The Good Earth: Human activities jeopardize future generations

Credit: © underworld / Fotolia 

Scientists are concerned that global environmental
change represents a growing threat to human health.

Global warming and the rest of it is one of the more confusing topics we're confronted with.  Not that there's any doubt that warming is happening, but how do all of the various topics tie together?  One day it's research on warming, the next on the decline of fishing worldwide, followed by a report on the extinctions of species.

How does this all tie together?

We know that we're facing a series of environmental crises, but keeping it all organized in our minds is difficult.

Two weeks ago I came across a 2010 report from the University of Stockholm and several related groups that offers a solution to the confusion. The Stockholm Resilience Centre, founded in 2007 as a joint project of Stockholm University and the Beijer International Institute of Ecological Economics at The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences published a review of the nine critical Earth systems we rely on for survival of our species.  The nine critical systems are:
  1. Climate change
  2. Change in biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and species extinction)
  3. Stratospheric ozone depletion
  4. Ocean Acidification
  5. Biogeochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen cycles)
  6. Land-system change (for example deforestation)
  7. Freshwater use
  8. Atmospheric aerosol loading (microscopic particles in the atmosphere that affect climate and living organisms)
  9. Introduction of novel entities (e.g. organic pollutants, radioactive materials, nanomaterials, and micro-plastics).
As the report of the Centre points out, four of these systems are very stressed if not over the tipping point causing global change.  Four are stressed but not yet critical, and one is improving due to corrective action.  A further explanation of the systems is included in a sidebar to the article below.

SNfW is now using these nine systems to organize reports of the latest research as it is published on a page entitled THE GLOBAL ENVIRONMENT.

This new report from The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health proposes four actions that the people of the Good Earth can cooperate to preserve our planetary home through the combined actions of our governments and the many private organizations working to correct the different Earth systems under stress.

Here's the Rockefeller Foundation - Lancet report with links to the original articles in the attributions.
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Human activities are jeopardizing Earth's 
natural systems, health of future generations

New report calls for action to ensure future health, environmental sustainability, showing that solutions are within reach.

A new report released by The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health, calls for immediate, global action to protect the health of human civilization and the natural systems on which it depends. The report, Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene Epoch, provides the first ever comprehensive examination of evidence showing how the health and well-being of future generations is being jeopardised by the unprecedented degradation of the planet's natural resources and ecological systems.

"This Commission aims to put the health of human civilizations, and their special relationship with the larger biosphere, at the center of concerns for future planetary sustainability. Our civilization may seem strong and resilient, but history tells us that our societies are fragile and vulnerable. We hope to show how we can protect and strengthen all that we hold dear about our world," says Dr Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet and one of the report authors.

The report was written by a Commission of 15 leading academics and policymakers from institutions in 8 countries, and was chaired by Professor Sir Andy Haines of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, UK. It demonstrates how human activity and development have pushed to near breaking point the boundaries of the natural systems that support and sustain human civilizations.

"The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Planetary Health Commission has issued a dire warning: Human action is undermining the resilience of Earth's natural systems (see nine systems below), and in so doing we are compromising our own resilience, along with our health and, frankly, our future," said Dr Judith Rodin, President of The Rockefeller Foundation. "We are in a symbiotic relationship with our planet, and we must start to value that in very real ways. Just as Foundation leaders 100 years ago took a holistic view and launched the field of public health, the Commission's report marks a paradigm shift for a new era of global public health, one that must be integrated with broader policy decisions."

The Commission warns that a rising population, unsustainable consumption and the over-use of natural resources will exacerbate these health challenges in the future. The world's poorest communities will be among those at greatest risk, as they live in areas that are most strongly affected and have greater sensitivity to disease and poor health.

"We are on the verge of triggering irreversible, global effects, ranging from ocean acidification to biodiversity loss," says Professor Haines. "These environmental changes -- which include, but extend far beyond climate change -- threaten the gains in health that have been achieved over recent decades and increase the risks to health arising from major challenges as diverse as under-nutrition and food insecurity, freshwater shortages, emerging infectious diseases, and extreme weather events."

