Our Responsibility for our Environment

Guest Lecture for London School of Management Education.

Link to Home Page (Imagining Other)

Link to WEA course 'Protecting the Planet' Introduction


A. Why should we care? (slide)

Two reasons for caring about our environment:

It seems clear that at the present moment many people are aware that the future of our planet is in danger. We face an environmental crisis that is frightening to many of us. I will spell out the main aspects of this crisis shortly, but first I want to suggest that there are two different motivations for our concern, that we need to disentangle, as it were:

(1) the first is our awareness that we are harming ourselves – this is ‘anthropocentrism’;

(2) the second is a less tangible awareness that we are endangering all of life – by which I mean every living thing, from small organisms through insects to birds fish and mammals, and we believe that this is wrong. Another way of putting this is to say that we should protect the environment for its own sake – it has intrinsic value.

B. How our awareness of the importance of the natural environment has been growing: (slide)

I will leave you to think about these two kinds of motivation, and perhaps we can discuss this later, but meanwhile I would like to describe how, as I see it, we have gradually come to realise our responsibility for the environment, by realising how much damage we have been doing to it. This was a slow process, that started back in the middle of the last century.

1. The phenomenon of smog

In the early 1950s in this country people began to find that the air they were breathing was full of smoke - fine particles of soot – together with an acidic gas that made them choke. It was like fog, but very unpleasant to breathe in. Sometimes the air was so thick you couldn’t see more than a short distance in front of your face. We gave this phenomenon a name: ‘smog’ – a combination of smoke and fog.

The effect was particularly bad in London: when the "Great Smog" fell over the city in December 1952 the effects were unprecedented: 4,000 people are thought to have died in the immediate aftermath, triggering great public concern, with fog so thick it stopped trains, cars, and public events.  A further 8,000 died in following weeks and months. (Wikipedia)

We pretty soon realised that smog was created as a result of burning coal in our fireplaces and in power stations. In 1956 a Clean Air Act was introduced that stopped people from having fires that burned coal which produced sulphur, since this was the gas that produced the acid – sulphuric acid – that we were breathing. ‘Smokeless fuel’ was then produced.

The Clean Air Act also said that coal-fired power stations should not be located near to towns, and that the height of power station chimneys should be increased – presumably so that the fumes would be blown away...

2. Acid Rain.

However we soon became aware that the sulphurous air was causing another problem – ‘acid rain’. In other words, the sulphuric acid was dissolved in the rain. Acid rain had been identified in the 19th century, when it was realised that the stone on the outside of buildings, statues etc in Manchester was being eaten away. But it was not until the mid-twentieth century that it was found to be making the water in lakes acidic, and killing trees. In fact the taller chimneys simply pushed the problem away to Scandinavia, where pine forests were damaged by acid rain – rain made acidic by our power stations and factory chimneys! We realised then that some environmental problems cross national boundaries.

We cleared up a lot of the problem in the 1980s by switching from coal to gas (little sulphur), putting scrubbers in factory chimneys, and other measures, and this led to an 80% cut in acid rain. But the sea is acid in places today, and China has dirty emissions and acid rain, so it is still a problem…


3. Silent Spring.

After the problem of air pollution in the 1950s, the next step in our growing awareness of the importance of the natural environment came in 1962, with the publication of a book by Rachel Carson called “Silent Spring”.

She noticed that there were less birds around than there had been, - the woods were quieter than they used to be - and she traced the decline to the increased use of chemical pesticides, especially DDT – which was used very widely indeed to kill insects.

Well of course, if you kill insects you are depriving birds of food, and they were dying out. As we will see shortly, birds are still dying out. The time may well come when the woods are completely silent in spring.

With DDT, it was soon realised that when it was used to spray crops or to remove weeds it remained in the plants, and in the bodies of the insects; it then went into the animals that ate the insects, and finally entered our own bodies. The reaction when we discovered this was not surprising: DDT was banned. 5/

4. Lessons

(i) Now these two discoveries – smog and the side-effects of pesticides – were important because they brought about a better understanding of how our natural environment works.  So, in the case of smog: breathing smoke may be unpleasant, but it is not terribly harmful; a gas like sulphur dioxide is harmful but if it is diluted in clean air you are not likely to suffer much from breathing it. But if the smoke particles attract the molecules of gas, (and the moisture of fog helps this to happen), then what you are breathing in becomes much more dangerous.

