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New Challenges Reshape Environmental and Social Responsibility – Mandates for Future Decision-Making

Updated: Aug 19, 2021

Our Great Mother warns of limits and consequences! She does not magically intervene to punish us, rather transgressing Her limits triggers resultant events. Mother Earth’s fevers, stormy convulsions, and escalations of dying species are forcing upon us the dawning of a new vision of environmental, social and economic responsibility.

Satellite technologies with global perspectives enable the measurement of resource use, the pace of pollution, the percentages of resources being used, etc. We have discovered our Mother’s limitations. Worldwide we are using the equivalent of 1.5 planets to support a population is 7,000,000,000, which is projected to top 9,000,000,000 I 2050. The well of resources is drying up. Additionally, inequities and struggles for scarce resources are driving an increase in social unrest, violence and creating environmental refugees.

Paradoxically, collective failure to rein in the degradation of ecosystems and gross social inequities is accelerating at the same time that we are in an era of exponentially increasing innovations that could be channeled toward living in harmony with nature. This Post will lay groundwork for proposing solution-strategies through a discussion that highlights the crisis in planetary ecosystems. A forthcoming Post will elucidate the dynamics of the United States’ sociopolitical resistance to full acknowledgment of the crisis and failure to fully utilize available solutions.

The Crisis in Planetary Ecosystems

The United States has an unflattering history when it comes to the recognition of regional ecosystem crises. The dustbowl, for example, led to the enactment of conservation measures only after people and livestock were killed, crops failed across the entire region and its clouds reached the East Coast. Even then, FDR’s administration was almost evenly divided about taking action. Another example: problems recognizing the biological impact of insecticides began to be recognized (even if not fully dealt with) only after Rachel Carson published her 1962 book, Silent Spring, detailing the impact of DDT on birds and other animals. To this day, the impact of chemicals on the environment is dealt with reactively rather than proactively. Taking one more example, in 1972, the United States passed the Clean Water Act, only after seeing the Cayuga River catch on fire 13 times. Even now, there are conflicts about enforcing this act to protect drinking water from leadpipes and from fracking.

Given these noted difficulties in reacting to regional ecosystem crises, it is not surprising that global crises are even more difficult to perceptually register. The visibility of Earth’s ecosystem crises has developed subtly at first and more nakedly in catastrophic

happenings such as severe storms, droughts, floods, putrification of waterways and acidification of the oceans. To see the scope of these happenings on a planetary basis, the following graph is helpful, comparing their increased frequency with the geological relative constant of earthquakes. But to secure a more precise picture, Earth scientists use global data to tell the planetary story.

Ecosystem Pillaging at a Planetary Level

Scientists were amazed to discover the many parallels between human activities and consumption based on fossil fuels and the resultant impacts upon the environment. This increase begins in about 1850 with the use of coal and then begins to exponentially increase in about 1950 with the increasing use of all types of fossil fuels. See the hockey stick shape to graphs. It is called “The Great Acceleration.” The following charts tell the story. for ease of reading print size, I am splitting the following dashboard of charts into: 1) socioeconomic and 2) Earth system. Note how they are correlated with socioeconomic inputs into grid system starting in 1850 and then accelerating in 1950, matching up with how the Earth systems have followed socio-economic activity.

Especially important to notice is the high

correlation between CO2 and global temperature – here is another graph to highlight that relationship.

Developing Ecosystem Boundaries to Protect against Catastrophic System Disruption

Geoscientists are calling attention to planetary, ecosystem “thresholds” that if breached by human activity drivers can lead to non-linear, catastrophic, system changes. These thresholds are cogently described in the research-based modeling achieved by the Stockholm Resilience Center. Estimating the “threshold” at which an ecosystem will be stressed to the point of systemic, non-linear change is inexact, because of the complexities involved. So, the concept of “boundaries” has been set to indicate a parameter or safe-line warning to keep us from reaching the probable threshold of irreversible system change. “Safe,” as the Center is using the term for “boundaries,” does not mean freedom from catastrophic disruptions; rather, that the disruptions are increasing linearly or, in some cases exponentially, but without total system collapse.

The Resilience Center has identified nine ecosystem boundaries and been able to quantify seven of them. These seven are climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone, biogeochemical nitrogen and phosphorus, global freshwater use, land system change, and the rate at which biological diversity is lost. The two additional planetary boundaries for which they have not yet been able to determine a boundary level are chemical pollution and atmospheric aerosol loading. Inability to yet calculate an irreversible planetary threshold for chemical pollution does not lessen the urgency of halting its current contributions to human disease, wildlife extinction, air, soil and water degradation!

The following chart estimates how the different control variables for these planetary boundaries have changed from 1950 to present. The green shaded polygon represents the safe operating space. Humanity has already transgressed three boundaries: climate change, rate of biodiversity loss, and changes to the global nitrogen cycle.

Planetary boundaries are interdependent. Transgressing one may shift the position of other boundaries or cause them to be transgressed. "The concept of “planetary boundaries” lays the groundwork for shifting our approach to governance and management, away from the essentially sectorial analyses of limits to growth aimed at minimizing negative externalities, toward the estimation of the safe space for human development. Planetary boundaries define, as it were, the boundaries of the planetary playing field for humanity if we want to be sure of avoiding major human-induced environmental change on a global scale.[i]"

Risks Associated with Breaching Boundaries – Climate Change Example

In 2009, the great majority of geoscientists converged upon 350 parts per million (ppm) as the boundary for keeping greenhouse gas within relatively safe levels – though there were would still be predicted risks associated with a projected 2°C rise in global temperatures and associated rising of sea levels. When this “safe” boundary was set, GHG was already at 387 ppm and the challenge was to get back to 350 ppm through time.

Since then, however, the GHG index has already passed 400 ppm and is continuing to rise. If you go to the Bloomberg online counter, which keeps on ticking by the second, you will see that we are now above 415 ppm. Because of the inertia associated with atmospheric changes and rates of population growth, we are now headed toward at least a 3° rise in temperature and a population of 9 billion.[ii]

The World Bank has recently warned that without a change in policies, we are on track for a 4° rise in temperatures, which they project would be catastrophic.[iii] The 4°C scenarios are devastating: the inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems. And most importantly, a 4°C world is so different from the current one that it comes with high uncertainty and new risks that threaten our ability to anticipate and plan for future adaptation.”

We don’t yet know the full implications from having breached the 350 ppm GHG boundary. Projections as to rising temperatures are being exacerbated by melting icesheets with associated reduction in reflective capacities for the sun’s rays, methane being released from melting tundra, the reduced capacities of the acidifying oceans to absorb carbon, and reduced carbon sequestering as forests shrink and tilled soils increase.

Even though we don’t know when we might cross an irreversible threshold that could lead to the altering of ocean currents and unpredictable non-linear climate changes, it is clear that we are already paying a massive price for excessive emissions of greenhouse gas.

1) How we produce and consume (business); and how we act collectively is having dramatic impacts on the environment, the ecosystems, the planet that is giving us life; and

2) that the impacts we have on our planet are boomeranging back upon us

– when we transgress Mother Earth’s limits, we reap her consequences.

Update –

Other Posts on, relevant to climate change, include: “Empowerment to Overcome Climate Change Denial,” "Creating a Future-Fit Commerce System” and “The Free-Market Hoax.” Since these Posts were written, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), August 2021. Googling will access the full report, diverse type summaries and related multimedia presentations. Salient future projections from AR6 include:

· increases in the frequency and intensity of hot extremes, marine heatwaves, and heavy precipitation, agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions, and proportion of intense tropical cyclones,

· reductions in Arctic sea ice, snow cover and permafrost,