NEW YORK CITY—The state of the planet is grim, whether that assessment is undertaken from the perspective of economic development, social justice or the global environment. What's known as sustainable development—a bid to capture all three of those efforts in one effort and phrase—has hardly advanced since it was first used in the 1980s and the world is hardly closer to eradicating extreme poverty, respecting the dignity and rights of all peoples or resolving environmental challenges, whether climate change or the extinction of plants and animals. Or so argued the participants at the Earth Institute's State of the Planet 2012 meeting on October 11.
The primary force behind all three of these challenges is of course, humanity, which now puts more nitrogen into the soil than biogeochemical processes and hijacks some 40 percent of the photosynthetic product of plants on land. Our species has also become the determining factor in the carbon cycle, emitting more than 40 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year and slowly changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere. No wonder some scientists have argued that this is a new era in the planet's history, one best described as the Anthropocene.
Earth Institute director and economist Jeffrey Sachs, a member of the Scientific American advisory board, delivered this indictment of current human activity to start the day and the dire prognosis was then reaffirmed by everyone from college students in Kazakhstan presenting via video conference to the deputy secretary general of the United Nations, Jan Eliasson. As a student from Brazil noted, even the reduction in deforestation in the Amazon has proved temporary, ramping back up this year.
But there is hope. As Eliasson observed: "Nobody can do everything but everybody can do something."
After all, the world has tackled and resolved big problems before: we are on the way to phasing out the pollutants behind the annual ozone hole and eliminating lead from gasoline in most countries. Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, who has to try to get the world to agree on what to do about global warming, argued that the climate meeting in Durban last year represented a commitment to doing "something" about greenhouse gas pollution, even if it is "not enough." Durban represented a "signal that we are going forward with a low carbon economy," she said via videoconference. "A few years from now, low carbon will be the norm, not a novelty."
That had better be the case, given the loading of the climate "dice" that has been ongoing since climatologist James Hansen first testified about global warming to the U.S. Congress back in 1988. Those dice are still loaded and "becoming more loaded," Hansen said. "We've only felt half the warming from the gases already added to the atmosphere," thanks to the long lag time in warming the oceans, a process also already well under way. As a result, the world can expect at least as much warming of average global temperatures as has already happened—0.8 degree Celsius—even if all greenhouse gas emissions stopped today.