In other words, there is an interaction, where different substances and events combine together and this changes the picture.

(ii) The thing that was most important about the episode with DDT was the realisation of how important the “food chain” was in understanding our interaction with the environment. We shall deal with some more examples of this shortly.

Growing awareness continued (slide)

5. Limits to Growth.

In 1972 another publication took the idea of interconnectedness a step further. The report was called “Limits to Growth” and it was published by a group of industrialists and scientists who called themselves the Club of Rome. Using powerful computers – and remember that computers were pretty new in the 1970s! – they studied the whole global environment, looking at the interactions between a number of key elements: human population growth, increased industrialisation, increasing demand for food, and the consequent pollution and resource depletion. This report made a number of fundamental points:


(i) There are limits to many resources, such as coal, minerals and oil, and at some point in the future we are going to exhaust these resources


(ii) Each element in the relationship between humans and their environment needs to be studied in relation to the whole – as they all interact. Thus, obviously, population growth leads to more pollution, and growing more food leads to a scarcity of land; but also reducing pollution means a growth in population – so a faster use of resources.


(iii) Another way of describing these interactions is to think of feedback loops – as when you place a microphone to near a loudspeaker, and the sound from the speaker goes through the microphone, back through the speaker, and so on – the result is a horrible whining or hum! Now that we are aware of the phenomenon of global warming, we have discovered that feedback is incredibly important. I will illustrate this later.


(iv) The kind of growth pattern that many natural phenomena (such as increases in population) follow is what is called exponential – that is, the rate of growth increases as time goes on. This is a dangerous process, since we tend not to realise there is a problem until too late in the day. For example, weed on the surface of a pond may be growing exponentially – if so, it will take some time to cover half the pond, but then only a fraction of that time to completely cover the pond and suffocate the living creatures in it.


There were some unexpected results from this study: in particular, it was suggested that if we only apply solutions to single problems (e.g. pollution, or population control) we will in fact make the overall situation worse!


But the broad conclusion many people drew from this report was that economic growth could not go on the way it had so far. There are indeed ‘limits to growth’. 10/


There are three reasons why I believe the Limits to Growth publication to have been important in helping us understand the natural environment:


(i) Firstly, it shows us a way of avoiding some of the dangers of pollution and environmental damage – by using resources more wisely.


(ii) Second, it makes us aware that we have a responsibility to future generations. It would be immoral of us to prevent future generations from having the same quality of life as ourselves. This belief underlies the principle of ‘sustainability’. We should examine all aspects of our lifestyles to see if they can continue into the future without causing harm to future generations. This is a crucial idea that I will return to later.


(iii) Finally, the study helped us to realise that we live on a small globe where everything is interconnected, and we need to understand the workings of the whole system.


We did, in fact, begin to realise we are on a kind of spaceship! (slide)


6. Spaceship earth.


One other event is worth mentioning that helped us to understand our place on planet earth, and that is the picture sent back in 1972 by the Apollo 17 spacecraft as it flew towards the moon. Some people call it the blue marble. I feel it helps us to realise that we are confined to a beautiful globe floating in space. And the analogy with a spaceship is important too, as we are enclosed in a kind of bubble, with limited supplies on board!


In fact, when you think about it, we live in a closed system: the only extra resource that enters the system from outside is sunlight, otherwise everything else ‘inside’ - water, air, land, plants, minerals - is finite.  The earth is rather like a spaceship...


Perhaps  this picture also gives us a better sense of how insignificant we are, and how we need to care for our fragile world.



Our growing awareness, continued: (slide)

7. The science of ecology – nature’s interconnectedness, and what it teaches us:


Now all the concepts I have introduced so far can be taken as part of the science of ecology, which began to be developed as a science in the late 19th century.   

I will start with some definitions, and then talk about the lessons I believe we can draw from ecology in order to develop a sense of responsibility for our environment.


