We live in one of the most exciting and fascinating times in the history of human civilisation. Our technical and scientific achievements are unparalleled by any other era. Yet while we enjoy the taste of our labours, the environment is covering the bill.
Don't get me wrong—humanity's progress is a true measure of how advanced we and our society have become, and it has allowed us to live more peaceful lives, absent of the worries of illness, shelter, predictors, and food or water scarcity.
When presented with the Microprocessor, the falcon heavy rocket, the MRI scanner, or the wonders of the Hubble telescope, we quickly realise our genius. However, when shown the looming Climate Emergency or the onset of the sixth mass extinction, many of us still choose to believe that we are incapable of inflicting damage at a global scale, even when the facts stare us right in the face. It is almost as though we view our world from great highs, but don't realise we stand at the summit of a mountain of evidence.
We are seeing warnings from everywhere that our actions and greed are driving our planet's environment to the very brink of collapse. Specialists often view the world through the lens of their particular discipline. Very few people decide to group up all the symptoms of the condition we call Homo sapiens. When we do, the picture becomes a lot more bleak.
I wish for you to stay with me, dear reader, until you have heard the full prognosis.
Our species, Homo sapiens (wise ape), have only existed as the modern day humans we know today for around 200,000 years. For most of that, we were consisted of hunter gatherer communities. That is, until the end of the last ice age and the beginning of the Holocene (period of climatic stability) around 12,000 years ago.
The Holocene was a period of stability in our climate that closely corresponds with the start of Agriculture and the flourishing of Human civilisation. This allowed for intense human development which paved the way for the industrial revolution; allowing our population to grow from just one billion in 1800 to 7.6 billion in 2017.
In tangent with our population growth, we begin to intensify production producing many more goods. However, at the same time, our factories begin burning fossil flues such as coal. When burned, these fuels release a powerful greenhouse gas known as Carbon dioxide. This gas is naturally occurring and is locked in a well-established cycle where it is released from decaying biological matter, which is then leaked into the atmosphere, only to be re-absorbed by living vegetation and the ocean. This maintains a natural balance. Be that as it may, humanity has been disrupting this cycle by burning ancient biological matter and adding that to the natural Carbon pool.
As our emissions increase, so does the load on the natural cycle. This is most unfortunate because of carbon dioxide's characteristics to stop heat from the sun escaping the atmosphere. This has slowly led to a Global average temperature increase of +0.8 degrees Celsius since the start of the industrial revolution.The temperature escalation can be easily seen in the satellite and surface temperature records. Seventeen of the eighteen warmest years on record globally have occurred since 2001. This is not coincidental. This increase in carbon dioxide closely correlates with the temperature increase( see figure 1 and 2).
This graph (figure 1) clearly shows a quickly climbing positive trend in temperature worldwide.
Global Carbon Dioxide Concentration
This graph (figure 2) shows a steady linear increase in carbon dioxide as a result of burning fossil flues.
Humanity is responsible for a rise in carbon dioxide of over 100 parts per million, taking us to the long feared value of 400 parts per million. This long feared milestone was passed in 2016. This is the first time that the atmospheric CO2 has reached this level in two million years.
This unnatural increase in Carbon dioxide has kicked many dangerous events into motion. One such event is the increased carbon absorption of our oceans. As the atmospheric carbon burden increases, the ocean is slowly absorbing more CO2, starting a process known as Ocean Acidification. Our ocean is more acidic now than at any point in the last 20 million years. This has dire consequence for aquatic life such as Molluscs. The increased acid degrades their shells (figure 3) making it impossible for them to survive.
Ocean Acidification on Mollusc Shells
The effects of this are not just limited to molluscs. Many other animals such as Finfish and calcifying algae are also at server risk. Combined with the added effect of increased ocean temperatures, species such as coral are in a real messy situation. Large scale bleaching of corals is becoming the norm in many parts of the world. These reefs are home to 25 percent of the planet's aquatic organisms and we are boiling them alive (see figure 4).
The video in figure 4 is from National Geographic and it shows how the pressure of climate change is affecting the biodiversity of our oceans.
As a result of our warming climate, we have increased atmospheric concentrations of water vapour by five percent due to increased levels of evaporation. This increased water vapour (due to higher sea temperatures) is fueling intensification of storm systems and affecting global rainfall patterns. Extreme weather events are now becoming more frequent and often more destructive than ever before. No better was this demonstrated than the 2017 Hurricane season (figure 5), with storms such as Harvey, which unloaded 152 cm of rain.
