Reviewing recent discussions on environmental ethics has been an eye opener and has encouraged the need to expand the public’s understanding of key environmental issues. We need to spend some time discussing sustainability and climate change.
In 1993 Gro Harlem Brundtland, then Prime Minister of Norway, held a Conference on Biological Diversity which was strongly influenced by a United Nations document entitled, “Our Common Future”. The report focused on the increasing amount of evidence that planetary systems required for life on Earth were under strain. The major issue raised was whether it is equitable to sacrifice options for the future to support current lifestyles, especially for the rich counties and sometimes lavish lifestyles of the wealthy. Bryan Norton suggested, the world faces a global challenge to see whether different human groups, with widely varying perspectives, can accept responsibility to maintain a non-declining set of opportunities based on possible use of the environment. He went on to state, “the future ought not have to face, as a result of our actions today, a seriously reduced range of options and choices, as they try to adapt to the environment that they face”. These discussions lead to the concept of what is sustainable development?
The Brundtland Report defined “sustainable development”, as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Current sustainability in forest management is defined as a sustainable flow of goods and services from the forests, with no consideration for the elements forests provide that support 80% of all living creatures on Earth. With such a large percentage of life dependent upon forests, and the continuation of deforestation with population expansion, sustainability must focus on the health and diversity of the remaining forest cover. We must consider the concept of “needs”, particularly the essential needs of the world’s poor, and understand the limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment and its ability to provide for today and the future! In other words, our efforts to define acceptable sustainable development must consider the entire world population. It is unacceptable to focus necessary changes only on those whose life-styles are already demanding more than their share of environmental capital. The report also suggests, “the industrial world has already used up much of the Earth’s ecological capital”. Inequality and development problems are major issues we face worldwide. This information demands significant changes in the management goals for our remaining forested lands! The report states, “maximum sustainability can only be defined after considering the system-wide effects of exploitation on ecological capital”. It is no longer acceptable to manage forest communities for a sustainable flow of products from the forests. We must now focus on sustainability of our remaining forests and their health and diversity.
The warnings of environmental problems have become even more pessimistic with further studies. New data on increasing human population and its impact on humanity; particularly on the poorest people, loss of biodiversity, scarcity of fresh water, overconsumption of resources and climate change; has elevated our environmental concerns! When we discuss sustainable development, what exactly are we attempting to sustain? Are we to focus on the flow of goods and services for world markets that must be maintained, or is it current or some future level of consumption? How is climate change related to sustainability? What are the established facts about climate change?
Over the past 650,000 years, Earth has experienced 7 glacial advancements and retreats, the last one occurring 11,700 years ago. Data suggests we are still experiencing a retreat of the past ice-age, however current warming is occurring at a rate which is ten times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming. From 1880 to present, the average temperature of the earth’s surface has increased by 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit, with most of the change occurring in the last 35 years. Since 1969 the ocean’s surface water temperatures have warmed by 4 degrees Fahrenheit, resulting in an 8-inch rise in sea-levels in the last decade. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the acidity of the surface ocean waters has increased by 30%. The warming of ocean water has a direct impact on the severity and frequency of storms that form over the water.
We live in a greenhouse like environment caused by the greenhouse gases that surround our planet. Concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbon and water vapor, prevent heat from escaping from the surface of Earth. From 1750 to present, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have increased by 96% and NOAA ( National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency) reports an increase of 43% from 1990 to 2018. By far, the most important anthropogenic gas is carbon dioxide which is responsible for 81% of the increased warming effect. NOAA reported in 2018, we released worldwide 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere in that one year. Yes, the climate is changing and 160 years of weather data confirms the facts presented here, and documents the need for us to make significant changes in our life-styles if we want to provide for the needs of future generations!
The facts are clear, global warming and climate change are real, and we must recognize that deforestation plays a critical role in both issues. Forests provide shade that keeps the surface of planet Earth cool, slows and redirects wind and is the largest storehouse of carbon dioxide. The most important anthropogenic gas is carbon dioxide which is responsible for 81% of the warming effect. We have destroyed over half of the forest cover that once existed on Earth, and are deforesting the equivalent of 22 soccer fields every minute worldwide. Forests are the major storehouse of carbon dioxide where it is converted to sugar for plant growth and through photosynthesis, oxygen is released back into the atmosphere.
It is true that a small part of the changes which are occurring, are the result of natural Earth systems, but it is apparent that population growth, the industrial revolution over the past 200 years, and deforestation have significantly accelerated the destruction of our natural world. The question is; are we willing to find solutions that will prolong life on Earth, or will we ignore the facts, continue our over-consumption of Earth’s resources and allow our future generations to suffer with the limited carry-capacity of Mother Earth? The problem is not lack of facts, but rather lack of courage to make the required adjustments!