Science and The Environment


A thoroughly-researched report by the World Health Organisation concluded that 160,000 people already die each year from climate change. We now also know that climate change is causing the extinction of species at the greatest rate ever in the history of our planet.

"Scientists are now clear in their assessment of the problem: global warming is happening, and it's almost certainly caused by human action. In February 2007 scientists across the world compiled a report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which spelled it out plainly. If we do nothing, average temperatures could increase as much as 6.4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Even a rise of 4 degrees would have catastrophic consequences. Hundreds of species would become extinct, there would be food and water shortages in many countries, and rising sea levels would leave hundreds of millions of people without homes. And the scientists said it is 'very likely' - in scientist-speak, that means 90 per cent sure - that this is all caused by human action. As Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, said: 'February 2007 may be remembered as the day the question mark was removed from whether people are to blame for climate change.'"1
The Greenhouse Effect
The Greenhouse Effect
It has become clear to the overwhelming majority of scientists from many different fields that the key factor in this global warming is the noticeably increased amount of carbon dioxide - CO2 - in the atmosphere.
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Who to Trust
Who To Trust?
While the scientific community is united in its recognition of climate change, there are those in the media who do not agree, and this leads to a great deal of confusion, and scepticism, in the general population.
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How Do We Predict The Future?
How Do We Predict The Future?
The simplest way to ensure that models are accurate is to test their predictive ability on climate records that we already know.
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Biodiversity and Conservation
Biodiversity and Conservation
Since biodiversity is already being seriously affected by climate change, it is important for us to first bask in the glory of biodiversity before shuddering at the damage being done to it.
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Destruction and Extinction in the Ocean
Destruction & Extinction in the Oceans
The warming of the oceans as a result of global warming may seem to be a temporary bonus to the holidaying tourist, but to fragile, keystone species it is the potential cause for extinction.
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Destruction and Extinction on Land
Destruction & Extinction on Land
There are so many examples of climate change induced destruction and extinction, the following section contains just a smattering of examples of land based extinction.
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The Sixth Mass Extinction
The Sixth Mass Extinction
The fossil record tells us that our planet has faced five mass extinctions in the past. Some scientists claim that we are already in the midst of the sixth.
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Pollution and Waste
Pollution and Waste
Pollution is a health issue for biodiversity, habitats and for human beings. It has been discovered that children who live in areas with increased traffic pollution have lower IQs.
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Overpopulation
Overpopulation
Not too long ago, we would say that there were 6 billion people on the planet. Now, with 6.7 billion people on the planet, that is no longer the case.
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Conclusion


Climate change is costly. It is costly in terms of extinction of species, in terms of loss of biodiversity, in terms of loss of habitat - it is costly in every biological and geographical sense. It is costly in terms of human life. And it is also costly financially. "The National Climactic Data Center lists seventeen weather events that occurred between 1998 and 2002, which cost over a billion dollars apiece. They include droughts, floods, fire seasons, tropical storms, hailstorms, tornadoes, heat waves, ice storms, and hurricanes; the most expensive, at a cost of $10 billion, was the drought of 2002. This suggests that the costs of doing nothing about climate change are so large that the failure to calculate it bankrupts the argument."... Paul Epstein of the Harvard Medical School calculated that, in the first eleven months of 1998, weather-related losses totalled $89 billion, while 32,000 people died and 300 million were made homeless. This was more than the total losses experienced in the entire decade of the 19080s. Since the 1970s, insurance losses have risen at an annual rate of around 10 percent, reaching $100 billion by 1999. Losses at this scale threaten the very fabric of our economic system, for an annual increase in the damages bill of 10 percent means that the total bill doubles every seven or eight years. Such a rate of increase implies that by 2065 or soon thereafter, the damage bill resulting from climate change may equal the total value of everything that humanity produced in the course of a year."2 The floods that struck England in June 2007 are expected to cost 1 billion.3

For the first time in our recorded history, we are seriously discussing the possibility of the collapse of civilisation as we know it, not as an over-dramatic scare-tactic, but as a serious economic concern expressed by eminent researchers. It is important to clarify what this means.

At the moment, we are starting to witness the death of some cultures around the world. The Inuit, for example, are losing their way of life because the animals that they hunted are now endangered (and therefore protected), their homes are under threat either from climate change or from pollution. It may not be long before the Inuit have to relocate. More obvious, though, are the sovereign nations whose land lies an average of only seven feet above sea level - Kiribati, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Tokelau, and Tuvalu. These nations, with around half a million inhabitants between them, are certain to be swallowed up by the sea. The inhabitants of Tuvalu have already agreed with the New Zealand government that when the time comes for an evacuation, they will be allowed into New Zealand as environmental refugees. As Tim Flannery points out, there is no term as yet for the extinction of a sovereign state, and we shall soon probably need to invent one."4 The first environmental refugees are already on the move after Lohachara Island in the Bay of Bengal, was consumed by the sea five years ago, leaving 7000 people homeless.5 Nearby, Ghorama has lost a third of its land mass in the last five years and the island of Sagar has taken on 20,000 environmental refugees as a result.6

Around the world, villages such as Shishmaref in Alaska are becoming uninhabitable because of climate change7 where shortly the 600 residents may be relocated (with a financial cost of about $100 000 per resident).8 Small towns and villages such as this one generally find it easier to adapt than cities, though, since cities rely on complex infrastructures to deliver food, water and power regularly. Cities across the world from Madrid to Sydney are starting to feel real strains of drought which, if continued for long enough, might threaten their continuance.