2017 Hurricane Season
Other extreme weather events such as drought and extreme heat are also becoming more frequent and dangerous. A paper published in the journal "nature climate change" greatly emphasises this issue when it states:
"An increasing threat to human life from excess heat now seems almost inevitable"
We are facing a climate catastrophe which is only growing in intensity. It is swiftly becoming out of our control as we are activating natural feedback loops what could kick us up a notch. Global warming and climatic change are massive weights on our natural environment that are having and are going to have huge effects on us and the environment we inhabit.
I have only covered a tiny fraction of its effects. There are many more such as sea level rise, disruption of ocean currents, thawing permafrost and methane deposits, an ice-free arctic, along with a plethora of unforeseen consequences.
The most important thing to bear in mind is our civilisation was formed in that quiet and calm geological period. We are now disrupting the balance, which has the potential to collapse our agricultural, industrial, economic and societal systems. This One Global event that we have inflicted on ourselves has the ability to lead us to extinction all on its own.
Unfortunately, this is just one of the symptoms...
For extra information on this topic, I seriously advise you to research it well, as your future and the future of your children is at stake. One good source to get started is NASA's vital signs website.
The Sixth Mass Extinction
Climatic change is just one of the many strains humanity is placing on the ecosystems of the planet. Throughout history, there have been five major mass extinction events. Such huge events have decimated life on earth. The most deadly of these events being the "great dying" or the end Permian extinction that took place 252 million years ago. The leading idea is that this was triggered by a stark increase in Carbon dioxide from massive volcanic eruptions, which led to a release of deep sea methane that heated the planet, leading to a loss of 90 percent of plant and animal species.
I'm sure its very easy to spot similarities between this event and what we are currently facing. Even if we leave co2 out of the picture humanity's plastic pollution, deforestation, over hunting, poaching, and habitat destruction are powerful force's all by themselves.
According to the WWF 2016 "living planet report," since 1970, we have seen a 58 percent loss in global wildlife (not species but, drops in population) as a result of human activities:
"The Living Planet Index reveals that global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles declined by 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012. We could witness a two-thirds decline in the half-century from 1970 to 2020"
WWF 2016 Report
This (figure 6) is the WWF report done in 2016 which covers the current condition of the natural world.
Human influence on the globe is having devastating impacts on natural systems and destroying their ability to persist. This becomes even more disturbing in a paper published by in the "Proceedings of the national academy of sciences." The title of this paper is truly worrying to read (see figure 7).
PNAS Study Title
To use the term "biological annihilation" in a conservative scientific journal is a rarity and should not be taken lightly. The paper talks in detail about the loss of animal life as a result of human activity and warns us about our devastating actions:
We are in deep trouble with the planet and the very flora and fauna that we rely on and we are destroying it in so many ways. We are racing ourselves and our animal kin to the edge of extinction...
"Humanity will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe"
What can be done?
People have been asking this question for years now: "how can we solve this?" The problem is our efforts, those of governments, organisations, and the public have been much too little and will soon be much too late. The time for changing light bulbs is over and the time for drastic measures is now.
We must heavily drop our greenhouse gas emissions from industry and agriculture and employ methods for removing GHGs from the atmosphere while at the same time protecting and conserving the natural environment from human destruction and poaching. We have a very small window to preserve some form of future for our children and their children.
The public should take all the actions they can by switching to more sustainable diets, pushing for cleaner energy and transportation, along with reducing waste. Don't wait for the politicians. Try to cause as much positive change as possible.
If you are and engineer or a scientist, we need new technologies and new ways of fighting this monster of our own making. New insights into our problems and their solutions are essential. If you are a conservationist, then please keep doing the amazing work you are doing. We need to protect and save as many ecosystems as we can right away.
We all need to do whatever we can to undo our damage before it's out of our hands. So to return to my subtitle, is humanity a terminal illness? I think that, as far as life on this planet goes, "yes, we currently are." However, if we really get behind this and push as hard as we can for drastic change then maybe, we could see the illness of humanity making a spontaneous remission.
As this planets most intelligent species, we should be acting as its care taker, not its undertaker.