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Environments in Crisis

2015 was the hottest year on record.

Global data show that a powerful El Niño, marked by warmer waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean, helped to drive atmospheric temperatures well past 2014's record highs. Some researchers suggest that broader Pacific trends could spell even more dramatic temperature increases in years to come. Released on 20 January, the global temperature data come from three independent records maintained by NASA, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the UK Met Office. All three data sets document unprecedented high temperatures in 2015, pushing the global average to more than 1 ºC above pre-industrial levels.(Nature 20 January 2016.)

The tolerance for environmental destruction is ancient and human history is littered with civilizations that failed because humans indiscriminately exploited natural resources and spoiled their own nest. The benefits to citizens of all modern industrial societies peaked sometime in recent decades. Now, we are paying penalties for careless consumption and pollution of our own nest. You could argue that all human activities have adverse effects on environments, but, at the same time, you can argue that humans are capable of enhancing environments, protecting animals at risk, cultivating plants, and above all else, humans are capable of understanding their dependence on healthy nature.

In an ideal world, everyone would seek personal health and well being, but at the same time would strive to restore planet health. Smart people realize that no personal benefit will survive long in a world that is ailing, polluted and careening toward more man-made disasters.

Complex Systems The attempt to understand complex systems has taken a quantum leap in recent years. We have gone beyond naïve linear models and now appreciate that if complex systems such as the atmosphere, the oceans, and land ecosystems change, they may become unstable, more unfriendly and less predictable.

Extra heat will cause more turbulence, and weather patterns will change in unpredictable ways. Unfortunately nature changes in abrupt ways and catastrophes are natural phenomena - volcanic eruptions, storms, floods, earthquakes, avalanches all represent basic patterns of nature. We have to understand that our actions contribute to weather events - the issues loom large when you consider that climate changes with increasingly destructive extreme weather events are adverse consequences of human activities that can be improved.

Air pollution is an obvious adverse effect of human activities. Air pollution was first noticed as problem of city dwellers, poisoning themselves, but more recently, air pollution is acknowledged as a problem of global significance. Air pollution is not a good idea for a variety of reasons, large and small. The right ideas for remediation of environmental degradations involve unselfish and compassionate behavior, a scarce commodity. The right ideas involve long-term planning, conservation and a deep commitment to preserving the natural world. Without a healthy natural environment, there will be few or no healthy humans. The really sad part of our current predicament is that all the right concerns and the right ideas for remediation have been around for decades and have been clearly articulated in many forms by a host of intelligent people.

The immediately negative effects of air pollution in cities is measured on a daily basis; however, the negative impact on human health remains mostly undefined. The largest issue is climate changes due to burning fossil fuels, increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The release of the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was a milestone, a scientific consensus that we had created problems of catastrophic proportions. A political consensus was required for real, effective remedial action in all countries.

In his opening address to the UN Climate Summit in 2014, secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon warned the dreams of humanity hung in the balance. "To ride this storm we need all hands on deck. The human environmental and financial cost of climate change is fast becoming unbearable."Dr Rajendra Pachauri the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated: "Time was running out. How can we leave our children with a world like this? "I'm not sure if I could stand before you if the threats of climate change had no solutions, but they do. We already have the means to build a better, more sustainable world... renewable energy is a real option."

US president Barack Obama said despite the present threats of terrorism, instability and disease, climate change would define the contours of the century more dramatically than any other issue. This challenge demands our ambition. Our children deserve such ambition. Today I call on all countries to join us - not next year or the year after that but right now - because no nation can meet this global threat alone."

Several countries pledged to cut CO2 emissions. China, the world's largest emitter, reiterated its goal to cut carbon intensity by 40 to 45 per cent of 2005 levels by 2020. The next formal round of talks between nations will be in Peru at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Nearly 200 countries have pledged to reach agreement in Paris at the end of 2015 on a climate pact for carbon cuts beyond 2020.

A major change in human priorities was established in 2015. The Group of 7 (G7) leading industrialized nations (June 2015) called for global greenhouse-gas emissions to be reduced by around 70% by 2050, and for the world economy to be de­carbonized by the end of the twenty-first century. These twin goals were issued in a communiqué at the conclusion of the group’s meeting at Schloss Elmau in Krün, Germany, on 8 June, alongside a suite of promises to help developing nations to provide their citizens with clean energy, jobs, financial security and food. To the credit of Germany and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of the host nation, the commitments surpass all of the G7’s previous promises. Most notably, the group has formally acknowledged — and quantified — the scale of the industrial renaissance that will be required to keep global average temperature increase to less than 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. It has provided concrete and measurable targets that should help to make clear where precious capital and human resources should be invested — not just for other governments, but also for businesses. It should also make clear where resources should not be expended. The G7 nations renewed their pledge to end “inefficient” fossil-fuel subsidies. But the world is still waiting for action that will give these targets credibility. Countries should adopt the G7 communiqué’s emissions targets and look for ways to expand climate-related investment in the developing world, where emissions are poised to rise quickly if no intervention is made. The communiqué rightly points out that engagement by the private sector will be crucial to meeting these goals, but it is up to policy-makers to lay down the rules of the road.(Nature Editorial. Tough targets. Concrete goals set out by the G7 nations lay the groundwork for a climate accord. Nature 522, 128; 11 June 2015)

Stefanni described the G7 process:" It was a long, hard slog for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but in the end the woman once dubbed the “climate chancellor” for her personal commitment to combating global warming pulled fellow G7 leaders to her side and triumphed over those resistant to putting an expiry date on fossil fuels. Germany has become the big economy most dedicated to shifting away from fossil fuels, although coal is still an important part of the mix. A 2011 decision to shutter its nuclear plants has led to surge in power generated by wind, solar and other renewables; last year they accounted for almost a third of Germany’s electricity production. The transition, called Energiewende, has become much more than an energy project, turning into a social revolution with broad political support. Backed by the German public, and boosted by her own deep knowledge of climate change (Merkel is a trained chemist), her long and steady push is now being lauded for bringing other G7 leaders on board, and eventually forcing the two primary opponents, Japan and Canada, to back down." (Sara Stefanini. Merkel convinces Canada and Japan on CO2… to join broad G7 pledge to cut emissions. POLITICO 8/6/15)

The Canadian conservative government under Stephen Harper was a perpetual disappointment and embarrassment to well-informed, thoughtful Canadians. Canada is an economically dependent oil producer. There are special concerns here about cuts in Government income and spending on social resources. In every country short-term selfish interests will always prevail over long term planning for sustainable human welfare. Canada elected a new Liberal Government in 2015. Justin Trudeau, the new Prime Minister is young, enthusiastic and determined to right the wrongs of the pervious administration. The task of reconciling the wealth production of the oil and gas industry with environmental protection and reduction of emissions is formidable.

Big environmental problems are built from many business and personal decisions, little mistakes that add up over time. If there is a solution, it will emerge from the collective value of millions of better decisions made by individuals all over the globe. The environmental action plan is to think globally and act locally - it does make sense.