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SLOWING DOWN BIOSPHERIC CHANGE John Cairns, Jr. University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology Emeritus Department of Biological Sciences.

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Presentation on theme: "SLOWING DOWN BIOSPHERIC CHANGE John Cairns, Jr. University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology Emeritus Department of Biological Sciences."— Presentation transcript:

1 SLOWING DOWN BIOSPHERIC CHANGE John Cairns, Jr. University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology Emeritus Department of Biological Sciences Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Blacksburg, Virginia 24061, U.S.A. November 2010


3 IN THE LAST PART OF THE 20 TH CENTURY AND THE BEGINNING OF THE 21 ST CENTURY, RAPID CLIMATE CHANGES AND DAMAGE TO THE BIOSPHERE HAVE INCREASED THE RISKS TO HOMO SAPIENS MARKEDLY. For example, Ecological Overshoot Day occurred on 21 August in 2010. Ecological Overshoot Day marks the point in time when the resources Earth can regenerate in one year have been exhausted ( This ecological overshoot is not sustainable  especially when the human population is increasing exponentially and arable land is being lost.

4 HARM ALREADY DONE TO THE BIOSPHERE AND THE CLIMATE SYSTEM WILL REQUIRE HUMANKIND TO ADAPT TO EXISTING AND NEW CONDITIONS FOR AT LEAST A CENTURY  PROBABLY MORE.  Since most climate and biospheric changes will be irreversible, adaptation is necessary for human survival.  If business as usual continues (e.g., increased emissions of anthropogenic greenhouse gases), the rate of global change and, consequently, the rate of adjustment needed for survival will increase.

5 THE NEED FOR HUMANKIND TO ADAPT WILL NOT BE TRANSIENT.  If anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, if damage to the biospheric life support system continues, if acidification of the oceans has a major effect upon fisheries and other food resources, then the rate of global change will continue.  If the positive feedback loops (e.g., carbon dioxide) are fully activated, runaway climate change will make continual, rapid adjustment mandatory.  Sustainable use of the planet is much discussed, but the discussions have had little or no discernible effect upon ecological overshoot, human population growth, and transition to non-carbon energy sources (e.g., wind, solar).

6 SCIENCE MAKES DECISIONS BASED ON THE PREPONDERANCE OF EVIDENCE FROM PEER-REVIEWED, SCIENTIFIC JOURNALS, BUT THE NEWS MEDIA AND THE GENERAL PUBLIC DO NOT.  The assault on science and scientists is intensifying and is dramatically altering Earth’s biospheric life support system and increasing the risk to humankind.  The situation would be vastly improved if efforts to cast doubt about science and scientists are diminished or ceased. 1  Individuals who cast doubt on science and scientists rarely have published in scientific journals, have no alternative plan of action, and sometimes no scientific credentials, but their doubts make good news stories.  These deniers eventually have been discredited repeatedly, but the news media continue to include them as news and many citizens continue to believe them.

7 NOT TO KNOW WHAT HAS BEEN TRANSACTED IN THE PAST IS TO BE ALWAYS A CHILD. CICERO  Part of the needed improvement in scientific literacy about climate change is understanding the link between recent and historic data.  An informed citizenry is essential to a democracy, which means an adequate level of scientific literacy in the 21 st century.  The major problem is increasing literacy about the major, interactive, global crises ( human economy, climate change, exponential human population growth, ecological overshoot, biotic impoverishment and the reduction of biodiversity, renewable resource depletion, energy allocation, and environmental migrants ) so that informed action replaces talk about these crises.

8 HOW CAN SCIENTISTS BE PERSUADED TO COMMUNICATE HOW SCIENCE WORKS TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC AND THREATS TO THE BIOSPHERE AND THE EIGHT INTERACTIVE GLOBAL CRISES, AND, IF THEY AGREE TO DO SO, HOW CAN THE GENERAL PUBLIC BE PERSUADED TO SPEND TIME EXAMINING THE MATERIAL THE SCIENTISTS PRODUCE? Most academics are not highly literate about global systems-level problems (e.g., climate), but a modest amount of reading should bring them up to speed for the basics. In fields, such as climate change, much new information is being generated  one must determine how recent the information is as well as the qualification of the scientists providing the information.  The news media, politicians, and the general public are not alarmed by the catastrophes that will result if humankind continues business as usual.  People seem indifferent to catastrophes distant in time or space.  The United States dollar dropped significantly in value on August 24, 2010, increasing the price of all imported goods  one more worry to distract the American consumer from the global crises.  Until the global crises are perceived as immediate, business as usual will continue.

9 UNLESS IMMEDIATE ACTION IS TAKEN TO REDUCE THE PROBABILITY OF THE EIGHT CRISES BECOMING CATASTROPHES, THE CRISES WILL WORSEN. 2  Runaway climate change is becoming increasingly probable.  Climate change is already having severe impacts on global agricultural productivity, which is declining due to droughts, floods, climate change (temperature), and loss of arable lands, but the human population is still growing exponentially.  The damage to the biospheric life support system must cease or the present biosphere will be replaced with a biosphere almost certainly less favorable to Homo sapiens.  How can the human population be reduced to be within Earth’s carrying capacity when discussions of population control are virtually taboo?  The global shift to renewable energy is promising, 3 but will the shift reduce emissions of anthropogenic greenhouse gases rapidly enough?  Toxic chemicals, most recently endocrine disrupters, are still a major hazard to human health and the biosphere.  Species are the basic components of the biosphere so serious declines in biodiversity should be a major priority.  Unless a precipitous decline occurs in the human population (e.g., pandemic diseases), the cornucopian era is over  MORE will not always be available and resources per capita will be fewer and more expensive.

10 Acknowledgments. I am indebted to Darla Donald for transcribing the handwritten draft and for editorial assistance in preparation for publication. References 1 Pooley, E. 2010. The Climate Wars. Hyperion, New York, NY. 2 Cairns, J., Jr. 2010. Threats to the biosphere: eight interactive global crises. Journal of Cosmology 8:1906-1915. 3 Brown, L. R. 2010. A global shift to renewable energy. Earth Policy Institute 24August

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