Climate change, biodiversity conservation and pollution
David Shorthouse, Canberra and Region Quakers
This article is based on a talk given at the QPLC webinar on 30 April, 2022
“We are called to consider the world as an enspirited whole, to accept no boundary to repairing and sustaining the Earth for the future, and to appreciate more deeply the creative energy in all living things and life processes. We seek to mend what has been hurt, and to strengthen our courage to discern and bear witness to this spiritual care for the Earth.” (Extract from the Australia Yearly Meeting Quaker Earthcare Statement, January 2008)
Our Australian Quaker Earthcare statement was adopted at a time when Canberra Friend and climate scientist, Andrew Glikson, wrote “Climate Change is tracking toward levels which transcend the planetary boundaries which allowed the development of humans over the last 3 million years.”
Now, at a time when action on climate change is a politically (but not scientifically) disputed policy area, we regularly hear from our politicians that Australia will play its part by implementing policies directed to reducing carbon pollution to net zero by 2050 (Liberal/National), or 43% by 2030 (ALP), or perhaps 60% by 2030 (some Independents). This seems to me to be inadequate, simplistic and suggesting gradual linear trajectory towards net zero. This seems also to be somewhat disconnected from the scientific community’s increasingly urgent calls for deep cuts to carbon emissions, massive use of renewable energy, extensive land restoration, and carbon sequestration (when or if ever feasible and sufficient).
The call to consider “the world as an enspirited whole” reflects an understanding of planet earth as a naturally complex system resulting from evolutionary processes whereby all living things have a place and role to play within the limits of the living biosphere. As well scientists, also working from a whole of planet perspective, have proposed a model that recognises a “safe operating space” within a “closed” biosphere. However, when a boundary of this system is exceeded, then remedial action is urgently required (Stockholm Resilience Centre).
Already in 2022 scientists are reporting that two of the nine planetary boundaries have already been crossed: (1) greenhouse gases (CO2, methane, nitric oxide) and (2) extensive loss of species and disruption of biosphere integrity. Worse still, they expect other boundaries have been crossed or are likely to be crossed soon, including: (3) land system change, mostly conversion of natural forests to cropland, i.e. the Amazon; (4) availability of freshwater; (5) biogeochemical flows (primarily phosphorous and nitrogen); (6) ocean acidification leading to collapse of coral reefs and the marine food chain; (7) atmospheric aerosol loading; (8) ozone depletion; and (9) novel or synthetic entities (chemical pollution by metals, micro-plastics, radioactive nuclei etc.)
E/MSY Rate of Extinction
BII Biodiversity Integrity Index
Dotted line: Biosphere enclosing safe operating space
Green: operating within planetary boundary
Orange: operating outside planetary boundary
Grey: not yet quantified
The ninth boundary includes all these industrial and manufactured products we use or mis-use every day, and discard through our waste systems. Our Australian way of life is heavily dependent upon them: pharmaceuticals, food containers and packaging, clothes using synthetic fabrics, building supplies, asbestos. It is almost impossible to avoid using novel entities as they are embedded in our manufacturing processes, are part of the medicines and foods we use, are widely used in agricultural systems for weed and pest control and are breakdown products of these substances. Inspite of garbage and recycling collections there is no guarantee that these wastes are disposed of appropriately or with certainty that they will be recycled.
Recently I was glad to attend a webinar produced by the Australian Earth Laws Alliance, which featured a talk on planetary boundaries by ANU Prof Will Steffen (author and reviewer of five IPCC reports, member of the Climate Council and Senior Researcher with the Stockholm Resilience Centre). He explained the whole concept of the Planetary Boundary model and its nine elements, emphasising that the next report (later in 2022) will confirm the crossing of several boundaries.
When asked at the end of the webinar what were the most urgent changes we need to take Will Steffen paused, thought carefully and then responded: (1) asking ourselves who we are and our relationship with life on the planet; (2) putting effort into social tipping points in addition to dealing with planetary tipping points; and (3) putting a ban on all novel entities, unless recycling of them is in place (an effective circular economy).
I found that each of these points resonates with the extract from our Earthcare statement (above). Who are we, and how do we relate to the “other than human” in the world as an enspirited whole? When we bear witness on climate change action can we also focus on social and economic tipping points? In our everyday living, can we do much more to avoid using novel entities (see description above) unless we are sure they are being recycled or are part of the circular economy?
Our Quaker Earthcare statement ends with: “We commit to the demanding, costly implications of radically changed ways of living. Let us do so out of joy, celebration,
 Andrew Glikson, Australian National University. Planetary Boundaries: The 350 ppm atmospheric CO2 limit of human habitats. Pdf dated 16/10/09.
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