Periodically, Eco News Network features eco essays written by individuals with the environment close to their heart. The opinions expressed in these essays are those of the writers.
Here, Dr. Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison of Dancing Star Foundation share their thoughts about the climate change narrative that needs to take place at the 2015 U.N. Climate Talks to be held in Paris. Michael’s most recent book, Hope On Earth: A Conversation (co-authored with Dr. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford, and Additional Commentary from Dr. John Harte of UC-Berkeley) comes out this Earth Day from the University of Chicago Press.
The Climate Change Narrative
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released its 2,600 pages of new documentation as of March 31st, 2014, entitled: “IPCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers.” In an immediate response, Secretary of State John F. Kerry declared that “Unless we act dramatically and quickly, science tells us our climate and our way of life are literally in jeopardy.”
That is a polite understatement. This near final draft material was made available to the public in scores of PDF files that elegantly detailed trends and definitions pertaining to levels of risk, certainty, and confidence in the findings which derive from over 300 scientists and some 50,000+ comments.
The “Summary For Policy Makers” makes for a rapid overview (as distinct from the 375 megabyte Full Report) of every major ecosystem on the planet, taking into account crucial examples of change in the global biogeochemical cycles, the “drivers of climate change,” and in-depth descriptions of recent, as well as likely future regional and global transformations throughout every major biome.
Whilst most people throughout the world now speak matter-of-factly of climate change and global warming – the story of Noah’s Ark and the cumulative weariness of natural and unnatural catastrophes reverberating throughout the human psyche – there is the incontrovertible reality of a frenetic and accelerated risk-factor bearing down on every front.
What separates this peril from any previous historic challenges to the human condition is the combined weight of a fully unpredictable cascade effect of biological holocausts resulting from the sheer spill-over of so many simultaneous ecological stressors wreaking both obvious and not-so-obvious havocs across the Earth. The calculus of syncretistic effects is largely unpredictable, but common sense urges that humanity err on the side of restraint and preparedness for the worst.
The fall-outs occurring in every planetary biome, most likely in every minute portion of the atmospheric, terrestrial and aquatic Earth have been rightly termed the continuing Quaternary Megafaunal Extinction (“QME”). It represents the most astonishing fact of our presence as a species on Earth; the post-Clovis Culture ecological Anthropocene proliferation we now understand our collective infliction on the biosphere to be.
What complicates she scope of our presence is the reality that nearly every advancement in our biological well-being has equated with destruction of other species; progress and human fertility rates translating into the continuing isolation of our one species from all others. Every technological innovation – vaccines, enhanced agricultural yields, greater efficiencies, conveniences and perceived increasing standards of living; each Revolution, or political breakthrough regarding human rights and fairness – have all cumulatively engendered a solipsistic marvel of denial. We continue, by and large, to refuse the accommodation of any other species, save for our pampered pets.
This has occasioned a long-standing legal chaos that encinctures the many frameworks for addressing all anthropogenic influences upon the Earth, including climate change. Combative opinions of every persuasion have resulted in watered-down perception, and a pronounced inability to generate consensus mechanisms within and between nation states, all underscoring what the late University of California at Santa Barbara ecologist Garret Hardin, in 1968, first termed “the tragedy of the commons.”
For no lack of engaged voters or enthusiastic youths, as well as tens-of-thousands of environmental NGOs, faith-based denials, economic blind-spots, a seemingly hard-wired abnegation of psychological or moral change, a blizzard of data, and the easier embrace of an all-out repudiation of solid science by special interest groups and those preferring the status quo has only placed in stark relief, and in absolute terms, the peril of humanity’s 21st century crossroad.
Definitions regarding human economic development have dominated each and every international forum that has attempted to see past nationalism, fear and inertia. Now, humanity is up against the wall in ways that require thinking outside the “climate change” paradigm. Our societal flirtations with ecological Apocalypse represent a psychological predilection that is much bigger than climate change; vastly more paradoxical than the crisis afflicting our one species.
A Biological Bottom-Line Context
We co-habit a planet that may host as many as 100 million species. Each species (save for the current critically endangered ones), in turn, harbors several million individuals, on average, taking into account both vertebrate and invertebrate, but with no attempt to sample or divine quantitative averages for the range of known microbial, viral and other microscopic and sub-microscopic life-forms, which could easily add tens-of-millions of additional species to the mix.
Biological research has provided ample indication of just how vast the gaps in our knowledge of bio-quanta actually are. Recent large-scale rapid assessments include BirdLife International, Alliance for Zero Extinction, Conservation International “hotspot” and numerous international mega-marine surveys – all revealing huge gaps in our knowledge base, while intimating quite clearly the richness of life on this planet. In addition, vast arrays of yet-to-be-discovered life forms have been implied within distinct methodologies at key genetic matrices like Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park, with its 60,000–to-100,000 species of invertebrates per estimated hectare; and long-term monitoring of plots, such as those along Chesapeake Bay (the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center), the decades-old studies at Barro Colorado Island in Panama’s man-made Gatun Lake, at the University of Eduardo Mondlane on Inhaca Island in Mozambique, or above Crested Butte Colorado, at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.
