Earth Day’s 50th is time to rethink how we live

The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the potentially dire consequences that can occur when governments ignore science. For years, scientists have predicted this pandemic, they accurately modeled it and they pleaded for greater government preparedness. But governments the world over ignored the warnings.

Scientists have also warned for decades of the apocalyptic consequences of global environmental collapse. But governments, captured by wealthy elites who profit from environmental destruction, have ignored these warnings too. And although the current pandemic will be a short-term disaster, global environmental collapse would end civilization as we know it.

So as the coronavirus hits pause on the global economy, it’s a good time to rethink how we live on our life-sustaining home planet. This may be our last best chance to make the adjustments urgently needed to secure a livable future for all life on Earth.

Reflecting on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this month (April 22), it’s clear that the global environment is in far worse shape than it was in 1970, and is nearing a point of no return. Here is what the science says – we ignore it at our collective peril.

The ecological footprint of humanity has for decades been beyond Earth’s carrying capacity. Human activities have caused the loss of half the world’s forests, wetlands, grasslands and mangroves; annual use of 75% more resources than Earth can sustain; runaway climate change; air and water pollution in every corner of the world; and most of the Earth’s surface significantly impacted by just one species: Homo sapiens. By some estimates, we have already caused the extinction of more than one million species, with another million expected to go extinct in coming years. And beyond species extinctions, population numbers have plummeted in recent decades: overall global wildlife numbers declined by 60%, large oceanic fish by 66%, seabirds by 70%, and insects declined by 40% in the last decade alone.

In addition, the socioeconomic condition of civilization has continued to decline, with 700 million people now living in extreme poverty and hunger; 16,000 children under the age of five dying every day due to preventable causes; 19,000 people dying every day from breathing polluted air; more people enslaved than at any time in history; thousands of nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert; and growing global insecurity.

Scientists have been warning of ecological collapse for decades.

The 1992 “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” from the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted the “ever-increasing environmental degradation that threatens global life support systems on this planet,” warning that: “A great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided.”

Twenty-five years later, the 2017 “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice,” issued by more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries, noted that this “great change” in environmental stewardship had not occurred, and that most trends had become alarmingly worse, warning that: “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out.”

The 2019 “Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency” concluded that: “Despite 40 years of global climate negotiations, with few exceptions, we have generally conducted business as usual and are largely failing to address this predicament.” Also last year, the U.N. concluded that for critical ecological systems — atmosphere, land, water, oceans, and biodiversity — environmental degradation now ranges from “serious to irreversible.”

Science is clear that if present trends continue, the planet will be virtually uninhabitable for humans and perhaps half of all other species by 2050, certainly by 2100. In fact, for many people and species, in many places, it already is. Some put the chances for humanity surviving to the end of this century at only 50%.

This decade, 2020-2030, will be the most critical period in the history of our species. U.N. officials admit that to solve this crisis, we need “an exponential increase in ambition.”

Fortunately, we know exactly what we need to do to solve this crisis. As British naturalist David Attenborough recently said: “Never before have we been so aware of what we are doing to the planet – and never before have we had such power to do something about it.”

If humanity wants to be part of a sustainable future, we know exactly what we need to do by 2030: reduce global carbon emissions by 50%; stabilize human population; halt destruction of forests and other ecological habitat; place half of the Earth’s lands and waters in fully-protected status; reduce extinction rates to the pre-human background level; shift to a zero-waste, circular economy focused on stability and equity rather than growth; electrify global transportation; reduce wealth disparity and poverty; provide education, heath care, and economic opportunity for all; and eliminate all nuclear weapons.

To accomplish this, G20 governments (accounting for 80% of world GDP) must increase domestic environmental spending to 5% of their budgets, and establish a Living Planet Emergency Fund of at least $2 trillion per year over the next 10 years to pay for urgent environmental and socioeconomic measures globally. An easy way to raise these funds is to simply reprogram environmentally damaging subsidies currently paid by governments, now exceeding $5 trillion per year.

Without such dedicated emergency environmental funding, we will soon have a desolate planet with no future for humanity. But with this level of emergency investment, together with stronger environmental regulation and enforcement, we can save the future of humanity and our living Home Planet. That’s quite the return-on-investment.

The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that we are all connected; that what happens in one place on the planet can affect us all; and that when faced with real threats, governments can respond quickly and forcefully.

As the economy restarts post-pandemic, let’s hope we abide these larger lessons before it’s too late.

Rick Steiner is a conservation biologist in Anchorage; a retired professor with the University of Alaska; and author of the just-released “Oasis Earth: Planet in Peril” (available on Amazon, or as a free PDF download.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.