New Study Warns of Crossing Planetary Boundaries  

Posted by Big Gav in

Yale "Environment 360" has an article about a report in Nature warning "The Earth has nine biophysical thresholds beyond which it cannot be pushed without disastrous consequences ... ominously, we have already moved past three of these tipping points" - Provocative New Study Warns of Crossing Planetary Boundaries.

Now, ironically, civilization has become so powerful that it can reshape the planet itself. “We have become a force to contend with at the global level,” as Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Center in Sweden, puts it. Humans have changed the chemistry of Earth’s oceans, lowering their pH and causing ocean acidification. We are shifting the composition of the atmosphere, raising levels of carbon dioxide higher than they’ve been in at least the past 800,000 years.

A number of scientists have warned in recent years that if we keep pushing the planet this way, we will cause sudden, irreversible damage to the systems that made human civilization possible in the first place. Typically, they’ve just focused on one of these tipping points at a time. But in today’s issue of the journal Nature, Rockstrom and 27 of his fellow environmental scientists argue that we have to conceive of many tipping points at once. They propose that humans must keep the planet in what they call a “safe operating space,” inside of which we can thrive. If we push past the boundaries of that space — by wiping out biodiversity, for example, or diverting too much of the world’s freshwater — we risk catastrophe.

Unfortunately, the authors of the Nature paper maintain, we’ve already started pushing out beyond these boundaries without knowing where they actually are. “We’re sitting on top of a mesa right now, and we’re driving around, but we don’t have our lights on and we don’t even have a map,” says Jonathan Foley, a co-author of the new study and the director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. “That’s a dangerous way to move around.”

In their new study, Foley and his colleagues put down stakes to mark where they believe seven of these boundaries lie. By their estimate, we have already pushed beyond three of these boundaries, and are moving quickly toward the other four. “We’re running out of time,” says Rockstrom.

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