Even though American leadership appears to be losing its motivation to tackle climate change, there’s still a good chance the Earth can be saved.
Climate activism has risen rapidly since Trump pulled out of the Paris agreement and global cooperation and market forces are causing renewable energy to become more popular than ever.
It’s no secret that the developing world are still relying on coal. While India has seen huge investments in wind and solar power, they are still projected to be heavy polluters for some time to come.
However, the African continent is taking a different approach. According to the executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), it’s likely that Africa will skip the use of coal all together and focus on using clean energy electricity sources:
“When it comes to Africa, I think we will see something for the first time: Namely, Africa will bring electricity to people by mainly using renewable energy and natural gas.”
Africa consists of around 700 million people without any source of electricity. Check out this tweet from Afrobarometer which shows how many Africans are connected to an electric grid:
This means that the governments in Africa can choose any energy source they like. While coal is generally cheaper, the effectiveness and ease of availability of renewable energy is positioning it to be more enticing for most African countries.
It’s not just Birol who is predicting this. A study from 2016 analyzed energy trends in Africa and found that in 21 countries, renewable energy could fulfill the nations’ electricity needs by 2030.
However, it’s important to realize that natural gas will still be a major feature in Africa’s short-term future – a fact that is unavoidable due to its cost and availability. Though, natural gas does have a lower carbon footprint than oil or coal.
Of course, there are obstacles in the way. For renewable energy to become prominent, there’s going to have to be a lot of cooperation between African countries – something that has proved difficult in the past.
Also, the electric grids that exist right now desperately need an upgrade.
However, if this prediction takes hold and Africa leapfrog over coal and choose renewable energy instead, this would mean an extra billion people use clean energy rather than coal.
How would you react if you read in the news that horses are on the endangered species list? Will you be untouched by news that all dogs will be extinct by 2025? How about cats?
Take a moment to think about this. Can you imagine a world with no horses, no dogs and no cats?
These best friends of humans are members of the vertebrae family, as are humans.
There are approximately 40,000 species of vertebrae in the world.
Now, I bet you didn’t have to take a moment to react to my question above. Your reaction was probably one of instant disbelief and horror.
Now, let’s take this a little further. How did you react when the last Catarina pupfish on Earth died and the Christmas Island pipistrelle vanished forever?
I bet your reaction is something like this: why should I care? I’ve never even heard of a pupfish or a pipistrelle.
Exactly. What we don’t see in front of us, what we don’t live with and grow familiar with, tend to not touch us.
I think this is one of the reasons why we now stand at what scientists call an era of mass extinction unparalleled since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago.
In a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, biologists from Stanford University and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México warn that Earth’s sixth mass extinction is on the horizon.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), about 41 % of all amphibian species and 26 % of all mammals face extinction.
Up to now, there has been a strong emphasis on species extinctions, which gives the impression of gradual biodiversity loss. This view overlooks the current trends of overall species declines, according to the researchers.
The study went beyond species extinction and looked at population loss in terms of dwindling ranges for species to move freely. The study finds more than 30 % of vertebrate species are declining in population size and geographic range. For the 177 mammals that the researchers had detailed data, all have lost 30 % or more of their geographic ranges and more than 40 % have lost more than 80 % of their ranges. (Picture your favorite animal friend represented in these numbers, to get a more immediate feel for what these figures are saying).
The study suggests that as many as 50 % of the animals that once shared Earth with humans have already disappeared.
“The massive loss of populations and species reflects our lack of empathy to all the wild species that have been our companions since our origins,” said the study’s lead author, Gerardo Ceballos of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Why is the disappearance of species such a big issue?
Apart from the fact that it is a tragic loss on a massive scale, extinction of the vertebrae species threaten the survival of all its members, including humans.
The extinction of animals across the globe is linked to the loss of complicated ecosystems involving plants and microorganisms. The loss of plants will be devastating. Plants are vital for oxygen, absorb atmospheric CO2, and provide food and medicine. Without plants, human extinction seems inevitable.
Whether we realize it or not, every time one of our vertebrae family members disappears forever, our own disappearance becomes more imminent.
Earth’s climate is changing rapidly. We know this from billions of observations, documented in thousands of journal papers and texts and summarized every few years by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The primary cause of that change is the release of carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil and natural gas.
