As the 'one per cent' meet in Davos for the World Economic Forum, a new scientific report shows the world risks being destabilised by human activity — most of it from a rich minority, writes Tim Radford from the Climate News Network.
HUMANS ARE NOW THE CHIEF DRIVERS of change in the planet’s physical,
chemical, biological and economic systems according to new research in a
series of journals. And the humans most implicated in this change so
far are the 18% of mankind that accounts for 74% of gross domestic
And the indicators of this change – dubbed the “planetary dashboard” –
are 24 sets of measurements that record the acceleration of the carbon
cycle, land use, fisheries, telecommunications, energy consumption,
population, economic growth, transport, water use and many other
interlinked aspects of what scientists think of as the Earth System.
Although these indicators chart change since the start of the
Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, the most dramatic
acceleration – the scientists call it the Great Acceleration – seems to have begun in 1950. Some researchers would like to set that decade as the start of a new geological epoch — the Anthropocene, from Anthropos, the ancient Greek word for mankind.
On the eve of this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a team of scientists, led by Will Steffen of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University and the Australian National University, report in the journal Science that
the world has now crossed four of nine planetary boundaries within
which humans could have hoped for a safe operating space.
The four boundaries are climate change, land system change,
alterations to the biogeochemical cycle that follow phosphorus and
nitrogen fertiliser use, and the loss of a condition called “biosphere
Past their peak
The scientists judge that these boundary-crossing advances mean that
both present and future human society are in danger of destabilising the
Earth System — a complex interaction of land, sea, atmosphere, the icecaps, natural living things and humans themselves.
Said Professor Steffen:
'Transgressing a boundary increases the risk that human
activities could inadvertently drive the Earth System into a much less
hospitable state, damaging efforts to reduce poverty and leading to
deterioration of human wellbeing in many parts of the world, including
'In this new analysis we have improved the quantification of where these risks lie.'
The Science article is supported by separate studies of global change, including the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, also headquartered in Stockholm, which publishes an analysis in the journal the Anthropocene Review.
Meanwhile a team of European scientists warn in the journal Ecology and Society that out of 20 renewable resources (among them the maize, wheat, rice, soya, fish, meat, milk and eggs that feed the world), 18 have already passed their peak production.
And a separate team led by scientists from Leicester University in Britain has even tried to pinpoint the day on which the Anthropocene era may be said to have commenced. In yet another journal, the Quaternary International, they nominate 16 July, 1945: the day of the world’s first nuclear test.
This flurry of research and review is, of course, timed to help world
leaders at Davos concentrate on the longer-term problems of climate
change, environmental degradation, and food security, in addition to
immediate problems of economic stagnation, poverty, conflict and so on.
But these immediate challenges may not be separable from the longer-term
ones. To ram the message home, the authors will present their findings
at seven seminars in Davos.
In the Anthropocene Review, Professor Steffen and his
co-authors consider not just the strains on the planet’s resources that
threaten stability, but also that section of humanity that is
responsible for most of the strain.
Although the human burden of population has soared from 2.5bn to more than 7bn in one lifetime, in 2010, the scientists say, the OECD countries that
are home to 18% of the world’s population accounted for 74% of global
gross domestic product, so most of the human imprint on the Earth System
comes from the world represented by the OECD.
This, they say, points to the profound scale of global inequality,
which means that the benefits of the so-called Great Acceleration in
consumption of resources are unevenly distributed, and this in turn
confounds efforts to deal with the impact of this assault on the
planetary machinery. Humans have always altered their environment, they
concede, but now the scale of the alteration is, in its rate and
magnitude, without precedent.
The report's author's say:
'Furthermore, by treating ‘humans’ as a single, monolithic whole,
it ignores the fact that the Great Acceleration has, until very
recently, been almost entirely driven by a small fraction of the human
population, those in developed countries.'
The IGBP-Stockholm Resilience Centre co-operation first identified
their 24 “indicators” of planetary change in 2004, and the latest
research is a revisitation. In 2009, researchers identified nine global
priorities linked to human impacts on the environment, and identified
two, climate change and the integrity of the biosphere, that were
vital to the human condition. Any alteration to either could drive the
Earth System into a new state, they said.
In fact, since then, greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise,
and accordingly global average temperatures have steadily increased,
along with sea levels. At the same time, habitat destruction, pollution
and hunting and fishing have begun to drive species to extinction at an
Almost all the charts that make up the planetary dashboard now show
steep acceleration; fisheries, one of the indicators that seems to have
levelled off, has probably done so only because humans may have already
exhausted some of the ocean’s resources.
Prof Steffen said:
“It is difficult to over-estimate the scale and speed of change.
In a single human lifetime humanity has become a planetary-scale
geological force. When we first aggregated these datasets we expected to
see major changes, but what surprised us was the timing. Almost all
graphs show the same pattern.
“The most dramatic shifts have occurred since 1950. We can say
that 1950 was the start of the Great Acceleration. After 1950 you can
see that major Earth System changes became directly linked to changes
related to the global economic system. This is a new phenomenon and
indicates that humanity has a new responsibility at a global level for
~ Climate News Network