Ecological Risk and the Climate Emergency

My talk at ‘The Cooler Earth Sustainability Summit’ in Kuala Lumpur (1st October 2019).

1.          Introduction

Anxiety, frustration and risk are key themes of the climate and ecological emergency. Anxiety because nature is in free fall and signs of universal calamity are multiplying. Frustration because so little has been done to solve problems that have been anticipated for decades. Risk because of severe dangers to the biosphere, to human society and therefore to all businesses. This paper focuses on the Arctic ‘death spiral’ as an ecological risk that also illustrates the idea of tipping points, the Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Greta Thunberg’s Climate Strike as sources of transformative social change, and Malaysian opportunities for strategic leadership.

2.         Ecological emergency

At the global level, human impact are known to have been exceeded safe limits in four areas: biosphere integrity, climate change, land-system change, and biogeochemical flows. These add up to key dimensions of the ‘climate and ecological emergency’: climate chaos, ecological breakdownmass extinction. All have the potential to induce chaotic environmental change. Since our farms and cities depend on conditions that have been stable for nearly 12,000 years, any such change would be catastrophically damaging and could well prove fatal to humanity.

Since 1992, scientists organised through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), and Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) have shown us to be pushing the boundaries of biosphere integrity. Moreover, based on published evidence from many taxa, the Living Planet Index (LPI) shows a decline of over 60% in wildlife abundance since 1970 (Figure 1). In 2019, IPBES reported that close to a million species are threatened by human actions, while my own analysis implies that up to a million species are now becoming committed to extinction each year due to ‘web of life’ failures such as trophic shifts and the loss of co-evolved species.

Figure 1: The Living Planet Index: the decline of life on Earth since 1970

Natural ecosystems sustain water supplies, environmental security, pollination of crops, fisheries and soil fertility that cannot be replaced by artificial alternatives. Yet it became clear during the 2000s and 2010s that these ecosystems were deteriorating fast, exposing humanity and our farmlands and settlements to severe risks and costs. The overall message is that all the living systems that provide food, water and security for people and businesses are failing, and the failures are starting to join up. Each part of the pattern is a spreading desert, drought, wildfire, flood, storm, mudslide, epidemic, extinction, famine, or political crisis induced by them.

3.         Climate emergency

From the analysis of air bubbles trapped in ice, the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration of the atmosphere is known to have varied over time but to have remained below 280 parts per million (ppm, or 0.028%) for 800,000 years to 1950 (Figure 2). Our machines burn fossil fuels and produce exhausts mainly in the form of CO2. Land clearances have the same effect, by felling, burning, ploughing and planting natural forest and soil ecosystems. The world’s economy has grown since the Industrial Revolution, and especially since the Second World War, and not all of this carbon could be absorbed by oceans and plants. So around 1950 it began to exceed the Earth’s capacity to absorb it, resulting in raised atmospheric CO2 concentration.