Overlapping Environmental Crises Could Lead to "Global Systemic Collapse": Scientists
Wed, April 21, 2021

Overlapping Environmental Crises Could Lead to "Global Systemic Collapse": Scientists


The world is facing human-caused threats, from biodiversity loss and habitat destruction to global warming and climate change. Recent reports have shown that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has not only consistently increased over the past decade but it is also now rising at a faster rate than ever. 

Grist, an American non-profit online magazine that has been publishing environmental news and commentary since 1999, reported that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that countries should limit planetary warming to 1.5 degrees to keep our planet safe. Aside from the increasing carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, Earth is also facing other environmental issues such as rising sea levels, pollution, deforestation, and many more. While many might see and address these issues separately, many experts have argued that all of these are interconnected. This means that we can solve one issue in solving another concern. 

Thus, the main environmental challenges that we are facing today are systematic and can’t be discussed in isolation. The four environmental priority areas such as climate change, nature and biodiversity, use of natural resources and waste, and environment and health are said to have a series of direct and indirect links between environmental challenges. For instance, climate change impacts all other environmental issues. Biodiversity loss and habitat destruction are caused by changes in temperature and precipitation patterns. 

Even issues concerning our society and economics are connected with the environment. According to the UN Foundation, over 87% of people in extreme poverty live in countries that are fragile and/or environmentally vulnerable. A recent analysis by the UN Conference on Trade and Development showed that 47 nations are falling behind in crucial areas of climate resilience, financial stability, peace, and health. 



A Global Systemic Collapse

The link among environmental issues has become more evident than ever. Extreme heatwaves due to the vast amounts of stored carbon in our atmosphere are making global warming even worse, which in return damage natural ecosystems. These have killed thousands of species and caused people to starve. Each of this issue poses a great challenge to humanity -- that if not prevented, could trigger a global systemic collapse.

A recent report presented by 222 leading scientists from 52 countries showed that a combination of multiple interlinked emergencies can amplify one another’s impacts. The survey conducted by Future Earth, an international research organization, revealed that out of 30 global-scale risks, five major risks can trigger the collapse. This includes climate change, extreme weather events from hurricanes to heatwaves, the decline of life-sustaining ecosystems, food security, and dwindling stores of freshwater.

According to Science Alert, a major international publisher of academic and research journals, these risks "have the potential to impact and amplify one another in ways that might cascade to create a global systemic collapse.” For instance, biodiversity loss can weaken the capacity of natural and agricultural systems to cope with climate extremes while extreme heatwaves can speed global warming by releasing planet-warming gases from natural sources, even intensify water crises and food scarcity. "Many scientists and policymakers are embedded in institutions that are used to thinking and acting on isolated risks, one at a time. We call on the world's academics, business leaders and policymakers to pay attention to these five global risks and ensure they are treated as interacting systems,” the report said. 

In a similar survey last January, nearly 1,000 decision-makers and top CEOs emphasized the same threats. "2020 is a critical time to look at these issues. Our actions in the next decade will determine our collective future,” Amy Luers, Executive Director of Future Earth, said.



Another recent study titled “This is a Crisis: Facing up to the Age of Environmental Breakdown” revealed a series of grim global statistics: vertebrate populations have fallen by an average of 60% since the 1970s; the 20 warmest years since records began in 1850 have been in the past 22 years; insect numbers have declined even faster in some countries, and topsoil is now being lost 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished by natural processes. It emphasized that human impacts go beyond climate change and are occurring at speeds unprecedented in recorded history.

According to The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, the study conducted by the Institute for Public Policy Research also showed that environmental concerns have amplified and interacted with existing social and economic problems. This could potentially threaten systemic collapse similar to the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Laurie Laybourn-Langton, the lead author of the report, revealed that the climate crisis was likely to create 10 times more refugees from that region than the 12 million who left during the Arab spring.

Aside from that, the paper warns that lack of diversity can weaken resilience to the growing risks of climate disruption, soil deterioration, pollution and pollinator loss, while food systems that rely on just five animal and 12 plant species to provide 75% of the world’s nutrition could be vulnerable. 

“In the extreme, environmental breakdown could trigger catastrophic breakdown of human systems, driving a rapid process of ‘runaway collapse’ in which economic, social and political shocks cascade through the globally linked system – in much the same way as occurred in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2007-08,” the authors said. 



Global Solutions Are Interconnected, Too

The good news is that the solutions to these issues are also connected. When we address a single environmental problem, the benefits also cascade. For instance, protecting wildlife and flora in a wetland can reduce water pollution and soil erosion. This would protect crops against storm damage, addressing water scarcity and allowing for more food production. 

“Despite the ubiquity of connections [between these looming crises] many scientists and policymakers are embedded in institutions that are used to thinking and acting on isolated risks, one at a time. This needs to change, to thinking about risks as connected,” the report said. 

Bringing an intentional focus across and within these issues could address global challenges that consistently impact people’s lives, especially in the marginalized sector. Thus, by drilling down on root causes, we can bring solutions that can impact our environment, society, and economy.