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Earth is Crossing Multiple Points of No Return

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The world is certainly at a point where action, rather than more studies telling us what we should already know, is necessary. But if you do need another warning of looming environmental collapse, a new research paper concludes that four of nine “planetary boundaries” have already been crossed.

Crossing any one of these nine boundaries risks driving the Earth “into a much less hospitable state,” according to the paper’s lead author, Will Steffen of the Australian National University in Canberra. Crossing four of these boundaries — specifically, climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change and altered biochemical cycles — is all the more alarming.

Eighteen scientists, representing universities in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, India, Kenya, the Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden and the United States, prepared the report, “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet” under the auspices of the Stockholm Resilience Center in Sweden. The goal of the paper, and the center itself, is to signal that a tipping point is approaching so that humanity has some time to change course. These warning points are determined in this way:

“[T]he proposed planetary boundary is not placed at the position of the biophysical threshold but rather up-stream of it, i.e., well before reaching the threshold. This buffer between the boundary (the end of the safe operating space—the green zone in [the graphic below]) and the threshold accounts not only for uncertainty in the precise position of the threshold … but also allows society time to react to early warning signs that it may be approaching a threshold and consequent abrupt or risky change.”

Of the four boundaries that have already been crossed, two of them (climate change and biosphere integrity) have the potential on their own “to drive the Earth System into a new state should they be substantially and persistently transgressed.” The paper sets the “zone of uncertainty” for atmospheric carbon dioxide content at 350 to 450 parts per million (we are currently at the midpoint of that zone) and calculates that the “energy imbalance” — the “forcing” of atmospheric change through continued introduction of global-warming chemicals — is approximately double the safe limit. In other words, carbon dioxide is being pumped into the atmosphere much faster than it is removed.

To calculate “biosphere integrity,” the paper’s authors use the rate of species extinction and the populations of species, using pre-industrial rates as benchmarks. Although these are calculated imprecisely and with inadequate knowledge of what rate of extinctions can be tolerated, the current rate of extinctions is estimated to be at least 10 times higher than the proposed range of acceptability, although that proposed range in turn is far greater the authors’ “aspirational goal” of holding extinctions to the rate of “well-studied organisms over the past several million years.”

Thus this scientific paper is actually conservative in its benchmarks and nonetheless finds the Earth is in a whole lot of trouble.

Telling business titans to stop doing what benefits them

Many of you reading this may be thinking, “We already know we’re in trouble! We don’t need another paper telling us what we already know, and those in denial won’t be swayed by science and fact.” Quite so, but can there be a tipping point in research that finally sparks some real action? Perhaps the Stockholm Resilience Center believes there can be, releasing the paper just in time to present it to the World Economic Forum.

At least for public consumption, World Economic Forum attendees say they are taking the paper’s sober analysis seriously. Those attendees, the world’s titans of industry and finance, and the political office holders who are beholden to them, in their actual practice have shown little inclination to change course, to put it mildly.

One of the paper’s co-authors, Johan Rockström, posted an article on the Forum’s web site saying that, even if carbon dioxide concentration is held to the range of 350 to 450 parts per million, that is still an unacceptable risk. Drawing a vivid analogy, he wrote:

“But it is important to recognise that 450 ppm also holds a less likely, but significant 1.6% probability … of resulting in 6ºC warming, which is beyond any doubt a catastrophic outcome for humanity. … Is this an acceptable risk level? The answer is clearly no. It is the equivalent of accepting that 1,500 aircrafts crash, each day. … This is a risk level we simply would never accept for other sectors in society.”

The probability of runaway global warming at 450 parts per million would be set at much higher than 1.6 percent by many environmental scientists and activists, but Professor Rockström’s analogy is scary enough. Nonetheless, “business as usual” appears to be the outcome. A commentary in the Singaporean newspaper Straits Times lamented that “leaders are failing to lead but are giving in to populist pressures,” in the wake of continuing economic weakness. A rather ideological formulation, considering that the world’s governments continue to impose brutal austerity on their populations on behalf of their society’s wealthiest while ignoring popular discontent.

The same Straits Times commentary claimed that “Business leaders at the forum voiced a willingness to take steps to address this issue,” and quoted the head of a financial-services company as saying, “What I am taking from this meeting is a huge sense of urgency, especially from the business community.”

Moreover, the climate program director at World Resources Institute, Jennifer Morgan, wrote:

“First of all, there was no climate denial to be heard in Davos. … Second, there are a tremendous number of companies—whether bankers, soft drink manufacturers, sporting companies, or furniture makers—that are already taking action to make their businesses more climate-resilient and competitive in a low-carbon economy. These businesses and others are becoming leaders in climate action.”

Huh? Business leaders have profited enormously by moving production to all corners of the world, wherever the cheapest labor, harshest working conditions and fewest regulations are to be found, necessitating the shipping of components, raw materials and finished products around the world, adding significantly to global warming through all the transportation necessary to make that work. Making these long supply chains “more efficient,” as Ms. Morgan exalts, hardly is the road to climate stability.

That something so oblivious could be said becomes less of a mystery when we see that the World Resources Institute is a non-governmental organization with a board full of corporate executives. We have no more cause for optimism from the Planetary Boundaries paper itself, which offers no guidance on what to do. Critiquing the global economic system is outside the scope of such a paper, and reasonably so, but it is fair game to note the weak-tea ideas it does offer: A “stronger focus on green chemistry” and “learning from earlier mistakes.”

Infinite expansion on a finite planet

So here we are again: The chimera of “green capitalism.” The same world economic system that requires endless expansion on a finite planet, in which all incentives are for ever more frenzied extraction of natural resources and corporate externalization of the costs of pollution and global warming, which remorselessly and ceaselessly elevates private profit above all other human considerations, is magically going to save us.

The maximization of profit and environmentalism are broadly in conflict because the managers of corporations are answerable to private owners and shareholders, not to society. Moreover, putting an immediate halt to polluting industries would cause economic disruption and throw huge numbers of people out of work in a system that will not have new jobs waiting for them, a factor that is leveraged to buttress global-warming denialism.

Even reducing consumption is difficult because between 60 and 70 percent of the economies of the world’s advanced capitalist countries are accounted for by household buying; a capitalist economy that is not growing causes pain as capitalists scramble to maintain their profits by any means necessary.

“Green” consumption is still consumption, and not environmentally healthy, either. All the more is that so for the capitalist system as a whole. Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, in their book What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, puts this in sobering perspective:

“ ‘Green capitalism,’ even if products are produced using the utmost environmental care and designed for easy reuse, offers no way out of a system that must expand exponentially and thus continue to ratchet up its use of natural resources, its chemical pollution, its contaminated sewage sludge, its garbage, and its many other toxic substances. Some of these ‘fixes’ will probably slow down the rate of environmental destruction, but the magnitude of the needed changes dwarfs these approaches.” [page 120]

If we are to be serious about reversing global warming and repairing the environment, we have to create an economic system based on human need, that is stable as a steady-state system and under democratic control, rather than our present authoritarian system that is designed to maximize private profit. The scientists who prepared the Planetary Boundaries paper no doubt have the highest sincerity, but they have much company in being unable to imagine a world without capitalism. Until we do live in such a world, we will continue to hurtle toward catastrophe regardless of good intentions and well-designed research reports.

Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog. He has been an activist with several groups.

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Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog and has been an activist with several groups. His book, It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is available from Zero Books.

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