1. Ecosystem


The science of ecology deals with living things interacting with each other and with their environment. We can study the ecology of any area – a pond, a river estuary, even parts of our bodies (since bacteria etc live on our skin!). The area studied can be described as an ecosystem. What scientists have observed, and which gives a scientific basis to some of the points made above, is that there is widespread interdependency between the different elements in an ecosystem.


Clearly the earth we live on is an ecosystem, and every living thing on it plays an important part by contributing towards the survival of the whole.


One of the most obvious ways this works is when one creature is a source of food for another: for example, we may think of flies as unhygienic and a nuisance, but they are food for birds (as I said with DDT). When I was a boy we used to have to cover up any food in the house so flies could not get on it. You see a lot less flies nowadays – and is it any surprise that there are now fewer birds?


To take another example: plants are obviously food for all sorts of creatures such as caterpillars, but even dead vegetation or wood provides a home, and food, for many different invertebrates, and shelter for hedgehogs. When the plants die, of course, they are absorbed into the soil as they decay and this refreshes the soil. In fact, one of the most important components of our ecosystem is the soil: it contains not only substances that are essential for plants to grow, but bacteria, worms and all sorts of other organisms that make the soil rich and health.


In fact no life could survive without healthy soil – and yet we are, sadly, damaging it – especially by intensive agriculture. Some researchers suggest that we are already in a dangerous position, because of the way we practice farming. We plough up the soil and constantly break it down to grow crops, and we remove trees, but the soil is then vulnerable to wind and rain and gets washed away. In fact topsoil is now being lost 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished by natural processes; (IPPR report 2019 below)

We also deposit large quantities of artificial fertiliser on the soil (because with intense agriculture it has lost the natural organic ingredients it would have if left alone) – and these chemicals get washed into streams and rivers, poisoning fish and other creatures... The nitrogen in the fertiliser also makes some of the plants and algae grow more vigorously, and this deprives the water of oxygen, which is essential for living creatures.


All this illustrates how everything in nature is interconnected!


 Several very important lessons can be learned from ecology:

2. Biodiversity:

The more elements or components there are in a system, the more likely it is that the whole system will stay in balance, and be able to survive in the face of threats. This is because a degree of “redundancy” is built in i.e. elements can take over the function of others when needed. We build redundancy into complex electrical circuits, say in a machine like an aeroplane, for safety reasons. The human brain also contains areas that can step in when one part is damaged!


In the natural environment, animals usually eat a variety of plants – or other animals or insects! If there is a variety available, then if one source of food should disappear the animal can manage by eating something else. If there is not much variety of plants or insects in an ecosystem, then it could collapse as a result of the loss of one or two species. Thus, diversity, especially biodiversity, makes for stability, and therefore for survival. 


We can, by the way, apply this principle to economies and human communities as well, I believe. Any country that relies on only producing one or two agricultural products (as was the case with Cuba and sugar), is vulnerable when either the price of that product falls, or someone finds a substitute (as with sugar beet), then the producers have no alternative to fall back on. 

To give another example, if the population of a country relies very much on one crop for food, as was once the case with potatoes in Ireland, then, should that crop succumb to a disease, people will starve. On the other hand, if you are producing a variety of crops (or goods or services!) then should one fail you can always substitute another.


3. The natural environment is our life-support system:

A recent report by the World Wildlife Fund (the Living Planet report) puts it this way:  “Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.”

Nature provides us with food, medicine, and fuel. It contributes to human wellbeing culturally and spiritually.  Nature regulates the earth’s climate – as I will explain shortly. For example, trees and plants absorb CO2 and help to mitigate the effects of global warming.

In other words, wildlife and nature are vital to human life.

Sadly, though, the Living Planet Report clearly demonstrates that human activities are destroying nature at an unacceptable rate, threatening the wellbeing of current and future generations.

4. The so-called ‘lower’ forms of life may be the most important!

There is not the same hierarchical arrangement in ecosystems that we have developed in our human, social systems. Just because mammals are more complex living creatures, it does not follow that they play a more important part in the survival of the system as a whole. We could even argue that the “humblest” forms of life, i.e. bacteria and earth worms, are the most important, as without them almost all other life-forms would disappear.


