Our Threatened Planet

MARK NICHOLS September 5 1988

Our Threatened Planet

MARK NICHOLS September 5 1988

Our Threatened Planet


If scientists are right, the world of the 21st century will be a harsh, inhospitable place. Many experts predict that by the year 2030, a hotter global climate will have scorched some agricultural regions, including parts of Canada’s grain belt, into near-desert—a disaster that would generate crop failures around the world. At the same time, some scientists have expressed concern that rising sea levels will inundate low-lying coastal regions, forcing costly dike-building programs to protect cities, harbors and farmland. As well, worldwide poverty will likely have deepened, with a global population of as many as 11 billion people struggling to survive on a planet that is severely depleted of its resources—a world of scarred and barren land and vanished animal species.

That is clearly a harrowing prospect. But even more frightening is the growing certainty that sweeping global change is not reserved for the distant future. In the view of most experts, it is unfolding now. Declared Irving Mintzer, a senior associate at World Resources Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit environmental research centre: “We are at a crucially important time. The

fate of the planet may be at stake.”

Suddenly, a cluster of converging events and trends is strengthening warnings that environmentalists have been issuing for decades—that there is a limit to the abuse that planet Earth can sustain. Many scientists say that the blistering temperatures and lack of rainfall that produced drought conditions across large expanses of Canada, the United States, Mexico and China this summer are evidence that the world is getting its first taste of the so-called greenhouse effect—the invisible shroud of heat-trapping gases that surrounds the globe and that could raise the Earth’s temperature by more than 4°C during the next half century.

Harmful: As a result, many scientists are demanding a drastic reduction in the more than five billion tons of carbon that are injected into the Earth’s atmosphere every year as the result of the burning of such fossil fuels as the oil, gasoline, natural gas and coal used to fuel cars and trucks, heat homes and run factories. But the buildup of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is only partly responsible for the greenhouse effect. Other gases involved include the family of industrial chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons,

which are employed, among other things, as solvents and refrigerator coolants. Besides contributing to the greenhouse effect, airborne CFCs have begun to destroy the ozone layer—a protective veil of gas above the Earth’s surface that prevents most of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays from reaching the Earth.

Stunt: Now, researchers have detected depletion of the ozone layer over both the poles. And as atmospheric ozone is destroyed, scientists predict that the increased amounts of ultraviolet radiation reaching the Earth will increase the incidence of human skin cancer and eye damage.

The rays would also stunt the growth of some food crops and kill subsurface ocean plankton— organisms that usefully absorb vast amounts of carbon dioxide and that are an important source of food for marine life.

As alarming as those looming catastrophes appear to be, they are only a part of the staggering list of problems that menace the planet and threaten the human race with a diminished future.

Increasingly, environmentalists and scientists are voicing concern over the massive damage that is being inflicted on the Earth’s ecology as an exploding human population mines and farms the planet’s land into exhaustion. Land-clearing is destroying the world’s remaining forests—which play a vital role in the Earth’s respiratory system by absorbing carbon dioxide—and industrialization spews polluting substances into the envelope of air that supports life on earth. Already, the spectacle of slum-ridden megacities in the Third World, the accumulations of

mounds of garbage and festering dumps of chemical waste and the pollution of the oceans have made the planet a less habitable place (pages 42, 46, 48).

Threat: Now, the progressive degradation of the planet is forcing scientists to study its ecology with renewed intensity in an effort to find ways of preserving it (page 50). As experts and political

leaders search for solutions, the conviction is growing among many of them that inhabitants of the industrialized nations of the world will have to alter their habits of consumption and profligate waste. Declared environmentalist Julia Langer, executive director of the Ottawa-based Friends of the Earth, referring to the threat posed by the greenhouse effect: “The energy requirements of the Third World—as they struggle to

develop in our image—could overwhelm the ability of the atmosphere to cope.” Still, some observers say that concerns about the greenhouse effect may be exaggerated. During the 1970s, several severe North American winters led to predictions that the world might be entering a new ice age. Now, some experts say that it may be a mistake to link this

year’s drought with the greenhouse effect. “People tie these things together just because they happen together,” said David Ludium, a Princeton, N.J., weather historian.