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The nine planetary boundaries
  • About the Nine Planetary Boundaries: These were developed as a project of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, founded in 2007, as a joint project of Stockholm University and the Beijer International Institute of Ecological Economics at The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.  The vision of the Centre is to work toward a world where social-ecological systems are understood, governed and managed, to enhance human well-being and the capacity to deal with complexity and change, for the sustainable co-evolution of human civilizations with the biosphere. The framework of Nine Boundaries was introduced in 2009, when a group of 28 internationally renowned scientists identified and quantified the first set of nine planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come.
  • Climate change
    • Recent evidence suggests that the Earth, now passing 390 ppmv CO2 in the atmosphere, has already transgressed the planetary boundary and is approaching several Earth system thresholds. We have reached a point at which the loss of summer polar sea-ice is almost certainly irreversible.    
  • Change in biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and species extinction)
    • The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005 concluded that changes to ecosystems due to human activities were more rapid in the past 50 years than at any time in human history, increasing the risks of abrupt and irreversible changes. The main drivers of change are the demand for food, water, and natural resources, causing severe biodiversity loss and leading to changes in ecosystem services. 
    • Stratospheric ozone depletion
      • The stratospheric ozone layer in the atmosphere filters out ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. If this layer decreases, increasing amounts of UV radiation will reach ground level. This can cause a higher incidence of skin cancer in humans as well as damage to terrestrial and marine biological systems. The appearance of the Antarctic ozone hole was proof that increased concentrations of anthropogenic ozone-depleting chemical substances, interacting with polar stratospheric clouds, had passed a threshold and moved the Antarctic stratosphere into a new regime. Fortunately, because of the actions taken as a result of the Montreal Protocol, we appear to be on the path that will allow us to stay within this boundary. 
    • Ocean acidification
      • Around a quarter of the CO2 that humanity emits into the atmosphere is ultimately dissolved in the oceans. Here it forms carbonic acid, altering ocean chemistry and decreasing the pH of the surface water. This increased acidity reduces the amount of available carbonate ions, an essential 'building block' used by many marine species for shell and skeleton formation. Beyond a threshold concentration, this rising acidity makes it hard for organisms such as corals and some shellfish and plankton species to grow and survive. Losses of these species would change the structure and dynamics of ocean ecosystems and could potentially lead to drastic reductions in fish stocks. Compared to pre-industrial times, surface ocean acidity has already increased by 30 percent.  Unlike most other human impacts on the marine environment, which are often local in scale, the ocean acidification boundary has ramifications for the whole planet. It is also an example of how tightly interconnected the boundaries are, since atmospheric CO2 concentration is the underlying controlling variable for both the climate and the ocean acidification boundaries, although they are defined in terms of different Earth system thresholds.
    • Biogeochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen cycles)
      • The biogeochemical cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus have been radically changed by humans as a result of many industrial and agricultural processes. Nitrogen and phosphorus are both essential elements for plant growth, so fertilizer production and application is the main concern. Much of this new reactive nitrogen is emitted to the atmosphere in various forms rather than taken up by crops. When it is rained out, it pollutes waterways and coastal zones or accumulates in the terrestrial biosphere. Similarly, a relatively small proportion of phosphorus fertilizers applied to food production systems is taken up by plants; much of the phosphorus mobilized by humans also ends up in aquatic systems. These can become oxygen-starved as bacteria consume the blooms of algae that grow in response to the high nutrient supply. A significant fraction of the applied nitrogen and phosphorus makes its way to the sea, and can push marine and aquatic systems across ecological thresholds of their own.  One regional-scale example of this effect is the decline in the shrimp catch in the Gulf of Mexico's 'dead zone' caused by fertilizer transported in rivers from the US Midwest.
    • Land-system change (for example deforestation)
      • Forests, grasslands, wetlands and other vegetation types have primarily been converted to agricultural land, driving the serious reductions in biodiversity. While each incident of land cover change occurs on a local scale, the aggregated impacts can have consequences for Earth system processes on a global scale. A boundary for human changes to land systems needs to reflect not just the absolute quantity of land, but also its function, quality and spatial distribution. Forests play a particularly important role in controlling the linked dynamics of land use and climate, and is the focus of the boundary for land system change.
    • Freshwater use
      • The freshwater cycle is strongly affected by climate change and its boundary is closely linked to the climate boundary, yet human pressure is now the dominant driving force determining the functioning and distribution of global freshwater systems. Water is becoming increasingly scarce - by 2050 about half a billion people are likely to be subject to water-stress, increasing the pressure to intervene in water systems.  A water boundary related to consumptive freshwater use and environmental flow requirements has been proposed to maintain the overall resilience of the Earth system and to avoid the risk of 'cascading' local and regional thresholds.
    • Atmospheric aerosol loading (microscopic particles in the atmosphere that affect climate and living organisms)
      • An atmospheric aerosol planetary boundary was proposed primarily because of the influence of aerosols on Earth's climate system. 
        • Aerosols play a critically important role in the hydrological cycle affecting cloud formation and global-scale and regional patterns of atmospheric circulation, such as the monsoon systems in tropical regions.
        • Aerosols have a direct effect on climate, by changing how much solar radiation is reflected or absorbed in the atmosphere. Shifts in climate regimes and monsoon systems have already been seen in highly polluted environments, giving a quantifiable regional measure for an aerosol boundary. 
        • Aerosols have adverse effects on many living organisms. Inhaling highly polluted air causes roughly 800,000 people to die prematurely each year. 
    • Introduction of novel entities (e.g. organic pollutants, radioactive materials, nanomaterials, and micro-plastics). 
      • Emissions of toxic and long-lived substances such as synthetic organic pollutants, heavy metal compounds and radioactive materials represent some of the key human-driven changes to the planetary environment. These compounds can have potentially irreversible effects on living organisms and on the physical environment. Even when the uptake and bioaccumulation of chemical pollution is at sub-lethal levels for organisms, the effects of reduced fertility and the potential of permanent genetic damage can have severe effects on ecosystems far removed from the source of the pollution. For example, persistent organic compounds have caused dramatic reductions in bird populations and impaired reproduction and development in marine mammals. 
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    Concerns that global environmental change represents a growing threat to human health are underlined by two new research articles being published in conjunction with the report.

