Everyone has personal targets. The desire to achieve a certain grade, reach a level of fitness, save an amount of money. Often these aims are created when we feel that we aren’t quite doing enough, and just before the serious consequences kick in. Associated with these goals are physical and practical limits. Studying for 40-hours a week may be unfeasible due to tiredness or social commitments. Despite such drawbacks, we continue to strive for self-improvement and the accomplishment of aspirations.
Targets, limits and constraints exist within the global social-ecological system too. April 2014 became the first month in at least the last 800,000yrs to register global atmospheric CO2 concentrations of 400ppm (parts per million). The Copenhagen Accord (2009) calls for stabilisation of CO2 at 450ppm, in line with heightened risks of exceeding the ‘dangerous’ 2°C warming limit above pre-industrial temperatures. The continuation of current trends gives us approximately 25yrs before we transgress this particular ‘safe’ target.
The strengthening of climatic, oceanic and terrestrial interactions associated with 2°C warming promises significant uncertainty and chaos. For example, the Indian Monsoon, critical to the livelihoods of hundreds of millions across the Indian subcontinent, is expected to undergo significant shifts in magnitude and timing, whilst globally, in excess of 90-million may be affected annually by 40-cm sea level rise.
Alternatively, the planetary boundary concept of Johan Rockstrӧm and colleagues (Stockholm Resilience Centre) places the CO2 ‘safe limit’ at 350ppm. Humanity passed this point in the 1980s, and global carbon emissions have increased by roughly 68% since 1985 (see here for Ben’s argument for fossil fuel divestment). Transgressing Rockstrӧm’s CO2 boundary risks the occurrence of multiple ‘climatic nonlinearities’. Such rapid, potentially irreversible and continental-scale events may already be initiating, as we witness record losses of alpine glaciers, Arctic sea ice and polar ice-sheets.
Humanity now lives in a ‘no-analogue state’. Not only is our force upon the natural environment unprecedented, but various vital life-support functions are moving outside of their envelopes of stability which have underpinned human societies for the past 11,000yrs. For example, approximately 70% of the world’s rivers are dammed for hydroelectric generation and upstream irrigation, causing significant water insecurity and sediment starvation amongst downstream urban and agricultural regions.
As a global society, we have undoubtedly failed to adequately provide, during our time in the Holocene safe space. Nearly 1-billion still face permanent hunger, 1.4 billion live on less than $1.25/day, 740 million unable to access clean water. How can we possibly expect to provide in future, as we transition outside of our safe space, whilst facing a double-edged sword of increased natural (e.g. altered precipitation patterns) and magnifying social (e.g. predicted 10-billion global population by 2050) stresses?
Global atmospheric CO2 concentrations aren’t the be all and end all the world’s environmental debate worldwide, but they best symbolize humanities relentless experiment with the natural Earth system. Disregarding these limits represents our biggest gamble. People don’t just turn up to a marathon without training and expect to survive, unaware of their ability to stretch their physical limits. Likewise, running a marathon is more about self-improvement (and selfless charitability!) than the end result. Remaining within our global limits requires a proactive work-out, rather than a sleep-walk further into the unknown.
Undoubtedly a bleak picture is being painted, but we must remain positive to trigger the wide-scale transformational action needed. Adaptations to social-environmental changes are occurring throughout the world, often at the local-scale, forced by the need to sustain livelihoods. However, a global-scale resolution is incomprehensible; often deemed too complex, too costly and too difficult to coordinate.
Humanity is stepping up to the roulette table, chancing how long and how far we can stretch our planet Earth. As James Dyke vividly puts it, ‘there is no planet B’. The idea that if the wellbeing of the most powerful in world governance remains safe, the world may have little hope of remaining within the hypothesised global limits; never mind the demand of sufficient access to water, food and other livelihood necessities for those most in need.
Here’s to hoping the outlook is overly pessimistic, and we will be able to find a way to a fairer, more sustainable space for humanity.
To find out more about climate resilience and global thresholds, please visit the following:
Banner image courtesy of Stockholm Resilience Centre