Challenge: At the same time, an impressive number of scientists are convinced that the greenhouse effect will pose a serious threat. University of Toronto political economist Stephen Clarkson says that world governments will

rise to the challenge. “If we have another hot summer like this one,” said Clarkson, “governments will be forced to respond.”

Meanwhile, some of the worst environmental destruction is occurring in the Third World. Faced with a total of more than $1 trillion owed to wealthier nations, many of the poorest countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia are destroying their forests in pursuit of timber and new agricultural land, plundering their natural resources and building industrial plants with scant regard for the environmental costs. As well, millions of subsistence farmers in the Third World are engaged in a desperate struggle to feed their families. Many pillage the forests for firewood and farm their land into exhaustion. Concluded a 1987 report by the World Commission of Environment and Development, an organization led by Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland: “Many parts of the world are caught in a vicious downward spiral-making the planet’s chance of survival even more difficult and uncertain.”

Rash: In the industrialized world, the realization that the engines of human progress may be running out of control has dawned slowly. To be sure, the environmental movement of the 1970s sounded many of the warnings that are being heard now—and spawned a rash of legislation across the Western world that was deemed, in most cases, sufficient to control the most damaging practices of industrialized societies. But many environmentalists say that those regulations are inadequate, arguing that most Western governments still tend to favor policies of industrialization and resource development that can only lead to more damage. Declared Norman Rubin, director of nuclear research for Toronto-based Energy Probe: “If you ask how one can maximize damage to the environment, then the answer in a remarkable number of instances will tell you what government policy will be.”

Certainly, the combined onslaught on the environment by desperately poor countries and affluent industrialized nations alike has exacted a grim toll—as recorded by such organizations as the highly regarded Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute. What emerges from the institute’s information-gathering is a grim picture of an ecological system in which the balance of plant and animal life within a life-sustaining atmosphere is being seriously jeopardized. Despite the vital role that forests play in carbon dioxide exchange—preventing that gas from building up in the atmosphere —the immense tropical growths of Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia are being destroyed at the staggering rate of at least 27 million

acres per year. During the past 100 years, in fact, scientists estimate that nearly half of the world’s stock of four billion acres of rain forest has been destroyed.

In Brazil’s portion of the luxuriant Amazon River basin alone, at least 20 per cent of the region’s rain forest—covering 9.8 million acres—has already disappeared as settlers clear land for agriculture and cattlegrazing. This summer, as forest-clearing fires burned across hundreds of thousands of acres of Brazilian forest, scientists estimated that the vast clouds of smoke those infernos produced contributed up to onetenth of the world’s annual production of carbon dioxide.

Eke: While the forests dwindle, the world’s deserts are expanding. The process that scientists call “desertification” is rapidly wiping out agricultural land in West Africa’s Sahel region, where farmers in seven sub-Saharan nations eke a marginal existence from the land. In the African nation of Mali, intensive cultivation that has drained the soil of its nutrients has extended the Sahara desert south by 350 km during the past 20 years. According to the Worldwatch Institute, such poor land management techniques in Africa and elsewhere result in the formation of nearly 15 million acres of new desert around the world annually. At the same time, faulty farming techniques cause an estimated 26 billion tons of topsoil to blow away, often into the Atlantic or Indian ocean, each year.

Said William Fyfe, dean of science at the University of Western Ontario in London: “In countries like India and Thailand, the loss of topsoil is just catastrophic.”

Although many of the world’s citizens have until now tolerated—or ignored—the gradual diminishment of their planet’s environment, the advent of the greenhouse effect seems likely to change that situation. Scientists widely accept that the buildup of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides (produced by fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers), methane,

CFCs and other gases could dramatically alter the world’s climate. If the greenhouse effect does result in the predicted rise in the world’s temperature during the next 50 years, that increase would constitute the most radical climatic change that the planet has experienced in the past 120,000 years.