5. Examples: unintended consequences and surprising connections.

The more we understand about nature, the more we find surprising connections between different living things. Here are some more examples to show how sometimes living things play quite surprising parts in keeping the whole system going:


Crustaceans (crabs and lobsters etc) eat kelp – a prolific green seaweed. Sea Otters eat crustaceans. When the population of sea otters declines, then the population of crustaceans which form their food increases, and the more crustaceans there are, the more kelp will be eaten, which can lead to the destruction of the kelp forests. This may not seem a problem at first sight, but in fact kelp plays a very important part in absorbing CO2 (the main cause of global warming) – so, strange as it may sound: the fewer otters there are the more rapidly global warming will take place!


There is yet another surprising link in this chain: the reason why the population of otters has declined turns out to be that killer whales – orca, who usually eat other whales - began to feed on otters when their own food was diminished by whaling... So our hunting of whales is causing a ‘cascade’ down the food chain, leading not only to the deaths of otters, but to less kelp and more global warming! (See Robin McKie Observer10th July 2016).


6. Indicator species.

I will take one more example from the oceans, which helps to show how many living creatures are what we call ‘indicator species’. Fishing, off the coast of Queensland in Australia has led to a decline in the number of fish. This in turn has meant that fewer sharks are to be found – 90% fewer than 50 years ago. We might think that’s a good thing! However, University of Queensland and Griffith University researchers point out that “Sharks play important roles in ecosystems as scavengers [in other words they help to keep the sea, the ocean floor and the coral reefs clean] and as predators, and they are indicators of healthy ecosystems.  So these declines [in shark numbers] are concerning because they suggest the health of coastal ecosystems is also declining.” 


C. Examples of the most serious environmental damage:

1. Waste... especially plastic. (slide)

(i) Landfill

Waste, of course, takes many forms. In the UK we now actually reuse or recycle nearly 90% of our waste, which is an improvement, since not long ago we used to simply bury it in ‘landfill’. A good many places in Essex are former landfill sites, and FoE works to make sure they are retained as green spaces once they have been covered up! However, there is always pressure for new housing and some former landfill sites have been built on. We believe this is dangerous, as poisonous gases are usually generated in landfill, and people have been exposed to this, causing headaches sickness, and illness.

(ii) Nowadays we talk about the three Rs: Reduce, Re-use, & Re-cycle. Briefly (and we can discuss this later) - rather than continually generating waste – and wondering how to dispose of it, it is best to reduce how much waste we produce, by reducing our consumption.  This also stops us using up our limited resources. Some things we throw away can be re-used, and this is the next best thing. Recycling makes it possible to use things again, but the recycling process takes energy and is not always the best thing to do because of this.

(iii) We have recently learned that millions of tonnes of rubbish are sent every year to EU countries to be disposed of! The U.K. is one of the European Union's top waste exporters. It sends more than 3 million tons a year to other EU countries... The mixed waste is sent abroad as refuse-derived fuel, trash that has been treated so that it can be burned for energy in incinerators.

(iv) On top of mixed waste exports, the U.K. exports roughly 15 million tons of recovered material for recycling (metals, paper, plastics and glass) this is because it lacks the capacity to reprocess the materials at home, and treatment costs are lower abroad. Although most of those recyclables go to Asia, largely China, some are reprocessed in EU countries.

China recently announced it will put restrictions on recyclable imports, something that is likely to affect the U.K. as well as other EU countries. 12/(30)

(v) However, the subject that is most talked about at the moment is plastic, and public awareness has undoubtedly been increased by the TV programme - Blue Planet - made by David Attenborough.

(slide: plastic pollution)

In a recent interview, David Attenborough says he vividly remembers the excitement of his science master saying:

“... ‘Boys, we’ve entered a new era! We’ve entered, we’ll be proud to say, the plastic era. And what is so wonderful about this is we’ve used all our scientific ingenuity to make sure that it’s virtually indestructible. It doesn’t decay, you know, it’s wonderful.’”

Now we dump thousands of tonnes of it, every year, into the sea, and it has catastrophic effects.”

In fact at least 8 million tonnes (up to 12 million) of plastic are dumped in the oceans every year.

