Climate change – Could it lead to environmental collapse?

Brown hyaenas – Nocturnal travellers of the desert coast
July 13, 2012
Damara Tern – Namibia’s desert-breeding seabird
July 13, 2012
Brown hyaenas – Nocturnal travellers of the desert coast
July 13, 2012
Damara Tern – Namibia’s desert-breeding seabird
July 13, 2012

By Hu Berry

Change implies a slow but sure shift from one state to another. Collapse indicates an abrupt failure of a system. Is the global climate changing or collapsing due to our interference with the natural systems? We are in an unpredictable era of Earth’s total environment, which can eradicate many species. Will the human race survive?

Prepare for extremes. This is the advice of leading scientists studying climate and its consequences. Wet will get wetter and dry will get drier; hot hotter and cold colder. Deluge or drought holds sway over our planet and we are silent spectators of destruction beyond our control. Moreover, surface temperatures are going to fluctuate accordingly, stunting crops with heat or inhibiting them under a chilling swathe.

If this expresses doomsday thinking, think again – there are already discernible differences in the past 75 years, a time of immense industrialisation. The Earth’s area between 40 and 70 degrees north latitude received copious rains, while from the Equator to 30 degrees north it became drier. Temperatures dropped and increased correspondingly because precipitation cools and desiccation heats. The southern hemisphere mirrors this tendency as Australians can testify, citing recent ruinous bush fires and floods. Witness also Namibia’s present devastation by water in the north and north-east (see photo above).

Ominously, the symptoms point to a deeper, underlying cause. The converging climate, food, fuel and financial crises are all indicators of a massive global ecological bubble that may burst. We see ‘ecological overshoot’ whereby humanity exceeds the Earth’s carrying capacity. This leads to the inevitable consequences of resource scarcity, inequitable and unreasonable consumption, and unsustainable economic expansion. The global growth machine is seizing up because it is hitting ecological limits. Clearly the addition of a thousand million more people on the planet every 15 years puts physical limits upon arable land and fossil fuels. This exceeds the atmosphere’s waste absorption capacity, and also entails loss of intact marine and terrestrial ecosystems, which are necessary to power the biosphere. At the centre of this dilemma lies the human quirk of greed for power, control and unlimited growth. We should take cognisance of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s observation that proponents of unlimited growth are either madmen or economists.

Ecological tipping point

Perusing the annals of recent history it becomes clear that many factors, working singly or in combination, have contributed to the collapse of natural systems. They are habitat destruction, soil degradation, water mismanagement, overhunting, overfishing, introduction of alien species, environmental toxins, human-induced climate change and uncontrolled human population growth. The last-named is the root problem, simply because overpopulation of any species will ultimately affect it and its environment negatively.

Yet overpopulation remains a Holy Cow that most politicians and planners scrupulously avoid. Besides this, it seems that the global response to climate change has been slow and inadequate, and this could lead to conflict on the scale of world wars. There is a growing consensus among foremost scientists that an increasingly ecologically diminished, complex and networked world has made civilisation very vulnerable. Therefore we must cast a fresh gaze on the climate, which has remained benign for 10 000 years, making it possible for the human race to multiply, develop and prosper. Its stability accounts for the entire span of civilised human history. Does it require a climatic catastrophe to force decision-makers to wake up?

Even if we were to stop all CO2 emissions immediately, a 2ºC rise in global temperature is now inevitable due to latent heat in the oceans and the industrial chemical haze in the atmosphere, which have a lag of 20 to 30 years before their full impact shows. We are experiencing only what has been emitted up to the late 1970s. Even at 2°C warmer, it is believed that global heat will trigger a massive release of greenhouse gases now stored in the oceans, in trees and in the soil. This is the much-feared ecological ‘tipping point’ at which the great ice sheets disintegrate, food production tumbles, droughts spread, species go extinct and millions of people become ‘environmental refugees’. Once started, the process is unstoppable. We enter the realm of ‘positive feedback’, meaning all of Earth’s systems that previously controlled climate will collapse.

Look to sea-level rises of 8 to 12 metres or more! The scenes become apocalyptic – glaciers melt, earthquakes increase, oceans burp vast volumes of methane, permafrost thaws, releasing more methane, bush fires increase the carbon load, drought degrades the Amazon Basin, adding more carbon, decline of cold, fresh water from the Arctic alters the Gulf Stream. Warmer oceans absorb less carbon and become acidic, ruining fisheries; drought, heat, pests and disease disrupt global food supplies. Following these calamities comes the human ‘tipping point’ of environmental refugees, culture shock, wars for water, food, land and shelter. Billions of people perish. If this ‘Zeitgeist’ persists, we are in for biological suicide.

Does Namibia stand detached from these events? Absolutely not! Our dryness, our desert, our fertile Benguela Current are all products of global wind and water regimes. When the Pacific Ocean enters an El Niño phase, we feel it. El Niño is a natural phenomenon, over which we have no control, but more menacing signals are coming from changes in the global climate. As you read this the Wilkins Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula, an area of 13 680 km2, is melting. Add to this the inescapable reality that Arctic ice is also thawing rapidly. Scientists predict this titanic release of cold water could shut off the surface conveyor belt of the warm Gulf Stream to the British Isles and Europe. If this happens, the European Union and adjoining states can prepare themselves for intense, prolonged winters with temperatures diving to minus 30ºC. London, Paris, Berlin and other cities will become cloaked in a cataclysmic coat of ice, while transport, communications and commerce will literally freeze. This chilly forecast tells us that the Benguela and Namibia will not remain unscathed if the oceanic loops are altered. Too hot or too cold, too windy or windless are not beneficial for sensitive sea systems. A rupture of the global oceanic currents will affect everything in Namibia, from plankton to people.

Footnote: For those doubting that the disintegration of the climate is likely, read Dr Jared Diamond’s book Collapse (2005). He is Professor of Geography and Physiology at the University of California, an acclaimed scholar and a world expert on ecological processes.

This article appeared in the 2009/10 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.

Hu Berry was a scientist, conservationist and specialist tour guide. He was one of Venture Publications' most valued authors. Sadly he passed away in July 2011. To read more about him click here. 


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