Already, this summer’s drought may have foreshadowed aspects of the green-

house effect, with heavy crop losses in the United States and Canada creating varying price increases in foods ranging from flour-based products to frozen peas. If warmer and drier weather be-

comes the norm in the Earth’s temperate latitudes—including the grain belts of Canada, the United States, northern Europe and the Soviet Union—those traditional agricultural areas would become less productive. And rjsing temperatures would make the sub-Saharan

region of Africa, and other parts of the Third World, even hotter and drier. Meanwhile, if global warming leads to a melting of polar ice and causes sea levels to rise, low-lying areas—including such populous regions as Egypt’s Nile River delta and a large part of the Asian nation of Bangladesh—could disappear underwater.

The costs of preserving coastal areas from the rising oceans and adapting agriculture to the hotter climate could be enormous, according to Derek Ireland, an Ottawa-based economist. Ireland, who outlined the economic implications of the greenhouse effect for a conference on the atmosphere held in Toronto in June, said that global warming is likely to reduce economic growth sharply by disrupting such primary resource activities as agriculture, forestry, fishing and shipping. At the same time, governments will have to spend billions of dollars building dikes and other structures to protect coastal areas, relocating and retraining displaced workers and providing care for the many refugees.

Ireland predicted that because the world’s poorest nations will be among the hardest hit by the greenhouse effect, there could be a widening of economic disparities between nations and an intensifying of the current international debt crisis. Concluded Ireland: “Without effective policy interventions, the greenhouse effect will likely leave us with a less equal, and therefore more dangerous, world.”

Shift: Despite those dislocations, Canada might actually benefit in some ways from the greenhouse effect, with warmer temperatures leading to reduced heating costs and improved prospects for the tourism industry. Although parts of the Prairie provinces—including the Palliser Triangle, an area that stretches across southern Saskatchewan and into Alberta— could become desert-like, some experts predict that the changing climate may shift the U.S. corn belt northward from

such states as Indiana and Illinois into southern Canada. The wheat belt, in turn, might then move farther north. Still, said Ireland, “We might be moving our wheat-growing belt into areas where the soil is much less favorable.” Some expert observers predict that the only real benefit that a global warming could bring would be a collective decision by industrialized nations to

impose stringent new environmental controls. In the past, some giants of the developed world, including the United States, have avoided environmental measures because of their high cost. Despite Canadian legislation aimed at reducing sulphur dioxide emissions— which most scientists blame for acid rain—by 50 per cent below 1980 levels,

President Ronald Reagan’s administration has done little to alleviate that problem. But many scientists say that U.S. efforts to curb the problem may increase as awareness grows about the threat to the atmosphere. Indeed, they note that in an effort to protect the ozone layer, six nations—including the United States and Canada—have ratified the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which

calls generally for a 50-per-cent reduction in the use of CFCs by 1999.

Law: Scientists are pressing for similar action to reduce the buildup of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere. The June environmental conference in Toronto laid the groundwork for a gathering of international legal experts in Ottawa next February.

Their objective: to begin drafting a proposed global law of the atmosphere. The Toronto conference called for a 20-percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2005—a proposal that would moderate, but not prevent, the global warming. Canadian Environment Minister Thomas McMillan acknowledged that the type of legislation needed to confront threats like the greenhouse effect would likely meet resistance. “We need to see a sea change in attitudes,” he said. “I’m not suggesting that we have to go around in overcoats with thermostats set at zero, but we simply must be more energy efficient.” Doubt: Meanwhile, because a margin of doubt remains over whether the greenhouse effect has actually arrived or still lies a few years ahead, political leaders will be able to postpone tackling such daunting problems. But they may not have that luxury of choice for long, according to Washington’s Mintzer. He added, “We are not in a crisis right now, but g we are at a point where 5 constructive change “ could make the differ2 ence between rapid, disresidents ruptive and destructive changes, or moderated and manageable changes.” As the long, hot summer of 1988 draws to a close, it could signal the arrival of a new and difficult era, which compels that choice—and quickly.