Our understanding of life in the oceans is in its infancy. Between 2002 and 2005, for example, three German Polarstern Expeditions throughout Antarctica’s Weddell Sea yielded as many as 40,000 animals per liter of mud or water, many belonging to previously undiscovered species.
On land, we do not even know, for example, whether there are 3 billion or 10 billion individual Quelea quelea, the African Red billed quelea, a member of the sub-Saharan passerine (perching) weaver family Ploceidae. If researchers at Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park succeed in an attempt to qualify every single discernible life-form in that park, it will be a first.
All of these individual creatures – billions and billions of them – are typically located in a population that is as vulnerable to extinction as are entire species. Indeed, data now indicates we are seeing the extinction of more than 16 million populations annually, or over 44,000 populations per day. A shoal of fish. A flock of birds. By such attritions we can predict the loss of whole Genera, and Families.
Our species has zero experience with real extinction level events. Hence, the importance of recognizing what nearly every major human spiritual and ethical tradition has long enshrined: the notion of critical ancestral relations, similitudes, reciprocities, commensalism, symbiosis and co-dependencies amongst all sentient beings. In Jain tradition this is described as Parasparopagraho Jivanam, or, “All life is bound together by mutual support and interdependence.”
These co-dependent and progressive relationships spanning all of life should compel us to re-focus our complete concentration upon the biological bottom-line as the key to transforming political deadlock into real traction at the upcoming United Nations summit in Paris in the late Fall of 2015.
From November 30th to December 11th, 2015, representatives from the majority of the world’s nations will convene at Le Bourget, in greater metropolitan Paris, France, in an effort to finally achieve meaningful embrace of global climate change solutions; a compulsory Treaty that would impede all further increases in global temperatures from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over their current levels. This collective volition rightly presumes anthropogenic temperature interventions that have prompted serious biochemical negative feedbacks, vast megacity heat islands, carbon and methane release from previously functioning sinks – like the oceans – and fatal tipping points in ecosystems including the world’s coral reefs, the Amazon, and the boreal forests.
United Nations climate change negotiators have failed to achieve any binding and wide-reaching treaty on climate for more than 20 years. The current U.N. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon has publically declared that he is committed to making COP21 – the Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (Paris 2015) – the defining moment in the history of climate change legislation.
But the very procedural minutia of that context for negotiations between wealthy and economically-marginalized nations pivots upon the willingness of parties to engage in the same language of ethics; to rise to the occasion of catastrophe. That means that delegates must understand and acknowledge what’s at stake; unlimited future generations; gene banks whose biodiversity means everything to the present and the future.
Ethical consensus regarding the importance of biodiversity, and the future, has never been achieved. A moral compass shared by one and all has never been remotely ascribed to. Categorical imperatives have never surfaced with any functionality probably because human diversity is so robust, our craving for individualism so ingrained. Incremental compromise has always prevailed, at best, and this may well be an insufficient standard operating procedure for achieving global antidotes to human self-destruction.
The Scope of Biological Crisis
An enormous repertoire of research has fueled the International Union for Conservation of Nature (“IUCN”) Red Book Data, taking in some 77,000 species. The results indicate that more than a third of them are at risk of extinction. In fact, the collective scientific opinion now holds that between 40% and 50% of all vertebrates on Earth will – if human business continues as usual – go extinct by the end of this century. There is no algorithm for acquitting us of our collaboration in this slippery slope that gets steeper by the day. As aforementioned, there is not even sufficient data to calculate how vast a swath of devastation is likely to affect invertebrates.
The other tens-of-millions of species we believe co-habit the planet, particularly those in the Earth’s marine biomes, as yet have not even been studied with sufficient oversight to provide sufficient data for even forming preliminary conclusions as to the extinctions occurring day by day. We do know that thousands of fish species, and entire fisheries, are disappearing, along with most of the world’s coral reefs. Dead zones throughout the oceans and seas are rapidly expanding, whilst terrestrial fragmentation by human “progress” has usurped over 42% of the planet’s NPP, or Net Primary Production. In other words, our one species has commandeered the energy opportunities of nearly half of the Sun’s photosynthetic output (recognizing that most plants use no more than 10% of that output to begin with).
The result of this attrition will vastly undermine seed sources, pollination, virtually every free service provided by nature (e.g., drinking water, nutrient turnover in the soils) and humanity’s ability to feed itself. We cannot prevent eruptive famines by simply “hoping” or praying that our social networking and profitability by corporate stewards and all their stakeholders can avert this ecological cul-de-sac.
We need much more than faith, good will and education. We must act. We must together form the scientific, re-engineering, ethical, political and legal suasion capable of eliciting the best of human nature in each of us. During our fleeting life-spans we must conjoin radically improved environmental practices, judicious safeguards and precautions, our collective scientific imagination and a moral compass that does not shirk from its responsibilities to this and future generations of genes and personages, in every biological guise, human and otherwise.
