Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Trump Era is that, while the American republic falters by a thousand daily cuts, we are neglecting the defining issues of our time. Income inequality, systemic racism, and a brazenly corrupt campaign finance system have all fallen out of focus, but there is perhaps no issue that is so immense, and seen such immense setbacks, as the health of our only planet.
After significant steps were made in combatting climate change and preserving an environment for human civilization towards the end of the Obama years, progress has not merely stalled under Trump, it has taken many giant steps back. A group of 15,000 scientists from 184 countries have issued a so-called “second notice” to humanity this week with a simple and terrifying message: If we do not act, “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”
The report, published Monday in the journal BioScience and picked up by The Washington Post, was organized to mark the 25th anniversary of the first “warning to humanity.” That was published in 1992 by a group of 1,700 scientists. It did not mince words about the stakes involved if humans did not modify their behavior to stop exacerbating the factors (“stratospheric ozone depletion, air and water pollution, the collapse of fisheries and loss of soil productivity, deforestation, species loss and catastrophic global climate change”) that were pushing our ecosystem towards the breaking point.
“If not checked,” wrote the scientists, led by particle physicist and Union of Concerned Scientists co-founder Henry Kendall, “many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.”
Now, the updated warning holds that we simply have not made sufficient progress in curbing our destructive behavior as a species. “Humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges,” this week’s screed reads, “and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse.” As WaPo notes, since the original piece, global average temperatures have continued to rise—half a degree Celsius since 1992, which has a profound impact on the ecosystem. Annual carbon dioxide emissions have increased 62 percent. But that’s not all:
Access to fresh water has declined, as has the amount of forestland and the number of wild-caught fish (a marker of the health of global fisheries). The number of ocean dead zones has increased. The human population grew by a whopping 2 billion, while the populations of all other mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish have declined by nearly 30 percent.
The one bright spot, the scientists note, is that we have dramatically decreased the size of the hole in the ozone layer. It is now measured at the smallest since 1988. Scientists attribute that to swift, dramatic action by humans and their governments, as we phased out chlorofluorocarbons. Those chemicals were once used in air conditioners, refrigerators, and elsewhere, but we discovered they could trigger reactions in the atmosphere that broke down the ozone. So we banned them, and things got better. The report actually cites this as an example of how, if we commit ourselves to action, we can make progress on these monumental, seemingly too-big-to-manage problems.