Pieces of plastic in the ocean will soon outnumber fish. Plastic pollution is estimated as likely to increase to 16bn pieces by 2025 (an increase of 40%) unless action is taken.

In the past few years plastic waste been recognised as one of the most pressing problems we face.

Animals can get entangled in plastic (slide: turtle)

Fish - and some sea birds - eat the plastic debris, mistaking it for food, and can choke or starve to death. (slide: dead sea bird)

It’s not just the sea that is affected: many fish in the Amazon River have plastic in their stomachs. Most plastic in fact comes from rivers (that is because plastic is dumped into the river and then gets washed to the sea).

After a while, plastic in the environment breaks down into very small particles – microplastics.

The long-term effects of microparticles of plastic are not yet understood, but we do know that they are now found not only in the oceans but in drinking water across the world. It is likely that dangerous chemicals can get attached to them, so that these are carried into the bodies of whatever eats the plastic.

The marine plastics research group at Plymouth Marine Laboratory has found microplastics in animals at every level of the food chain, from tiny zooplankton to fish larvae, turtles, and now marine mammals, with samples found in every animal examined in a study including porpoises, dolphins, grey seals and a pygmy sperm whale. 

Plastic gets everywhere... even in the Arctic (slide: arctic)

And plastic has even reached one of the world’s most remote places, Henderson Island in the eastern South Pacific, - this is an uninhabited coral atoll but it has the highest density of anthropogenic debris recorded anywhere in the world, with nearly 38m pieces of plastic, weighing nearly 19 tonnes, according to researchers from the University of Tasmania and the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Plastic has been found to cause disease in coral reefs when it gets caught up in them. Scientists examined 125,000 corals across the Asia-Pacific region, and 89% of those that had been fouled by plastic were found to be diseased....

Corals are not only home to a diverse range of life, but they are vital for at least 275 million people who depend on them for food, and for coastal protection from storms, and income from tourism.




2. Wildlife population decline and species extinction (slide)

Two things are happening to wildlife on earth: first, the numbers of animals of various species are in decline (that is, their populations are declining), and second, some species themselves are becoming extinct (we will never see them again). Of course, if a population declines too far, then extinction will surely follow.

Many scientists believe the world has begun a sixth mass extinction. In the last 540 million years there have been approximately five major extinctions, when biodiversity was dramatically reduced.  The last and best known mass extinction, 65 m yrs ago, was when the dinosaurs and many plant species died out – probably as a result of the gases from a meteor strike.

If we are beginning a sixth mass extinction it will be the first to be caused by a species – Homo sapiens.

The Living Planet Index, produced for WWF by the Zoological Society of London, uses data on 16,704 populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians, representing more than 4,000 species, to track the decline of wildlife.

Between 1970 and 2014, the latest data available, populations fell by an average of 60%. Four years ago, the decline was 52%. 

Decline has been happening in all sorts of environment – for example freshwater habitats, affecting crocodiles in India that could become extinct, and rivers in south and central America, where there has been an 89% drop in species. The destruction is largely driven by the felling of vast areas of forest. In one region (the tropical savannah called cerrado), an area the size of Greater London is cleared every two months.

Scientists are warning that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilisation.

The report finds that the vast and growing consumption of food and resources by the global population is destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which human society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.

“We are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff” said Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF.

Causes of wildlife decline: (slide)

1. The biggest cause of wildlife losses is the destruction of natural habitats, much of it to create farmland. Three-quarters of all land on Earth is now significantly affected by human activities.

“It is a classic example of where the disappearance is the result of our own consumption, because the deforestation is being driven by ever expanding agriculture producing soy, which is being exported to countries including the UK to feed pigs and chickens, ... there is this direct link between the food system and the depletion of wildlife,” said Barrett. Eating less meat is an essential part of reversing losses, he said.

To illustrate, it is surprising to learn that farmed poultry today makes up 70% of all birds on the planet, with just 30% being wild. The picture is even more stark for mammals – 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36% are human and just 4% are wild animals.