Short of this unprecedented transformation and communion of values and hope in the future, our volunteerism, non-compulsory signatory treaties, and misplaced assumption that somebody else will take care of it, will lead us rapidly to our demise, and to the devastation of millions of other species. Such a vast devastation of biodiversity will kill us. There will be no biographer left standing. Our human epitaph will read as the shortest one for so large a vertebrate in biological history – by a long margin.
The Urgent Steps Needed
COP21 must acknowledge our species’ biological debt to the rest of life. If it is not up to that task, it will fail.
More important than ever are No-Kill Corridors of enormous size, scope and with ethical clarity that comport with every Golden Rule humanity as ever devised, under the rubric, “Thou Shall Not Kill.” We cannot as a species continue to allow for mass killing of other species; for mass destruction of the biomes all around us – whether primary growth forests, mangroves, estuaries, coral reefs, rich sea grass habitats, tall and short-grass prairies, and all of the diverse cryogenic ecosystems, to name but a few key biological nurseries. There are tens-of-thousands of ecosystem types. Not one has been spared the heavy hand of humanity.
The impact of climate change is less clear than the far more immediate impact – and obvious steps needed to reverse it – of killing other animals.
This is our most fitting and urgent opportunity for sparing the future.
A First Major Step
A first permanent and lasting step towards reversing the current global extinction event would be to institute, in the United States, a breathtaking legal precedent that should sound the clarion call to all other nations. By this we would suggest a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that succinctly addresses biological calamity and provides compulsory remedies for it, in sync with the Right of Americans to be Free of Human-Induced Global Warming and, similarly, a Freedom from Forced Collaboration in the “Slaughter of Innocents,” of Any and All Other Species.
Considering that the twenty-seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in May 1992, focused on the extraordinarily trivial matter of congressional salaries, and their continuity, it should seem desperately obvious that Americans can ill-afford to ignore the price that is paid through the extermination of most other life forms; and that the Constitution is one of our abiding mandates that seems to infuse at least a modicum of sense into the Commonweal, while setting a legal precedent for democracies elsewhere in the world.
While special interest groups and corporations currently endowed with legally-enshrined personhood, their corporate hundreds-of-trillions of dollars tantamount to free speech, in the current climate of the Supreme Court, this sinister deliberate distraction from what is essential, is a deception that cannot, must not stand. No government can continue to legitimize constituencies that freely and wantonly kill; usurping the underpinnings of biology and the genetic future of life on Earth.
The true inequality gaps among people are not merely economic. Rather, they stem far more fundamentally from that artificial wall, those veils of perception, we have erected separating the human species from all others. Until we can wrap our minds and hearts around this ineluctable truth, we will fail to combat climate change, or curb the myriad signs of clear self-destruction our species has embarked upon.
The Time To Act Is Now
World leaders and national leaders must act. The determined voices of the world’s people must insist that each nation take effective action to help resolve this cascade of unprecedented global environmental dilemmas, joining together to make a sustainable world for all species our one and only priority.
This “landing of a man on the moon” in reality, is the landing of our species back on Earth, with dignity, unconditional love, and the moral wherewithal to insist upon restraint, non-violence, and a future for our children and those of all other species.
Paris, 2015, provides a crucial avenue for a new and revivified beginning. Our children and all of their companion animals, species, friends, and whole habitats, expect and deserve nothing less.
© Michael Charles Tobias/Jane Gray Morrison
April 5, 2014
The authors are contributors to Eco News Network. The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the writers.
About the Authors
Dr. Michael Charles Tobias (www.michaeltobias.org) is a global ecologist whose field research has taken him to over 90 countries. He has worked in ecological anthropology, bio-cultural ethics, and large-scale biodiversity conservation; eco-restoration, the saving of endangered species, animal rights, and has a particular focus upon the future prospects for biological evolution. His nearly 50 books (non-fiction as well as fiction) and more than 170 films have been read and broadcast throughout the world. Recipient of the “Courage of Conscience Prize” and a myriad of other awards and distinctions, Tobias has been a Professor at numerous universities and is the President of the Dancing Star Foundation. Michael’s most recent book, Hope On Earth: A Conversation (co-authored with Dr. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford, and Additional Commentary from Dr. John Harte of UC-Berkeley) comes out this Earth Day from the University of Chicago Press.
Jane Gray Morrison is an author, ecologist and filmmaker who has done field work in dozens of countries, productions for many networks around the world, and written numerous books, including God’s Country: The New Zealand Factor, Donkey: The Mystique of Equus Asinus, and Sanctuary: Global Oases of Innocence (www.sanctuary-thebook.org). She has served as a Director on several arts organizations, and is the Executive Vice President of Dancing Star Foundation. Among her recent film productions are the PBS feature documentaries, No Vacancy, and Hotspots (www.hotspots-thefilm.org).
The authors are contributors to Eco News Network. The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the writers.
Photo Credit: Flickr/Kevin M. Gill, JasonParis