Life on Earth as we have known it is hurtling towards death by a thousand cuts: large-scale deforestation, biodiversity loss, climate change, plastic pollution. Each crisis poses grave dangers, yet it is in combination that they pose a truly existential threat, leading scientists have warned.
Overlapping environmental crises could reinforce one another to such an extent that the global ecosystem could suffer a “systemic collapse,” 200 experts say in a report published by the environmental research body Future Earth. In the 50-page document they map out apocalyptic scenarios that could unfold in coming decades as a result of 30 planet-wide threats.
Extreme heatwaves, fueled by climate change, could for instance exacerbate water shortages; they could also trigger even more extreme weather events; and they could accelerate further warming by releasing more greenhouse gases such as methane through the melting of permafrost. The end result would be runaway warming that would lead to yet more biodiversity loss. Increased biodiversity loss, meanwhile, would entail the mass extinction of species, undermining entire ecosystems.
Simultaneously unfolding crises, the team of researchers stress, “have the potential to impact and amplify one another in ways that might cascade to create global systemic collapse.”
That is why holistic approaches on a global scale are sorely needed to tackle the various environmental threats at the same time. “Many scientists and policymakers are embedded in institutions that are used to thinking and acting on isolated risks, one at a time,” the experts argue. “We call on the world’s academics, business leaders and policy makers to pay attention to these five global risks and ensure they are treated as interacting systems.”
Scientists have been warning for years that various environmental crises will feed on and amplify one another, which will worsen their collective impacts and could result in as yet unforeseen or little understood consequences. “Human society will be faced with the devastating combined impacts of multiple interacting climate hazards,” warns Erik Franklin, a researcher at the University of Hawaii’s Institute of Marine Biology.
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