The negative effects of large-scale farming are illustrated by the following statistic: If lands now used to grow crops for livestock were instead used to grow crops eaten directly by people, there would be 50 to 70 percent more calories available for human consumption. Which is enough to feed more than a billion more people than we’re feeding today, and would prevent the destruction of rainforests.

2. Killing for food is the next biggest cause – 300 mammal species are being eaten into extinction – while the oceans are massively overfished, with more than half now being industrially fished.

3. Chemical pollution is also significant: half the world’s killer whale populations are now doomed to die from PCB contamination.

4. I briefly mentioned acid rain earlier, and in fact, recently it has been argued that acidification could lead to mass extinction. The previous 5 such events were all accompanied by acidification). [Alanna Mitchell, author: The Hidden Ecological Crisis of the Global Ocean, pub: Oneworld.]


5. Global trade introduces invasive species and disease; for example, amphibians have been decimated by a fungal disease thought to be spread by the pet trade.

Insects are crucial: (slide)

Insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals, outweighing humanity by 17 times. They are “essential” for the proper functioning of all ecosystems, researchers say, as food for other creatures, pollinators and recyclers of nutrients.

An analysis, published in the journal Biological Conservation, and which is the first global scientific review says:

1. More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered...

2. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles.

3. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.

4. Of great concern for some years now has been the decline in the number of bees. Bees in hives have suffered from what is known as ‘colony collapse disorder’ – that is, a whole hive of bees would suddenly die off. It is thought that pesticides are the main culprit – especially a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. These are designed to attack the nervous system of insect pests – but if bees get exposed to them the effects are drastic. This is because bees in a hive are social creatures, and they rely on a sophisticated nervous system that enables them to convey information to each other about the location of nectar. They do a ‘waggle dance’, and by the direction they turn in, and the movements they make with their bodies they can tell the other bees how far away and in what direction nectar can be found. Needless to say, exposure to neonicotinoids confuses them; some have been unable to return to the hive; others fall ill, and of course any poison picked up by a bee is spread quickly when they return to the hive.

We could pollinate crops by hand, but the expense would be prohibitive: bees are doing it for free! In America, bee hives are transported long distances to crops of almonds for example. And theft of hives is widespread!

5. Causes (slide)

The Biological Conservation analysis... says intensive agriculture is the main driver of the declines in insect numbers, particularly the heavy use of pesticides.

Other factors are urbanisation, which means the loss of wild meadows and wildflowers in fields - and climate change.


3. Climate change (slide)

Many observers believe that the most serious threat facing the earth today is climate change as a result of global warming.  

1. CO2 and the greenhouse effect.

The aspect of air pollution that is involved here is “the greenhouse effect”. When sunlight warms the earth, some of that heat is lost through radiation (bouncing off the earth) back into space. But there are some gases in the atmosphere that retain or reflect the heat back to earth – like the glass in a greenhouse. The effect was first discovered in 1896 by Swedish Chemist Svente Arrenhuis.  He also predicted that a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could increase global temperatures by 5 degrees.


The most notable of these ‘greenhouse gases’ is carbon dioxide. In itself this is a harmless gas: we breathe it out all the time, when the oxygen we breathe in has been used in the lungs. (We could not live in an atmosphere of pure carbon dioxide, however). The balance of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and other gases is just right for life.


2. We have known about this effect for a long time, since in 1957 David Keeling measured changes in CO2 in the atmosphere above Hawaii, and showed that the changes correlated with fossil fuel use. Climate scientists now use the Keeling curve to describe the increase in CO2.


3. Human industrial activity - especially the burning of fossil fuels - including petrol/diesel in cars, has resulted in an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide, which has been carried up into the atmosphere and now keeps in some of the sun’s heat. Other contributing gases are CFCs (originally used in refrigeration but now banned) and methane. The latter is naturally produced by rotting vegetation, in ponds etc, but the amount of methane produced by human activity has actually increased with the industrialisation of farming, since cows’ flatulence contains the gas!  A large proportion of greenhouse gases come from industrialised agriculture.


With regard to carbon dioxide emissions in the UK, levels are likely to be higher than government statistics suggest, and everyone agrees they are going to keep on rising so long as we continue to burn fossil fuel (especially coal and oil, but also gas). 


