental surveys show that tropical forests in Amazonia, in Southeast Asia and in West Africa are being destroyed at an alarming and increasing rate. The highly regarded Hadley Centre for Climate Change in Berkshire, England, has a powerful computer model which predicts that unless significant changes take place there are sections of the Amazon rainforest that will turn into desert within the coming half century.

All this is not only disastrous news for the forest regions themselves, and for the countless species dependent on them, but each disappearance has a role to play in the acceleration of climate change. Trees absorb CO2, the greenhouse gas - produced mainly by the burning of fossil fuels - that promotes global warming and consequent violent changes in weather patterns. Fewer trees clearly mean less absorption capacity, but the situation is worse than that. The Hadley Centre has found that in the aftermath of the widespread tropical fires of 1998, forests became a net producer of CO2. What might have offered a partial solution to the ravages of global warming is thus turned into part of the problem.

It has taken us long enough to acknowledge the fact of climate change, but even though the existence of global warming and its potential for harm are now generally accepted, it remains difficult to make people understand the full extent of its effect on biodiversity - and what that means for all life on Earth. Yet the evidence continues to mount.

Recently, for instance, a new element in the destructive power of CO2 has emerged from the oceans. Scientists have discovered a direct relationship between atmospheric CO2 and the level of calcium carbonate in seawater. This has an effect on the ability of coral to develop its skeleton and it is estimated that during the past century coral calcification rates have fallen by up to 11 per cent as the presence of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased.


Two-pronged attack

Again, as with forests, there is a two-pronged attack going on. As CO2 affects the growth capacity of coral, so its climatic effect also raises the temperature of seawater, with the result that the coral becomes stressed and expels the algae that support it. This process, known as bleaching because the coral loses its colour, has been found to be reaching record levels, with mortality of shallow-water coral reaching 95 per cent in the Arabian Gulf, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and the United Republic of Tanzania. Even in protected areas such as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in the United States of America, coral bleaching has been reported alongside exceptionally high sea temperatures.

Of course there are those who believe that the human species is so clever, that our knowledge and skills are growing so quickly, that we will always be able to make good the damage we do. It is an illusion. What nature has developed over millions of years and what humankind has the capacity to destroy in a few short centuries cannot simply be replaced. When coral dies, for example, there is nothing we can do to recreate it. So much of what we have already lost has gone forever.

Growing pressures

And there is every sign that environmental pressures are likely to get worse. This small planet will shortly contain 6 billion human beings, who need space and shelter and energy and economic activity. Imagine the effect on our world if we carry on attempting to support such huge numbers in our old careless, destructive way.

So, as we stand on the threshold of the new millennium, we find ourselves facing a formidable task. The magnitude of that task is such that we can no longer afford to rely on groups of so-called environmentalists shouting warnings from the sidelines. Everyone must now take the field in the desperate game of life. The environment is not 'out there', a mere backdrop to our increasingly frenetic activities. It is central to our future and we are crucial to its survival.

For all of us working in what is known as the environmental movement - government agencies, UNEP, non-governmental organizations and concerned individuals - the challenge of the 21st century is to integrate the biosphere into the whole range of human thought, to reach out to development programmes, the financial community, business and industry, and the power brokers of politics.

The sooner the world community stops seeing the environment as a speciality and perceives the health of the biosphere as part of everyone's core business the better.

Dr. Claude Martin is Director General of WWF International, Gland, Switzerland.

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