Climate change, population pressure could send planet into new regime for which we are unprepared
A prestigious group of scientists from around the world is warning that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change may be driving Earth toward an irreversible change in the biosphere, a planet-wide tipping point that would have destructive consequences absent adequate preparation and mitigation.
“It really will be a new world, biologically, at that point,” warns Anthony Barnosky, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of a review paper appearing in the June 7 issue of the journal Nature. “The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including, for example, fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations.”
The Nature paper, in which the scientists compare the biological impact of past incidences of global change with processes under way today and assess evidence for what the future holds, appears in an issue devoted to the environment in advance of the June 20-22 United Nations Rio+20 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The result of such a major shift in the biosphere would be mixed, Barnosky noted, with some plant and animal species disappearing, new mixes of remaining species, and major disruptions in terms of which agricultural crops can grow where.
The paper by 22 internationally known scientists describes an urgent need for better predictive models that are based on a detailed understanding of how the biosphere reacted in the distant past to rapidly changing conditions, including climate and human population growth. In a related development, ground-breaking research to develop the reliable, detailed biological forecasts the paper is calling for is now underway at UC Berkeley. The endeavor, The Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology, or BiGCB, is a massive undertaking involving more than 100 UC Berkeley scientists from an extraordinary range of disciplines that already has received funding: a $2.5 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and a $1.5 million grant from the Keck Foundation. The paper by Barnosky and others emerged from the first conference convened under the BiGCB’s auspices.
“One key goal of the BiGCB is to understand how plants and animals responded to major shifts in the atmosphere, oceans, and climate in the past, so that scientists can improve their forecasts and policy makers can take the steps necessary to either mitigate or adapt to changes that may be inevitable,” Barnosky said. “Better predictive models will lead to better decisions in terms of protecting the natural resources future generations will rely on for quality of life and prosperity.” Climate change could also lead to global political instability, according to a U.S. Department of Defense study referred to in the Nature paper.