Ecological Consequences of Inaction

Rob Stewart

COP has become more than a conference on climate change. It’s now the largest environmental conference and gathering in the world, and in a large way, humanity’s hope for global environmental protection. Last year 100,000 civilians gathered in the streets of Copenhagen as part of the largest rally on the environment the world had ever seen. Citizens are concerned, and rightfully so.

The ecological consequences of business as usual point to a future vastly different from the one we now enjoy. Climate change isn’t just causing the seas to rise, it’s now threatening humanity’s life support system in a very real and terrifying way.

The oceans absorb much of the carbon released into the atmosphere. This creates carbonic acid, acidifying the oceans, and dissolving the limestone structures of corals. Coral reefs are the richest and most diverse oceanic ecosystems, home to 25% of the species, an estimated 1 million species worldwide. Reefs are relied upon by billions of people to shelter coastlines from weather, as the basis for the majority of the world’s fisheries, and as the main protein source for a substantial portion of the world’s population.

Despite their importance, we face the loss of most of the world’s coral reefs this century unless carbon emissions are dramatically reduced. The Coral Reef Crisis Working Group issued a statement that atmospheric C02 must be lowered below 350ppm to ensure the long-term viability of coral reefs. 30% of the world’s corals are gone already.

Acidification also affects any sea creature that builds carbonate structures, from oysters to phytoplankton, responsible for 50% of the oxygen in our atmosphere.

In 2005, summer drought caused the Amazon Basin, the largest intact rainforest and one of the largest carbon sinks on land, to become a net carbon emitter. Ecosystems have thresholds, and we’re now pushing these planetary boundaries to their limits, and seeing the consequences.
Droughts and flooding are now commonplace, and food and grain reserves are declining worldwide.

Our planet is finite, but our growth and consumption is growing infinitely, pushing us into a new ecological era – the Anthropocene, where humans are the primary driving force on earth. Without altering our course, by 2050, there will be nine billion people on a planet largely without fish, reefs or rainforests. We’ll have severe food and fresh water shortages, and millions displaced by rising sea levels. Our life support system is LIFE itself, and it’s being severely degraded and marginalized in climate debates.

We’re now in the midst of the sixth extinction, akin to that which brought the end of the dinosaurs, except for the first time, one single species is the cause. Its time for climate discussions to include ecosystem impacts. We can avoid the climate “debate” by focusing on what’s ultimately most important: that our actions are destroying our life support systems.  Now is the time for humanity to step up, as it’s now our future that’s at stake.

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