By Jill Sigal | April 1, 2015 | Lifestyle
The world’s growing population and the impact of the changing climate are putting nature’s ability to provide for all of us at risk. Are we paying enough attention to this looming threat?
Take a look around and it becomes clear that nearly everything surrounding us—the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the butcher-block table in your kitchen, the paper used for this magazine—comes from nature. The simple truth is that humanity cannot survive without nature: for our food, fresh water, lifesaving medicines, and so much more.
When you see the abundance of food at the local supermarket—the bins of fruits and vegetables, the seafood on ice, the water bottles on the shelves—you may not always think about where it all comes from or what would happen if nature could no longer provide for us. Currently there are 7.3 billion people on the planet. According to a report by the United Nations, the world’s population is expected to grow to 9.6 billion by the year 2050. Global demand for food, water, and energy is predicted to increase by 35 percent, 40 percent, and 50 percent, respectively, by 2030. This will further test nature’s ability to provide for us, as will the expanding middle class around the world.
The unprecedented consumption of critical natural resources poses enormous challenges for the entire planet. Some countries are already feeling the effects with depleted fisheries and diminished food stocks resulting from the inability of agricultural production to keep pace with demand. In recent years, more food was consumed around the world than was produced. The changing climate compounds these trends, as the increasing number and severity of storms (like Hurricane Sandy, which battered the East Coast in 2012), floods, and droughts threaten global food and water supplies.
Competition for increasingly scarce resources can lead to social and political instability, conflict, radicalization, and possibly even failed nations. According to the US National Intelligence Council, “[resource] scarcities are likely to hit hardest on poorer states, leading in the worst case to internal or interstate conflict and spillover to regional destabilization.” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, the country’s premier foreign-policy think tank, agrees. “Resources are linked to both the stability of countries and to the stability of regions,” he says. Resource shortages and competition need to be on “the list of possible sources of friction or conflict” and are “potentially a contributing cause of instability within countries and conceivably a source of instability between countries.” But resource scarcity is not just a problem for other countries; it is also a threat to the United States’ economic interests and national security.
Given the stress on nature’s ability to provide for the growing population due to increasing demand and the serious impacts of the changing climate, are we doomed, or is there still hope? According to Peter Seligmann, a leading conservationist and the founder, chairman, and CEO of Conservation International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting nature for the well-being of people, there is reason to be hopeful. “Many governments, businesses, and local communities are realizing the importance of nature to the global economy, livelihoods, and security,” he says. “They are not standing on the sidelines watching as nature is depleted. They are engaging and taking actions to ensure nature is sustainable.”
Seligmann cites the example of Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, which is leading the charge for sustainability among corporations with its three goals: to sell products that sustain both people and the environment, to create zero waste, and to run on 100 percent renewable energy. Due to its vast size, Walmart can have a significant impact on sustainability up and down its supply chain. “Walmart executives see that their supplies of fish and food depend upon the health of ecosystems,” Seligmann explains, “and they see that ecosystems are being stressed out by shifts in climate. That affects their supply. They’re thinking long-term.”
According to Rob Walton, the company’s chairman and the eldest son of Walmart founder Sam Walton, “For Walmart, it’s about our responsibility as a business, but partly about how many of our sustainability efforts allow us to be more efficient and to continue to pass those savings on to our customers.” Ensuring a sustainable supply chain so that its shelves are always fully stocked is critical to the company’s business.
If you’ve noticed a difference in the size of laundry detergent bottles in the last decade, you have Walmart to thank. The company has single-handedly driven the industry to embrace more eco-friendly packaging. And at Walmart’s 2014 Sustainability Product Expo, it introduced an initiative challenging manufacturers to reduce by 25 percent the amount of water in every dose of detergent in North America by 2018. Also announced at the Expo was a new initiative to increase recycling rates in the US by providing low-interest loans to municipalities for recycling projects.
Increasingly, companies—including Disney, Starbucks, and Marriott—are realizing that environmental sustainability is not only in their economic self-interest; it is also in the interest of their customers and the communities in which they operate. For example, The Walt Disney Company is implementing major changes designed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, improve its energy efficiency, reduce its water consumption, minimize waste, protect natural ecosystems, and inspire action on environmental health. The company is also funding a flagship project in the Peruvian Amazon to address the main causes of deforestation.
Many are aware of Whole Foods’ eco-friendly policies, which include supporting sustainable agriculture and sound environmental practices. The company has also designed Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design [LEED]-certified stores and initiated recycling programs, and it offsets 100 percent of its energy consumption with renewable-energy credits. And through its sustainable coffee-sourcing program, known as CAFE (Coffee and Farmer Equity) Practices, Starbucks is maintaining the quality of its brews while encouraging higher environmental, social, and economic standards. The initiative has had a significant positive impact on forest conservation and coffee-farming communities, and the company is expected to meet its goal of serving 100 percent ethically sourced coffee this year.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international body that reviews scientific research on the changing climate, stated in a recent report that it is “unequivocal” that the global climate is warming: “The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.”
The IPCC notes that concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased and projects that if the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions continues, the climate and oceans will continue to warm during the 21st century. That could result in sea levels rising anywhere from 21 inches to three feet by 2100, endangering cities worldwide, from New York and Miami to London and Sydney. Coastal flooding and erosion are expected to increase with rising sea levels.
