I was 14 when North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950. As an adolescent, I was more preoccupied with puberty-related personal issues than politics. But when Canada sent military personnel as part of a UN effort, I religiously followed the battle lines. Every day the local paper’s front page reported how troops were doing, with a map showing enemy and allied movements.
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Now we face an even greater challenge, but it’s not always reflected in headlines.
In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a terrifying report on humanity’s impact on the chemistry of the atmosphere — the source of air, weather, climate and seasons. Our emissions have increased average global temperatures by at least 1 C since pre-industrial times, causing ice sheets and glaciers to melt, and wildfires, hurricanes, floods and droughts to become more widespread and intense.
At the 2015 Paris climate conference, all nations committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so temperatures wouldn’t rise by more than 2 C by 2100. The IPCC report concluded a rise above 1.5 C will cause climate chaos. We’re on a trajectory to reach 3 C or more! The report gave a glimmer of hope that we could escape catastrophic climatic consequences by reducing emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 and completely by 2050.
The IPCC target of cutting emissions in half within a decade and completely in three decades is a narrow window, with enormous ecological, economic and political repercussions, yet the urgent call to action was a one-day, low-key media event.
The IPCC study didn’t garner the same kinds of headlines or urgent stories as the Korean War. Soon after its release, Canada legalized cannabis, which pushed everything else to the media sidelines. The IPCC target of cutting emissions in half within a decade and completely in three decades is a narrow window, with enormous ecological, economic and political repercussions, yet the urgent call to action was a one-day, low-key media event.
Last May, the UN released a major global biodiversity study showing humanity has caused species loss comparable to mega-extinctions in which up to 90 per cent of plants and animals disappeared. It’s not just whales, tigers and penguins that are endangered; insects, the most abundant, diverse and important animals, have been devastated by decades of poisons pumped into air, water and soil.
Now, up to a million plant and animal species are in imminent danger of vanishing! As Earth’s top predator, we depend on nature’s productivity and services — exchanging carbon dioxide with oxygen, filtering water in the hydrologic cycle, creating soil, capturing sunlight, renewing protoplasm, etc. Climate change and large-scale extinction are intimately related consequences of human activity with enormous repercussions for us, yet when Prince Harry and Meghan had a baby in May, media coverage of species extinction disappeared.
Our great evolutionary advantage — intelligence — has served us well. But we’ve become such a powerful presence that our collective impact is driving changes in the physical, chemical and biological properties of the planet on a geological scale — leading some to call this the Anthropocene epoch.
Confronting climate and extinction challenges with the urgency they deserve must dominate our thoughts and priorities.
Confronting climate and extinction challenges with the urgency they deserve must dominate our thoughts and priorities. Every day, media report on Dow Jones averages, the S&P index, the value of the loonie, the price of a barrel of oil, the current status of companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, Exxon and Toyota, and celebrity and sports news.
But what about the real things that matter to us? How many tonnes of pesticides were spread around the globe or plastic into the ocean? How many species have vanished? How many plastic microbeads, hormone mimics and carcinogens have we consumed? How many hectares of land have become desert? How much carbon dioxide have we added to the air? How many tonnes must be reduced to keep temperature from rising above 1.5 C? So many numbers are of far greater importance for our species’ future than stock market values, yet media often ignore them.
We’ve frittered away two of the 12 years we have to halve our greenhouse gas emissions. Where is the daily discussion about concrete ways to reduce them? What about job opportunities acting on ecological crises will create?
It’s said that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. What are we doing while the planet is burning? So blinded by our success as a species, we’re preoccupied by our own amusement, comfort, hyper-consumption, businesses and politics.
We proceed down this path at our peril.