    One article, published in The Lancet, quantifies for the first time the human health implications of declines in animal pollinators (such as bees and other insects). The study, led by one of the report Commissioners, Dr Samuel Myers, from Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, USA, shows that global declines in animal pollinators could lead to up to 1.4 million excess deaths annually (an increase in global mortality of 2.7%) from a combination of increased vitamin A and folate deficiency and increased incidence of non-communicable diseases like heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers. The research shows that these health effects would be experienced in both developed and developing countries.

    The second study, also led by Dr Myers, and published in The Lancet Global Health, quantifies for the first time a major global health threat associated with anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The study shows that reductions in the zinc content of important food crops as a response to rising concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere will place between 132-180 million people at new risk for zinc deficiency globally by around 2050. In addition, these nutrient reductions will exacerbate existing zinc deficiency for billions around the world. Zinc deficiency leads to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths from infectious disease because of reduced immune function.

    Solutions to these clear and potent dangers are within reach, say the Commission authors, but the world needs to take decisive, coordinated action to protect the environment and secure the health of future generations.

    The Commission outlines a range of beneficial policies and actions that can be taken by governments, international organisations, researchers, health professionals and citizens that are good for both health and the environment. Examples include benefits from reduced air pollution, healthy diets with more fruit and vegetables, active transport (walking and cycling), reduced urban heat stress from green spaces, and increased resilience to coastal flooding from intact wetlands and mangroves. In addition, the report identifies some major gaps in evidence and the research that is needed. Some of the recommendations include:
    • Integrated social, economic and environmental policies: Policies and initiatives need to be designed to promote more efficient use of current resources to allow for the replenishment of natural systems. They should also spur innovation and make sustainable practices more mainstream, such as reducing waste and developing resilient cities.
    • Better governance: Leaders need to take initiatives to reduce the risks to health and vital ecosystems, and implement policies to reduce subsidies that block sustainable practices, encourage behavioral change, incentivize the private sector, support research, and promote public discourse. To help ensure that Planetary Health is at the center of national policy, governments should give responsibility for monitoring trends and developing policies to a body that answers directly to the Head of State.
    • Improved health systems: Environmental health needs must be integrated into health budgeting and purchasing. In addition, as environmental threats will be characterised by surprise and uncertainty, health systems must be designed for resilience, planning for potential risks and adapting quickly to meet challenges and restore services.
    • A reorganization and expansion of our knowledge on Planetary Health: There are substantial gaps in knowledge that can be closed with the expansion of trans disciplinary research, improved understanding of the links between health and environmental change and potential adaptation strategies, building integrated surveillance systems and reporting on progress nationally and internationally.
    Related stories:
    Story Source:  Materials provided by The Lancet. 
    1. Sarah Whitmee, Andy Haines, Chris Beyrer, Frederick Boltz, Anthony G Capon, Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias, Alex Ezeh, Howard Frumkin, Peng Gong, Peter Head, Richard Horton, Georgina M Mace, Robert Marten, Samuel S Myers, Sania Nishtar, Steven A Osofsky, Subhrendu K Pattanayak, Montira J Pongsiri, Cristina Romanelli, Agnes Soucat, Jeanette Vega, Derek Yach. Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch: report of The Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on planetary health. The Lancet, 2015.
    2. Samuel S Myers, K Ryan Wessells, Itai Kloog, Antonella Zanobetti, Joel Schwartz. Effect of increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide on the global threat of zinc deficiency: a modelling study. The Lancet Global Health, 2015.

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