One of the goals of the international Paris Agreement on climate change is to limit the increase of the global surface average air temperature to 2 degrees Celsius, compared to preindustrial times. There is a further commitment to strive to limit the increase to 1.5℃.
International plans on how to deal with climate change are painstakingly difficult to cobble together and take decades to work out. Most climate scientists and negotiators were dismayed by President Trump’s announcement that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris Agreement.
But setting aside the politics, how much warming are we already locked into? If we stop emitting greenhouse gases right now, why would the temperature continue to rise?
Basics of carbon and climate
The carbon dioxide that accumulates in the atmosphere insulates the surface of the Earth. It’s like a warming blanket that holds in heat. This energy increases the average temperature of the Earth’s surface, heats the oceans and melts polar ice. As consequences, sea level rises and weather changes.
Ecosystems on both land and in the sea are changing. The observed changes are coherent and consistent with our theoretical understanding of the Earth’s energy balance and simulations from models that are used to understand past variability and to help us think about the future.
Slam on the climate brakes
What would happen to the climate if we were to stop emitting carbon dioxide today, right now? Would we return to the climate of our elders?
The simple answer is no. Once we release the carbon dioxide stored in the fossil fuels we burn, it accumulates in and moves among the atmosphere, the oceans, the land and the plants and animals of the biosphere. The released carbon dioxide will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years. Only after many millennia will it return to rocks, for example, through the formation of calcium carbonate – limestone – as marine organisms’ shells settle to the bottom of the ocean. But on time spans relevant to humans, once released the carbon dioxide is in our environment essentially forever. It does not go away, unless we, ourselves, remove it.
In order to stop the accumulation of heat, we would have to eliminate not just carbon dioxide emissions, but all greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide. We’d also need to reverse deforestation and other land uses that affect the Earth’s energy balance (the difference between incoming energy from the sun and what’s returned to space). We would have to radically change our agriculture. If we did this, it would eliminate additional planetary warming, and limit the rise of air temperature. Such a cessation of warming is not possible.
So if we stop emitting carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels today, it’s not the end of the story for global warming. There’s a delay in air-temperature increase as the atmosphere catches up with all the heat that the Earth has accumulated. After maybe 40 more years, scientists hypothesize the climate will stabilize at a temperature higher than what was normal for previous generations.
This decades-long lag between cause and effect is due to the long time it takes to heat the ocean’s huge mass. The energy that is held in the Earth by increased carbon dioxide does more than heat the air. It melts ice; it heats the ocean. Compared to air, it’s harder to raise the temperature of water; it takes time – decades. However, once the ocean temperature is elevated, it will release heat back to the air, and be measured as surface heating.
Scientists run thought experiments to help think through the complex processes of emissions reductions and limits to warming. One experiment held forcing, or the effect of greenhouse gases on the Earth’s energy balance, to year 2000 levels, which implies a very low rate of continued emissions. It found as the oceans’ heating catches up with the atmosphere, the Earth’s temperature would rise about another 0.6℃. Scientists refer to this as committed warming. Ice, also responding to increasing heat in the ocean, will continue to melt. There’s already convincing evidence that significant glaciers in the West Antarctic ice sheets are lost. Ice, water and air – the extra heat held on the Earth by carbon dioxide affects them all. That which has melted will stay melted – and more will melt.
Ecosystems are altered by natural and human-made occurrences. As they recover, it will be in a different climate from that in which they evolved. The climate in which they recover will not be stable; it will be continuing to warm. There will be no new normal, only more change.
Best of the worst-case scenarios
In any event, it’s not possible to stop emitting carbon dioxide right now. Despite significant advances in renewable energy sources, total demand for energy accelerates and carbon dioxide emissions increase. As a professor of climate and space sciences, I teach my students they need to plan for a world 4℃ warmer. A 2011 report from the International Energy Agency states that if we don’t get off our current path, then we’re looking at an Earth 6℃ warmer. Even now after the Paris Agreement, the trajectory is essentially the same. It’s hard to say we’re on a new path until we see a peak and then a downturn in carbon emissions. With the approximately 1℃ of warming we’ve already seen, the observed changes are already disturbing.
There are many reasons we need to eliminate our carbon dioxide emissions. The climate is changing rapidly; if that pace is slowed, the affairs of nature and human beings can adapt more readily. The total amount of change, including sea-level rise, can be limited. The further we get away from the climate that we’ve known, the more unreliable the guidance from our models and the less likely we will be able to prepare.
