As I write this a press conference has just drawn to a close at UN headquarters in New York to announce the fourth Global Environment Outlook (GEO4). The document continues the program launched with GEO1 in 1997.
Like a physical exam for the planet, the program’s goal is to regularly monitor and document changes to the Earth’s condition and health. And, in a word, the diagnosis is not good and unless dramatic action is taken soon the prognosis for the “patient” is grim.
According to the BBC News web site (read it here), summarizing the message of GEO4:
The Global Environment Outlook says most trends are going the wrong way.
It lists degradation of farmland, loss of forest cover, pollution, dwindling fresh water supplies and overfishing among society’s environmental ills.
“There continue to be persistent and intractable problems unresolved and unaddressed,” said Unep’s executive director Achim Steiner.
“Past issues remain and new ones are emerging, from the rapid rise of oxygen ‘dead zones’ in the oceans to the resurgence of new and old diseases linked in part with environmental degradation.”
An eight page brochure describing the 572 page GEO4 report can be downloaded as a PDF from the UN’s Environmental site here. One statement from the brochure caught my eye as perhaps summarizing the thrust of the GEO4 message: “Climate change is the greatest challenge facing humanity today.” Note that that statement does not contain any modifiers such as “possibly” or “perhaps,” but baldly states the nature of the threat or, as the writer chose to word it, challenge to humanity.
Quoting the UN Secretary-General, the BBC News article says:
“This assault on the global environment risks undermining the many advances human society has made in recent decades,” wrote UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in a foreword.
“It is undercutting our fight against poverty. It could even come to jeopardise international peace and security.”
That last item underscores the point I made recently in reference to Al Gore’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on climate change. A declining ecosystem is already a threat to peace, and the situation is only going to become worse. As the GEO4 report reveals, farmland in many areas has reached its peak of potential and is entering into decline, particularly in Africa. Access to fresh water will soon affect nearly a third of all humans, the report adds, and changing climate patterns are already bringing drought to some areas, floods to others.
One is reminded of the poet Robert Frost’s vision of the future:
Some say the world will end in fire;
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
How ironic that the actual end may be due to “all of the above” plus a whole panoply of effects that few if any could have anticipated when Frost wrote his words little more than a half century ago.