The panel also found evidence that human health, agriculture, water supplies, and in some cases people’s livelihoods have already been impacted by climate change. Increased acidification of the oceans (from the absorption of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) has harmed marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs and fisheries, potentially threatening our food security. The IPCC predicts climate change is projected to impact the availability of fresh water and increase water scarcity, which could result in competition for the resource. The production of crops like wheat and rice is also projected to be negatively impacted by the changing climate. Risks to human health may also rise due to stronger heat waves, decreased food production, and a greater prevalence of disease, according to the panel.
One place that is already feeling the impact of the changing climate is the remote nation of Kiribati, which sits just a few feet above sea level in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, more than 1,000 miles south of Hawaii. Kiribati is composed of 33 tiny islands and has a population of just over 100,000. If sea levels continue to rise, this republic, which is directly in the eye of the storm, could literally be swallowed up by the sea.
According to the country’s president, Anote Tong, rising tides have damaged property and infrastructure, and sea water is intruding on freshwater plants and damaging food crops. “The future is a very real concern,” he says. “My grandchildren will have a very difficult future. We really have to do a lot of work. We need resources to be able to build up the islands in order to be resilient to the impacts that will come in the future.” Although people living thousands of miles from Kiribati may not yet feel the effects of climate change directly, eventually they will, Tong adds, and the world should act now, before it’s too late. “It is better not to look back and say, ‘Oh no, we should have done something,’” says Tong. He sees this issue as “the most serious moral challenge for humanity,” adding that “humanity will, at some point in time, see the need and the obligation to respond to what is happening. If it’s later, we will go down the drain, but hopefully it will be a lesson. I hope that lesson is well learned to ensure that whatever further damage would be caused will not happen.”
Here at home, the third National Climate Assessment, published last year, reports that people across the United States—from corn growers in Iowa to oyster farmers in Washington State—are already feeling the impact of our changing climate, and that impact is growing. The first decade of the 21st century was the world’s hottest on record, and 2012 was the warmest year recorded in the continental United States. According to the report, temperatures in most areas of the country are expected to rise by as much as four degrees Fahrenheit in the coming decades, which threatens US agricultural production, worth about $330 billion annually.
The US defense and intelligence communities are increasingly focusing on the impact of climate change on resource scarcity, food security, and stability within and among nations. The US Department of Defense’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review characterizes climate change as a significant global challenge. “The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world,” the report states. “These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions—conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”
In a 2013 speech, Chuck Hagel, then the US secretary of defense, spoke about how climate change can “significantly add to the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. Food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and more severe natural disasters all place additional burdens on economies, societies, and institutions around the world.” Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations agrees that the changing climate is potentially a source of social instability, possibly resulting in large-scale population movements and a humanitarian nightmare as well as political destabilization. The changing climate raises real questions of economic viability, he says, and if it leads to failed states, “that can create breeding grounds for terrorism or other forms of behaviors that we do not want to see.”
Despite the concerns expressed by scientists and world leaders, Americans rank addressing global warming near the bottom of their policy priorities. In a poll conducted last year by the Pew Research Center, global warming came in 19th among 20 policy concerns, with the economy, jobs, and defending the country from terrorism being the respondents’ top priorities. Yet, according to Conservation International’s Peter Seligmann, the changing climate could be devastating in all of those areas—threatening our food and water supply, our economic stability, and ultimately our security—and he believes that something must be done now.
Nations and communities need to take measures to mitigate climate change by reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, Seligmann says, adding they must also adapt to the changes that have already occurred and prepare for those to come. Ecosystem-based approaches, such as conserving and restoring forests and coastal mangrove swamps, as well as building seawalls to protect against the rising oceans, are adaptive measures that can reduce the impact of climate change by increasing a locality’s resilience. “Those actions require a change in our behavior,” he says. “Those actions require a change in how we supply our energy. Those actions require an increased recognition of the importance of securing ecosystems and their health.”
What can individuals do to make a difference? “There is much we can do, in terms of whom we vote for and in terms of making good choices with our dollars to make sure we purchase things that are manufactured by companies that are really helping to find solutions rather than exacerbating the problem,” Seligmann says. “Protecting nature is not an option. It is essential for the well-being of people. It is not someone else’s problem. We are all in this together.”
No one can predict the future with 100 percent accuracy, so we cannot know for sure how the changing climate will alter nature’s ability to provide for the world’s growing population. Nor can we be certain of the long-term impact that resource scarcity will have on the global economy, security, and people’s livelihoods. But what we can see are the consequences of the changing climate today. We can either take action now to ensure the health of our natural world, or we can wait and see whether the predictions come true and hope we don’t end up looking back and saying, “Oh no, we should have done something.”
Nature and all it provides for us—fresh water, fertile soil, food, and so much more—is the lifeblood of human well-being. The pressures on its ecosystems have never been greater. The stakes have never been higher. Protecting nature from the changing climate and ensuring its health is of strategic importance to our economy, our security, and our survival. The planet will endure, with or without us. As Harrison Ford, vice chair of Conservation International, says, “Nature doesn’t need people. People need nature.”
Photography by Kurt Markus/Trunk Archive; James Wojcik/Trunk Archive; XONOVETS; Montree Hanlue