By Huck Fairman
While many Americans are observing social distancing, working from home and not traveling, with the result that a majority of, if not all, curves are bending down, this country, and really the world, are seeing a rise in dangerous environmental trends.
With all of the social injustice, unrest and the health challenges we face, how important are the environmental issues? One leading ecologist recently warned that what we do environmentally in the next 5 or 10 years will determine the future of humanity.
What are the environmental dangers? Along with, and from, the warming of our oceans, land, and atmosphere, we are facing mass extinctions of forests, and of vertebrate and insect species. Together these losses contribute to a serious reduction in biodiversity, which can lead to the demise of vast ecosystems and the viability of human communities. More specifically, these losses are likely to reduce the supply of fresh water, reduce pollination crucial for food supply and plant life, and reduce natural pest and disease control.
Although over 100,000 Americans and over 390,000 around the world have died from the virus, the possible losses from starvation, flooding, lack of fresh water and resulting other diseases and pandemics could amount to many times those deaths. A chilling example is the Russian starvations in the early 1920s and the early 1930s which resulted in estimated losses of between 8 and 10 million human beings.
In response to the possible environmental calamities we face, there have been scientific alerts, and the designing and implementation of social policies and projects geared to forestall them. But incomprehensibly, there have also been opposition, rollbacks and just plain ignoring the situation.
How bad are the situations? Despite the lowering of commercial activity and travel during the pandemic, the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in this May were the highest in human history. The pre-industrial average was 280 parts per million (PPM). The readings of carbon dioxide emissions in May were 417.1 or .2 PPM — or 1% higher than the previous high. The yearly rise for last year and over the preceding decade was 2.5 PPM. Half a century ago the rise was only 0.8 PPM.
While total emissions for the year could drop as much as 8%, scientists estimate that human-caused emissions would have to drop by 20-30% to slow the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Millions of years ago, researchers have determined that global temperatures were, for a time, 3.5 to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the pre-industrial levels. And ocean levels were at least 50 feet higher – a level that would inundate most of our coasts.
During the Obama administration, a number of large-scale construction projects were initiated to protect Americans, their cities and communities from rising sea levels and stronger, more frequent storms. But now with the demands of the coronavirus diverting, or slowing, financing, that financing may not be available in time. A spokesman for New York City’s projects pointed out that, “These projects are absolutely critical for bolstering our defenses against future disasters.” The projects include building gates along the East Side of Manhattan to protect from flooding.
But a Republican Senate may not be inclined to legislate the necessary additional funds. And the Trump administration has been using the virus as an excuse to reduce federal spending related to environmental efforts. And if that money is no longer available, the cities and states themselves will probably not be able to finance the completion themselves. This will leave them facing the even greater costs of rebuilding following destruction from flooding and storms.
At the same time, the Trump administration has undertaken two actions to curb environmental regulations. These focus on permanently weakening federal authority to issue strong clean air and climate change regulations. A Harvard professor of Environmental Law warned that, “When it comes to trying to unravel this nation’s environmental protection laws, this administration never sleeps.”
From where does the Trump administration’s opposition to environmental protection come? From fossil fuel industry and other corporate allies, apparently unwittingly seeking short term profits at the expense of human, and possibly all, viability? From a disregard or ignorance of the essential, if not always perfect, roles that governments and such agencies as the World Health Organization, play in our modern world? President Ronald Reagan may have been among the first to express this self-defeating notion that governments are not the solution; they are the problem.
Of course, some governments – often those not supporting democratic rule – contribute to, if not originate, bad policy. One of the most impactful changes, worldwide, is the loss of forests. Since the year 2000, the world has lost about 10% of its tropical tree cover. The total, 9.3 million acres, is nearly the size of Switzerland. Last year, the loss was about 3% higher than in 2018 and was the third highest on record. Brazil is responsible for one third of the losses, with most of that occurring in the clear-cutting of the Amazon to permit farming. Much of the loss is related to subsistence farming, but some results from commercial agriculture and even mining.
The Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, like ours, has little regard for the climate crisis. Other countries leading in deforestation are: Bolivia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia. While some countries are reducing their deforestation, notably Ghana, Ivory Coast and Colombia, scientists are worried by the persistent levels of loss. And it is the “old growth” forests that provide the important storage of carbon and the preservation of biodiversity.
Will the world be able to work together in time to reverse these extinctions and losses? Many scientists warn that the survival of life as we have known it depends on our adopting the necessary changes.