A Dying Planet

Originally published at TomPaine.com on July 24, 2006

Chris Flavin is president of the Worldwatch Institute. Next month, the Institute's World Watch magazine will publish a special issue devoted to the lessons of Hurricane Katrina.

Weather-related disasters like Hurricane Katrina—or the intense heat wave now hitting the United States—are on the rise. The toll of these catastrophes is exacerbated by growing ecological stresses, and the future health of the global economy and the stability of nations will be shaped by our ability to address the huge imbalances in natural systems that now exist. While governments and businesses around the world are beginning to take action to stem the damage, our future demands more aggressive responses.

Earlier this month, we at the Worldwatch Institute released a new report, "Vital Signs 2006-2007," examining trends that point to unprecedented levels of commerce and consumption, set against a backdrop of ecological decline in a world powered overwhelmingly by fossil fuels. In 2005, the average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration increased 0.6 percent over the high in 2004, representing the largest annual increase ever recorded. The average global temperature reached 14.6 degrees Celsius, making 2005 the warmest year ever recorded on the Earth’s surface.

Our report shows that some 40 percent of the world’s coral reefs have been damaged or destroyed, water withdrawals from rivers and lakes have doubled since 1960, and species are becoming extinct at as much as 1,000 times the natural rate. While ecosystems can be overexploited for long periods of time with little visible effect, many ultimately reach a “tipping point” after which they begin to collapse rapidly, with far-reaching implications for all who depend on them.

Abrupt change was evident in southern Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005. For decades, the flow of the Mississippi River had been altered, the wetlands at its mouth destroyed, and massive amounts of water and oil extracted from beneath the delta. Only an unheeded minority noticed that this gradual destruction of natural systems had left New Orleans as vulnerable as a sword-wielding soldier on today’s high-tech battlefields. Thanks to a combination of human and geological causes, a city that was at sea level when the first settlers arrived in the 18th century had sunk as much as a meter below that level when the hurricane season began in 2005.

The number of people affected by weather-related catastrophes have jumped from an average of 97 million a year in the early 1980s to 260 million a year since 2001. This mounting disaster toll has several causes, including rapid growth in the human population and the even more dramatic growth in human numbers and settlements along coastlines and in other vulnerable areas.

Climate change may be contributing to the rising tide of disasters as well, according to several scientific studies published in 2005. Three of the 10 strongest hurricanes ever recorded occurred last year, and the average intensity of hurricanes is increasing, recent research concludes.

This is not surprising, considering the main “fuel” driving hurricanes is warm water. Temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico were at record-high levels in the summer of 2005, turning Hurricane Katrina in just over 48 hours from a low-level Category 1 hurricane to the strongest Atlantic storm ever recorded. (In September 2005, Hurricanes Wilma and Rita each broke Katrina’s record as the strongest storm ever in that region.)

Yet all of this is merely a foreshadowing of what is to come. The concentration of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas that is driving climate change, has reached its highest level in 600,000 years, and the annual rate of increase in carbon dioxide levels is accelerating, according to atmospheric measurements taken in 2005.

Scientists are beginning to shed their usual reserve in the face of ever-more alarming evidence. In early 2006 James Hansen, the lead climate researcher at NASA, and five other top climate scientists warned that “additional global warming of more than 1 degree C above the level of 2000 will constitute ‘dangerous’ climate change as judged from likely effects on sea level and extermination of species.”

If either the Greenland or the West Antarctic ice sheet were to melt, hundreds of millions of coastal residents would be displaced—effects a thousand times the scale of the New Orleans evacuations. In the Shanghai metropolitan area alone, 40 million people could lose their homes. Large sections of Florida’s peninsula would simply disappear.
 
If melting ice and catastrophic storms are not enough to bring on an energy transition, the oil market is offering a helping hand. Oil prices in 2005 and early 2006 gyrated wildly, flirting several times with over $70 a barrel, the highest prices in real terms in more than 20 years. The cause is simple: geologists are no longer finding enough oil to replace the 83 million barrels being extracted each day.

However, the reality of a new energy era has begun to sink in. In the United States, sales of large sport utility vehicles have plummeted, while those of hybrid-electric cars have doubled in little more than a year. And in China, government leaders have responded to rising fuel prices by increasing the tax on large vehicles and mandating higher levels of efficiency.

None of this has yet been sufficient to bring energy markets into balance. But signs are now growing that the world is on the verge of an energy revolution. The already-rapid growth of renewable energy industries has accelerated in the past year, with ethanol production increasing 19 percent, wind power capacity 24 percent, and solar cell production 45 percent.

The energy technology growth surge is propelled by scores of new government policies and by surging private investment. And it is attracting major commitments by multinational companies such as General Electric, Siemens, and Sharp, while also becoming one of the hottest fields for venture capitalists, who are financing scores of small start-up firms. Even oil companies are getting into the act: BP and Shell are both investing in solar energy and wind power.

These developments are impressive and are likely to provoke far-reaching changes in world energy markets within the next five years. But the change is still not fast enough to bring on the broader changes in the global economy that could stave off imminent ecological and economic crises. Government leaders and private citizens will have to mobilize in an unprecedented way if we are to have any chance of passing a healthy and secure world on to the next generation.