It’s possible that even as emissions decrease, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to increase. The warmer the planet gets, the less carbon dioxide the ocean can absorb. Rising temperatures in the polar regions make it more likely that carbon dioxide and methane, another greenhouse gas that warms the planet, will be released from storage in the frozen land and ocean reservoirs, adding to the problem.
If we stop our emissions today, we won’t go back to the past. The Earth will warm. And since the response to warming is more warming through feedbacks associated with melting ice and increased atmospheric water vapor, our job becomes one of limiting the warming. If greenhouse gas emissions are eliminated quickly enough, within a small number of decades, it will keep the warming manageable and the Paris Agreement goals could be met. It will slow the change – and allow us to adapt. Rather than trying to recover the past, we need to be thinking about best possible futures.
This article was updated on July 7, 2017 to clarify the potential effects from stopping carbon dioxide emissions as well as other factors that affect global warming.
But that doesn’t mean the Reef is out of danger. Afforded World Heritage recognition in 1981, the Reef has been on the warning list for nearly three years. It’s not entirely evident why UNESCO decided not to list the Reef as “in danger” at this year’s meeting, given the many ongoing threats to its health.
However, the World Heritage Committee has made it clear they remain concerned about the future of this remarkable world heritage site.
The reef is still in deep trouble
UNESCO’s draft decision (the adopted version is not yet releasesd) cites significant and ongoing threats to the Reef, and emphasises that much more work is needed to get the health of the Reef back on track. Australia must provide a progress report on the Reef in two years’ time – and they want to see our efforts to protect the reef accelerate.
About 40% of this vegetation clearing is in catchments that drain to the Great Barrier Reef. Land clearing contributes to gully and streambank erosion. This erosion means that soil (and whatever chemical residues are in it) washes into waterways and flows into reef lagoon, reducing water quality and affecting the health of corals and seagrass.
Landclearing also directly contributes to climate change, which is the single biggest threat to the Reef. The recent surge in land clearing in Queensland alone poses a threat to Australia’s ability to meet its 2030 emissions reduction target. Yet attempts by the Queensland Government to control excessive land clearing have failed – a concern highlighted by UNESCO in the draft decision.
A time for action, not celebration
The Reef remains on UNESCO’s watch list. Just last month the World Heritage Committee released a report concluding that progress towards achieving water quality targets had been slow, and that it does not expect the immediate water quality targets to be met.
The draft decision still expressed UNESCO’s “serious concern” and “strongly encouraged” Australia to “accelerate efforts to ensure meeting the intermediate and long-term targets of the plan, which are essential to the overall resilience of the property, in particular regarding water quality”.
This means reducing run-off of sediment, nutrients and pollutants from our towns and farmlands. Improving water quality can help recovery of corals, even if it doesn’t prevent mortality during extreme heatwaves.
The Great Barrier Reef is the most biodiverse of all the World Heritage sites, and of “enormous scientific and intrinsic importance” according to the United Nations. A recent report by Deloitte put its value at A$56bn. It contributes an estimated A$6.4bn annually to Australia’s economy and supports 64,000 jobs.
But the reef cannot exist in the long term without international efforts to curb global warming. To address climate change and reduce emissions, we need to act both nationally and globally. Local action on water quality (the focus of the Reef 2050 Plan) does not prevent bleaching, or “buy time” to delay action on emissions.
We need adequate funding for achieving the Reef 2050 Plan targets for improved water quality, and a plan to reach zero net carbon emissions. Without that action, an “in danger” listing seems inevitable in 2020. But regardless of lists and labels, the evidence is clear. The Great Barrier Reef is dying before our eyes. Unless we do more, and fast, we risk losing it forever.
Although theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking is not a soothsayer, he has in the past predicted the future of humanity. Hawking has warned us on countless occasions about how humans are actively pursuing Artificial Intelligence (AI) without caution; concerned it will spell the end of humanity in the future.
Mr Hawking believes the current AI race will eventually usher humans into a stage when machines will become more intelligent than humans. This is when the total annihilation of humans would begin, Hawking claims. Of course, the AI community prefers not to hear such a prominent and respected science proponent say such things. Hawking was heavily criticized within the AI community recently, facing accusations of being a pessimist, and should inculcate the spirit of positivism in the AI debate instead.
