With all the excitement in Europe, the upcoming Rio+20 Earth Summit is getting short shrift. Today's cheerful message is a follow-up to my recent post The Rio Earth Summit — A Litany Of Failure. In preparation for the June meeting, which begins this week, the journal Nature published a set of papers on the state of the Earth, including Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere by lead author Anthony D. Barnofsky and a host of other scientists representing a number of different disciplines. Here's the abstract.
Localized ecological systems are known to shift abruptly and irreversibly from one state to another when they are forced across critical thresholds. Here we review evidence that the global ecosystem as a whole can react in the same way and is approaching a planetary-scale critical transition as a result of human influence.
The plausibility of a planetary-scale ‘tipping point’ highlights the need to improve biological forecasting by detecting early warning signs of critical transitions on global as well as local scales, and by detecting feedbacks that promote such transitions. It is also necessary to address root causes of how humans are forcing biological changes.
[My note: Addressing the "root causes" of a disastrous, human-caused transformation of biosphere is secondary in this abstract. Studying the problem takes precedence.]
Nature 486, pp. 52–58 (June 7, 2012)
A "state shift" is more commonly understood as a "tipping point" at which the Earth's living systems shift to a different and no doubt less human-friendly state after a "critical threshold" is breached. As the abstract says, such shifts are abrupt and irreversible. Science Daily had the low down for the layman in Evidence of Impending Tipping Point for Earth.
A group of scientists from around the world is warning that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change may be driving Earth toward an irreversible change in the biosphere, a planet-wide tipping point that would have destructive consequences absent adequate preparation and mitigation.
"It really will be a new world, biologically, at that point," warns Anthony Barnosky, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of a review paper appearing in the June 7 issue of the journal Nature. "The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including, for example, fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations."
... The paper by 22 internationally known scientists describes an urgent need for better predictive models that are based on a detailed understanding of how the biosphere reacted in the distant past to rapidly changing conditions, including climate and human population growth.
In a related development, ground-breaking research to develop the reliable, detailed biological forecasts the paper is calling for is now underway at UC Berkeley. The endeavor, The Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology, or BiGCB, is a massive undertaking involving more than 100 UC Berkeley scientists from an extraordinary range of disciplines that already has received funding: a $2.5 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and a $1.5 million grant from the Keck Foundation. The paper by Barnosky and others emerged from the first conference convened under the BiGCB's auspices.
"One key goal of the BiGCB is to understand how plants and animals responded to major shifts in the atmosphere, oceans, and climate in the past, so that scientists can improve their forecasts and policy makers can take the steps necessary to either mitigate or adapt to changes that may be inevitable," Barnosky said. "Better predictive models will lead to better decisions in terms of protecting the natural resources future generations will rely on for quality of life and prosperity." Climate change could also lead to global political instability, according to a U.S. Department of Defense study referred to in the Nature paper...
"We really do have to be thinking about these global scale tipping points, because even the parts of Earth we are not messing with directly could be prone to some very major changes," Barnosky said. "And the root cause, ultimately, is human population growth and how many resources each one of us uses."
If you are a little confused at this point, I understand. This story reads more like a promotional flyer for Earth science research at the University of California at Berkeley than it does like an urgent, blunt warning to humankind that if we don't change our reckless ways, we may be looking at a planetary disaster "within just a few generations."
I note in passing that 1) identifying critical thresholds in Earth's natural systems which lead to tipping points, and 2) doing so in advance of the actual state shift are goals which are almost certainly impossible to achieve. But that's a minor quibble, really, in view of the fact that acquiring more funding appears to be the main goal of this press release. Only me and a few other folks will understand that the stated research goals are pure fantasy.
To be fair, I should also include this quote, which is a bit more to the point—
Coauthor Elizabeth Hadly from Stanford University said "we may already be past these tipping points in particular regions of the world. I just returned from a trip to the high Himalayas in Nepal, where I witnessed families fighting each other with machetes for wood — wood that they would burn to cook their food in one evening. In places where governments are lacking basic infrastructure, people fend for themselves, and biodiversity suffers.
We desperately need global leadership for planet Earth."
Yes we do! And our tireless, hard-working "leaders" will be meeting this week in Rio de Janeiro, where they will decide nothing and do nothing, regardless of how many grants we give to the comfortable Berkeley scientists who study these problems. After all, neither Anthony Barnofsky nor any of these other scientists are fighting each other with machetes for the wood they need to cook dinner.
Here's the video.