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.