But despite the criticisms, Hawking is still expressing his views as an independent thinker in the arena of public discourse. Apart from the AI apocalypse, Hawking has summarized vices in humans that he thinks will destroy any progress made since the Stone Age period to current times.
In an interview with Larry King on the Larry King Now talk show last year, the distinguished physicist said although he has talked about AI in the past as a tool that could spell doom for humans, he believes strongly that such inventions are inspired by human vices.
Hawking stated that greediness and stupidity are the biggest threats to humanity. He said these two vices will eventually drive humans into extinction, and earlier than he previously expected. According to Hawking, humans are becoming increasingly stupid and greedy with each passing day. He noted that there has been a massive air pollution problem in the last six years, killing many around the world. Hawking said the situation will continue to worsen, bringing along more deaths and strange diseases in the near future.
“We certainly have not become less greedy or less stupid. The population has grown by half a billion since our last meeting, with no end in sight. At this rate, it will be eleven billion by 2100. Air pollution has increased over the past five years. More than 80% of inhabitants of urban areas are exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution,” he said.
Hawking added that he is only reminding us of the things we are doing that will end up devouring us. Hawking’s warning is just like the hunter who finds a baby monster in the forest and brings it home. After nurturing the baby monster for it to grow into a giant beast, the monster eats the hunter one day.
If you look at what is currently happening across the world, people are increasingly being exposed to automated things. Smartphones, robots working amid humans, and unmanned vehicles to name a few.
These machines are increasingly becoming more intelligent. On the other hand, humans seem to be losing their senses. Due to proliferation of smartphones and other integrated cell-phones; some are literally dying or injuring themselves, just for a common selfie.
The United States Department of Transportation estimates that during 2014, in the so-called “year of the selfie,” 33,000 people were injured while driving and using a cell-phone in some fashion, which included talking, listening, and “manual button/control actuation” including taking, uploading, downloading, editing, or opening of selfies. Also, a 2015 survey by Erie Insurance Group found that 4% of all drivers admitted to taking selfies while driving.
Again, the Washington Post reported in January 2016 that about half of at least 27 selfie deaths in 2015 had occurred in India. No official data on the number of people who died taking selfies in India exists, but reports show from 2014 up to August 2016, there have been at least 54 deaths in India while taking selfies.
This has encouraged the Indian Tourism Ministry to ask states to identify and barricade ‘selfie danger’ areas. The goal of the sign is to try and stop or reduce selfie-related deaths in the country.
So, you see, this is one of the exact stupidities Hawking is warning us about. Humans are becoming increasingly stupid while the machines they have created are becoming increasingly intelligent. The mockery of humanity has started. The machines seem to be controlling humans, not the other way around.
We live in a world where we spend most of our lives indoors and online. Most people live in urban settings and natural views are rare to come across in daily life.
I personally have been a hiker for a long time and I have always known that nature had a soothing effect not only physically but also emotionally. Scientists have proven me right by showing that nature:
A study carried out in Japan showed that people walking in a natural scene will be more relaxed than people walking in an urban scene.
Since these people walked through equal distance and with similar levels of difficulty, the scientists were able to conclude that there is something beyond the exercise that made being in nature more soothing.
Though there is no a scientific explanation yet, it seems that we evolved to find nature comfortable and soothing.
Enhances happiness and reduces brooding
In my hiking days, I have always noticed that the natural scenery made me happier. A similar study like the one in Japan was done and found that people who had walked in the woodlands were found to be happier and more focused. After the walk, they were able to do better on short term memory tests than those walking through the city street.
Reducing fatigue and enhancing creativity
Scientists have also found that people on a hiking trip are more likely to solve creative testing puzzles than people waiting for the same trip.
The beautiful nature scenesmay be a cause of brain activation which in turn makes one more creative and reduces fatigue.
Makes you kind and generous
After my hiking trips, I always get home with a huge zeal to be more kind and generous. Scientists have proven this effect of nature by having peoplewho have been in different levels of beautiful nature scenes play games that are meant for testing generosity and patience. Those who had been exposed to more beautiful scenes were found to be more kind and generous.
Nature can make us livelier
Research has it that nature keeps us psychologically healthy. What makes this even more appealing is the fact that everybody can access nature by just walking outside and without spending a penny. There exists something about nature that gives us a better feeling, gives us better thinking and makes us develop a better understanding of ourselves and our surrounding. All these benefits are found in nature, let’s all enjoy our real world.
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