At the same time, more and more analysts are agreeing that cheap oil is coming to an end because of the decline in reserves, and this is perhaps the greatest cause for change in our way of living. This opinion is reached by observing that "by 1995 humans were using an average of 24 billion barrels of oil per year, but an average of only 9.6 billion barrels were discovered."9 It is possible that by 2012, oil production will satisfy only 75% of consumer demand.10 In 2007, German-based Energy Watch Group released a study that said that global oil production had peaked in 2006 and that production will fall by 7% a year. Britain's oil production peaked in 1999 and has already dropped by half to about 1.6 million barrels a day.11 We have already seen wars fought in order to protect oil reserves, but now it is increasingly understood that future wars will likely be about water reserves in particular. Thus, in a 2003 defence white paper the MoD argued: "Religious and ethnic tensions, environmental pressures and increased competition for limited natural resources may cause tensions and conflict - both within and between states. The UK may not remain immune from such developments."12 Increased competition between states would lead to a huge rise in the number of climate-change related deaths (currently 160,000 per year) - the World Health Organisation estimate the number could double by 2030.13

It is also understood that with rising emissions and pollution, a human health crisis is on the way. "More than thirty studies to date show that CO2-enhanced crops are significantly depleted in zinc, magnesium, or other micronutrients, perhaps because there aren't enough trace elements from the soil entering the plant to keep up with the photosynthesis boost from CO2."14 "Plants grown experimentally in CO2-enriched environments tend to have reduced nutritional value, tougher leaves, and higher concentrations of defensive chemicals (such as tannins and phenolics), making them a much poorer food source."15 Not only will the health of crops be affected, but fish, which is becoming too polluted to eat. "Humanity is about to lose access to fish from the sea because the sea is becoming too polluted for the fish to be clean enough to eat safely. Nearly two billion people depend as their principal source of animal protein on seafood. If we lose access to seafood in this way, you could say that would probably be the biggest public-health threat humanity has ever faced."16 Added to this the predicted increase of humans exposed to malarial infections from 45% to 60%,17 as well as starvation due to crop shortages, high food prices, and hundreds of thousands of environmental refugees (a very conservative number), and it is disturbingly easy to see why more and more individuals are concerned about the human population suffering a cull of a billion people or more over the next few hundred years.

It is clear that the human race has done much damage to the Earth, particularly in the last 100 years, and it is clear that the rate of damage is increasing, not decreasing. Human emissions and pollution will continue to increase if nothing is done to stem the tide, although it is evident that this increase is unsustainable in the long-term. However, human emissions and pollution can be reduced if there is concerted effort from business, governments and, most importantly, individuals.

The Living Planet Index shows us that we have overstretched our resources on this Earth, but this does not mean that we need to despair. Indeed, as the Stern Report showed, we can still make changes and maintain a healthy economy, should we act now. Much of the information in this scientific assessment is of very serious concern, but it is very important that we do not get disempowered. It is only by learning how serious the situation is that we can be truly motivated to make lifestyle changes.

In the Practical Action for the Environment section of our site, you will be able to read about the different ways that are most frequently mentioned to make the world a better place. We discuss which actions are most effective, and which are controversial so that you can make empowered, informed decisions.


1. Williams (2007), p. 111
2. Flannery (2005), p. 235
3. The Daily Telegraph Newspaper, July 2nd 2007
4. Flannery (2005), p. 287
5. The Ecologist, Vol. 37, Issue 10, Dec/Jan 2008, p. 27
6. The Ecologist, Vol. 37, Issue 10, Dec/Jan 2008, p. 27
7. www.arctic.noaa.gov/detect/human-shishmaref.shtml
8. Flannery (2005), p. 286
9. Flannery (2005), p. 76
10. The Ecologist, Vol. 37, Issue 7, Sep 2007, p. 10
11. The Guardian Neewspaper, Oct 22nd, 2007
12. The New Statesman, Jan 29th, 2007, p. 15
13. The New Statesman, Jan 29th, 2007, p. 13
14. Henson (2006), p. 154-5
15. Flannery (2005), p. 175
16. Roger Payne, Planet Earth (2006), p. 87-8
17. Flannery (2005), p. 288