It’s clear from many different surveys that Americans are worried about climate change more than they are concerned with other environmental issues such as pollution or water scarcity. But what is it about our nature that worries us so much that we care so profoundly and consistently about the future of this planet’s health? And why does it matter to be concerned about our natural resources and all things in our lives at every level? Here’s my list of the top 10 challenges facing us over the next hundred years or so:
We have already been seeing increasing desertification in recent decades around Africa, China, parts of South America, the Amazon Basin, Indonesia, Peru, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Turkey. We see similar trends across Asia, mainly in Southeast Asia and East Africa. As of 2017, 4% of earth’s surface area was experiencing deforestation from 2001 to 2016. About 80% of those areas experienced deforestation only in 2002 and 2003. By 2015, 12% of these regions covered 75% of their land area in forest.
I believe if we don’t make serious changes now, then we will lose large portions of the remaining healthy forests for generations to come.
2) Arctic Oceans.
We can see how declining sea ice in the Antarctic region has made humans increasingly vulnerable to oceanic debris in its waters. Ocean plastic is estimated to kill 20 million animals per year, including dolphins and whales and turtles, but humans on land still consume a greater amount of ocean plastics from beach sand and clothing. An increase in fishing has dramatically increased ocean plastic production. Today, there are up to 300 tons of ocean plastic left in oceans every minute. A 2019 study estimates that in 2018, a total of 39,000 metric tonnes of plastic had been consumed since 1985. For comparison, the average weight of people worldwide was 528 lbs.
In recent times, we have seen populations grow in both developed and developing countries very rapidly. If we continue our current trajectory, we may reach one billion by the end of this century. Some believe that the trend is due to economic growth, but population growth could also be related to poverty, disease, famine, conflict, war. To date, 690 million people worldwide live in extreme poverty. Poverty rates have doubled in Africa over the last two decades, and it continues to grow in some lower-income parts of Asia. On the brink of extinction, the Congo Basin in Central Africa provides a glimpse into how severe the problem of hunger, malnutrition, and overpopulation can become. The World Food Programme says an additional 2.5 billion people are currently living in chronic food insecurity, meaning they cannot afford enough nutritious foods to sustain them, and they will only be able to buy what they eat during periods of acute crisis.
4) Climate Change.
There are several reasons why global warming matters, including: rising temperatures cause melting of glacier ice sheets that trap rainfall; rising sea levels result in higher flood risks which affect coastal cities like Mumbai and Delhi; heat waves cause wildfires that destroy crops (and wildlife). Scientists are trying to figure out whether human activity will alter enough of these natural processes to halt climate change before it reaches catastrophic levels. One thing is definite, though: any delay in acting on global warming impacts would lead to major catastrophes. Even with rapid technological innovation, these scenarios are not inevitable.
5) Global Dumping.
We have found evidence of industrial waste dumping in rivers around the world including the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Lake Ganges River in India, and the Suez Canal dumped chemical in the Mediterranean Sea. It is predicted that the rate of anthropogenic trash dumping is likely to double by 2025, creating millions of toxins in rivers and seas. This leads to more health problems to local communities. Pollution of marine ecosystems causes coral bleaching, loss of fish stocks, and lowered fertility. Other examples include heavy metal dumping, sewage sludge dump sites on farms, oil spills in lakes and oceans, chemicals spilled onto soils, pesticides used in agriculture, radioactive wastes such as uranium in submarines. All of these activities contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and poor public health.
6) Water Scarcity.
We have lost 30 gigatonnes of groundwater storage in just 15 years in Latin America and Africa according to University of Minnesota researchers. Currently, half of all freshwater in the United States is considered potable. At least half of the U.S. population depends on water for drinking, laundry and cooking. However, 1/3rd of the continental aquifers are permanently impacted by human-produced waste (e.g., wastewater treatment plants), and 50% of humanity’s arable land is irrigated by seasonal precipitation (with irrigation coming from just 3% of the total agricultural acreage or less).
In the past 30 years, we’ve cut down nearly 25-30% of our tree cover. Worldwide, between 2000–2011, about 7-8% of trees have been bulldozed. Every year, that number grows due to unsustainable logging, mining, damming, and fire. Between 1989 and 2017, the percentage of deforestation grew fourfold. From 2005 to 2014, global logging reached 925 billion cubic metres of CO2 e-waste. That’s equivalent to a third of the current annual carbon dioxide output. Because of this, the world is releasing as much carbon as it removed by 2050. According to UNEP, if we cut out all deforestation today, we could prevent as many as 17 million deaths by 2030.
Today, one fifth of the world’s energy uses comes from fossil fuels. Roughly half of the electricity we use in the USA and Europe comes from coal and roughly 40 percent of the electrical grid runs on hydro or wind. Coal and petroleum products account for 70 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Agency forecasts that 50% of global energy demand will come from non-renewable sources over the next decade.
Agriculture accounts for the largest portion of world greenhouse gas emissions because of large investments in technology-driven farming practices as well as fertilizers and pesticides. The world produces nearly twice the amount of fertilizer we need now than we did 50 years ago. Also, 80 percent of organic farming is not replantable, meaning we can’t re-grow it to meet future demands.
10). Loss of biodiversity
All life in our oceans and biosphere is at a risk from biodiversity loss, and ecosystems are depleting more quickly than they are replenishing. Each species contribute significantly to the conservation of biodiversity.
The challenges posed by climate change and biodiversity loss to human survival go much beyond what is mentioned here. While part of our current challenges are caused by externalities, which are the results of having few options, we cannot resolve our issues unless we actively manage our internal and societal factors. Together, let’s work toward a sustainable future where every decision we make has a beneficial impact on the environment.
By Mehreen Bano