In 2009, a group of 28 internationally recognised environmental scientists met at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, chaired by its director Johan Rockström, to consider the effects of human activity on nine areas of our global environment.
They analysed how natural systems, which need to interact in equilibrium with themselves and with the rest of nature, have been affected by human activity, and how far we can afford to push them before catastrophic or unstoppable changes began to be seen – the tipping point. They also noted the impact of positive-feedback where greater consequences cause greater rates of development of these consequences (an example being the loss of Arctic Sea ice) leading to an acceleration towards the final tipping point.
The dimensions which need to be considered
The nine dimensions which concerned them were as follows:
- Climate change, whose effects are plain to see, including rising sea levels
- Biosphere integrity (i.e., loss of species)
- Land-use change, especially with respect to rainforest clearance
- Freshwater availability and use rates
- Biogeochemical flows (nitrogen and phosphorus cycles)
- Ocean acidification
- Atmospheric aerosol pollution, including reference to tiny particulates from motor vehicles
- Stratospheric ozone depletion
- Release of novel chemicals (including heavy metals, radioactive materials, plastics, and others).
Modelling deterioration from 2009 to the present
The group defined mathematically what they believed to be the safe limits within which we could continue our exploitation without causing uncontrollable consequences. Having done so, they warned that already (in 2009) they considered that three of these limits had been passed.
Subsequent meetings of the group (the most recent being earlier this year), have served to reinforce their assertions and to warn that by 2023 possibly six of the areas of concern had now either reached the point of no return, or were about to do so. Their conclusions have been validated and reiterated by other panels of scientists such as the Climate Change Committee in their 2023 ‘Progress Report to Parliament’.
Dimensions of change impact on and intensify one another
The one area in which progress had been made was in ozone depletion, but that was achieved by concerted and organised international co-operation; and even so, there have been set-backs by some states deliberately choosing to exploit the financial inducements that were offered.
Of course, the division into separate dimensions is somewhat artificial, since there is considerable interaction between them. For example, any toxic algal blooms caused by imbalance in the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles will be made worse by higher temperatures. And the death of coral reefs is brought about by warmer oceans, more acidic oceans and greater chemical pollution in sea water.
The warnings of the group have been being made clearly and publicly for the last 14 years, and the governments of the rich global West have steadfastly ignored them, with the sole exception of the ozone layer, which was, frankly, very easy to deal with. The warnings have also been ignored by most mass media outlets, many of which have vested interests in continuing with ‘business as usual’. So we are lurching blindly into catastrophe.
Government planning out of sync with planetary change
It is a fallacy to imagine that the wholly artificial deadline of 2050 set by governments to achieve what they call ‘net-zero’ with respect to atmospheric carbon dioxide has any validity whatsoever. And in any case that is only one of the nine dimensions we must deal with. The planet’s destiny will continue to play out regardless of the convenience of Western politicians.
It is astonishing that our prime minister should have the audacity to declare that as we (the UK) are doing so well in leading the world that we can afford to ease up. Such statements clearly demonstrate both complete scientific illiteracy and a blinkered prioritisation of party electoral interests over the planet’s needs.
If we are to have any hope of living in equilibrium on our planet, we must heed the urgent warnings of those who study our natural systems and insist that our leaders begin to work together to tackle these colossal challenges. Unfortunately, we seem to be very far from being able to guarantee that they will.