This is a reedited and updated 2012 article. Since the publication of this article we have seen some modest progress towards the building of a global agreement to limit emissions, however, nowhere near enough to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. From the time this article was first published until today, the level of atmospheric carbon has grown from 392 ppm to 398 ppm. The latest IPCC reports reiterate what we already know, we are changing our planet in ways that represent an imminent existential threat. As we count down to COP21 in Paris next year the urgency of the need for action has never been greater.
This summary covers the shameful environmental disregard of the past, the woeful inaction of the present and the hopelessness of a future in which we fail to act. This is a story of environmental neglect inspired by A Christmas Carol, the famous tale written by Charles Dickens and published in 1843 at the height of industrial revolution. However, unlike the Dickens tale, this is not a work of fiction.
The Ghost of the Past
The Industrial Revolution took place from 1760 to some time between 1820 and 1840. During this period, western societies underwent great changes as new forms of manufacturing began to take over traditional economic activities. This shifted economic production from homes and small shops to the creation of many large factories.
This transition included the adoption of machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes. Most significantly, this period also saw the widespread adoption of coal as the major source of energy.
Industrialization put tremendous pressure on the environment. The transformation of raw materials into industrial products such as steel, paper, and chemicals generated a wide range of pollutants.
These pollutants proved harmful to the health of living organisms and the biosphere as a whole. Industrialization destroyed the balance of bio-systems and led to the extinction of a number of plants and animals.
Fumes and gases from factories polluted the air and gaseous oxides caused acid rain. In addition to air pollution, this rapid industrial growth caused water pollution and soil contamination.
The major transformation from agricultural societies to modern industrial societies caused large-scale relocation of people to larger areas of industry. This process of urbanization further exacerbated various types of pollution.
Large numbers of trees were cut down to be used in construction and manufacturing. As part of a vicious feedback loop, the reduction of trees diminished the amount of carbon they sequester and forest attrition led to soil erosion and more tree losses.
The Ghost of the Present
We continue with business as usual despite the fact that we are destroying our environment at an ever-increasing rate. Human activities are causing the Earth to get warmer despite the fact that scientists warn that the upper safe temperature increase limit is 2 degrees Celsius. Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is the leading cause of planetary warming. There is currently just under 400 parts per million (p.p.m.). This is the first time in 800,000 years that atmospheric CO2 has attained these levels. Scientists warn that the upper safe limit is between 350 p.p.m and 450 p.p.m. If we continue on our current trajectory we will far exceed these limits.
Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have released about 500 billion metric tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. We spew approximately 25 billion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, which translates to 800 metric tons every second. Most of this is from burning carbon-based fossil fuels, but massive deforestation has also contributed to CO2 because trees and plants release carbon when they die.
Climate change and its chief driver fossil fuels kills as many any 5 million people each year according to a report from Dara. Climate change also costs the global economy $1.2 trillion each year. A plethora of scientific evidence indicates that we are on the cusp of far more serious consequences if we continue on our current trajectory of eco-destruction.
Despite the evidence, we have not succeeded in our efforts to craft a binding global treaty to reduce pollutants. To make matters worse, many of the world’s national governments are actively trying to avoid addressing the environmental threats that we face.
The absence of political will and the lackluster popular support is in part due to the fact that Big Oil and other powerful interests have succeeded in undermining the scientific veracity of climate change.
According to the NGO Germanwatch, from 1994 to 2013, there were more than 530,000 deaths caused by more than 15,000 extreme weather events, as well as nearly 2.2 trillion US-Dollars in damages. In the U.S., alone extreme weather kills more than 2,000 people each year according to the CDC.
Although we are on the cusp of a number of civilization altering tipping points, it is not too late to reverse many of the most destructive impacts of human activities.
As one scientist put it, “we could do something about it, but I don’t see that we have the slightest inclination to [do so].”
The Ghost of the Future
By 2030, climate change will kill one hundred million people. We could witness a rise of CO2 up to 1000 p.p.m. and this will cause the Earth’s average temperature to rise by as much as 11 degrees over the next century. Even a 3ºC will destroy much of the planet’s agricultural food production capacity, which will result in widespread starvation.
This global food shortage will be further exacerbated by ocean acidification, which is another corollary of rising levels of atmospheric CO2. Ocean acidification will worsen damage to coral and phytoplankton, leading to a breakdown in the ocean food chains on which more than one billion people depend.
Many eco-systems will be lost, including Arctic sea ice and mountaintop glaciers. We will see a sea-level rise of up to 10 meters from the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets.
Around the world, billions of people will be at risk from a wide variety of extreme weather events. There will be substantial loss of life and trillions of dollars in damage. Rising sea levels and extreme weather will also create hundreds of millions of refugees.
The burgeoning global population will put ever more pressure on the Earth’s limited resources. Global warming will also hasten the spread of a variety of diseases. As explained by Jan Semenza, an epidemiologist at the ECDC, “Climate change interacts with existing vulnerabilities and makes them worse.”
Forests will be ravaged by wildfire, causing them to switch from being carbon sinks to being carbon emitters. Remaining forests could also be infested by destructive insects like the Pine Beetle that proliferate in a warmer world. Recent research indicates that there is a dangerous feedback loop between wildfires and climate change.
Berkeley paleo-biologist Anthony Barnosky indicates that the combination of habitat destruction, climate change, invasive species and population growth will lead to disaster.
In 2009, Nicholas Matzke, a graduate student at UC Berkeley published a paper that indicates that three quarters of life on Earth will go extinct due to human activities.
We do not have time to continue to dither on the environment. As explained to Congress in 2009 by a dozen distinguished retired generals and admirals:
“We have less than 10 years to change our fossil fuel dependency course in significant ways. Our nation’s security depends on the swift, serious and thoughtful response to the inter-linked challenges of energy security and climate change. Our elected leaders and, most importantly, the American people should realize this set of challenges isn’t going way. We cannot continue business as usual.”
Life on Earth is hurtling towards extinction levels comparable to those
following the dinosaur-erasing asteroid impact of 65 million years ago.
“The good news is, we still have most of what we want to save,” said Barnosky. However, if we are to salvage any hope for the future we must act quickly.