15 Oct 2009

Problems are more than just carbon

It's blog action day today on Climate Change - thousands of us will be writing on the topic across the world and millions of readers will catch at least one of the many many blogs. As regular blog readers here will know it is a topic I cover almost daily in one way or another - interestingly scientists are exploring the tipping points and what is needed to survive on earth - it is this topic that I cover in this brief blog.
“There is one outstanding important fact regarding Spaceship Earth and that is that no instruction book came with it.” Buckminster Fuller
Scientists have taken a first step toward creating just such a manual. In the September issue of Nature is a groundbreaking new paper called “Planetary Boundaries: A Safe Operating Space for Humanity.” In it, a team of 28 scientists has identified 10 separate biophysical systems crucial to humanity’s flourishing; for each system they have identified a “safe operating boundary” within which humanity must remain if it wishes to maintain the basic environmental conditions in which it evolved. It is well worth the read.

The Nature paper makes clear that as inconvenient as it may be, the problem we face is much larger and more systemic than just carbon. See the chart from Grist below.

In terms of climate change,the proposal is for an atmospheric-carbon-concentration limit of no more than 350 parts per million (p.p.m.) — meaning no more than 350 atoms of carbon for every million atoms of air. We've talked lots about this on this blog - indeed 24th Oct here in Stroud we are planting 350 trees and completing the last of 350 beehouses. Anyway currently we're at 387 p.p.m. and rising. We can get it down and must - if not as the report says: "Transgressing these boundaries will increase the risk of irreversible climate change."

However that's the impact of breaching only one of nine planetary boundaries that is identified in the paper. Other boundaries involve for example freshwater overuse, the global agricultural cycle and ozone loss. In each case, the science is considered to find ecological limits that we can't violate, lest we risk passing a tipping point that could throw the planet out of whack for human beings.

The trouble is in three of the nine cases — climate change, the nitrogen cycle and species loss — we've already passed the threshold limits. This should be a serious call to action. Let's hope they hear us in Copenhagen - but also it is time the other issues are taken equally seriously.

As Grist asks in an article about this paper: "How can we live in a way that honors our descendents? How should we work, get around, power ourselves, feed ourselves, house ourselves? How many of us should there be? Everyone living has a stake in the answers. In times of trial, it’s useful to recall the words of Marshall McLuhan: 'There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.'”

See Time article on this here.

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