There are a few people who say there is a correlation but not cause and effect – but given some of the changes to weather etc, and the measured warming of the globe, something is causing the temperature to rise, and the vast majority of climate scientists are convinced it is due to the greenhouse effect.


Current levels of CO2 are around 403.3 ppm (parts per million) – and this has increased in the last few years (2013 – 2017) (Wikipedia, quoting National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration). Note that this is (only) 0.04% by volume, but the effect is nevertheless dramatic!


4. There has been a 40% increase (from 280ppm to 400ppm) in CO2 since the start of the industrial revolution in the middle of the 18thcentury, and the level of 280 ppm held for 10,000 years before the industrial revolution.


The present concentration is the highest in at least the past 800,000 years, and likely the highest in the past 20 million years (Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis).


5. It is currently rising at a rate of approximately 2ppm per year – and accelerating (Peter Tans, Trends in Carbon Dioxide, NOAA/ESRL). 


Global warming - dangers. (slide)


These increases may appear small, and the average temperature of the earth may only increase by one or two degrees, but an increase of 2 degrees would have disastrous consequences (see below).


1. Locally: a temperature change of just a couple of degrees can have dramatic effects locally. Studies have shown that a single-degree rise in temperature can increase local levels of air pollution, allow disease-carrying ticks to expand into an area, cause the local extinction of native species and even cause enough heat stress to increase rates of mental illness. (Ecowatch Sep 2018)


2. Global warming: on a global scale, taking a global average, the 20 warmest years have happened in the last 22 years, and the 5 hottest years were the last 5!  According to NASA. (Since 2016 each year has been the hottest year (average global temperature) to date, and each preceding year has shown warming).


3. What is frightening is that the rate of change seems to be accelerating - see the point I made earlier about exponential growth.


Also, when studying climate change we find some striking examples of feedback:


Carbon dioxide traps warmth (which would otherwise have escaped into space). Trees store carbon dioxide, and so if they die from excessive warmth or dry weather, or fires, there will be less absorption of CO2. With forest fires CO2 is released into the atmosphere. Whether by reduced absorption or by CO2 being released, more CO2 fills the atmosphere – the temperature rises - and more trees will die from the warmth and from drought – as well as from an increased number of forest fires...  One of the signs of global warming we have had recently has been the worrying number of serious forest fires, in America, Australia (where they are called bushfires) and elsewhere.


In 2018 in California there were 8,527 fires burning an area of 1.8 million acres - the largest area ever recorded in one season.  In Australia, plant-life has evolved to depend on occasional bushfires – for example the eucalyptus tree bark is designed to burn without damaging the tree – but fires have been occurring more frequently and this is most likely to be due to global warming. Leading Australian politicians, however, dispute this – which is no surprise given the country’s economic dependence on coal, much of which is exported to China.


There are unusual fires burning in this country at this moment (February!): moorland fires in West Yorkshire, and in Ashdown Forest in Sussex.

It must be stressed that we cannot show a direct link between a warming globe and local disasters such as forest fires, but we do know that such fires will happen more frequently with global warming.


Another example of feedback occurs because the polar ice-sheets reflect nearly 80% of sunlight – if the ice sheets melt then the water left reflects less heat, so warming increases leading to more melting of the ice.


As if this were not enough, the Siberian tundra (frozen ice containing vegetation) is thawing, and releasing methane previously trapped in the ice. Methane is four times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Thus, again, the atmosphere will heat up more, and more tundra will melt releasing more methane.


Other effects of global warming:


4. Extreme weather.

An increase in global temperatures does not mean that everywhere gets warmer! There is a difference between weather and climate, and the weather effects of global warming are not easy to predict.


We do know, however, that the jet-stream has been disrupted, leading to long spells when the weather here in the UK has not changed as it usually does!

Al Gore (US vice president under Clinton, and presidential candidate in 2,000) predicted in 2006 that some places would be getting more rain, and some having droughts, more hurricanes and other extreme weather events. I believe we can now see this happening around us.


5. Al Gore also discussed glaciers melting, which would lead to rising sea levels. Oliver Milman: The arctic is warming at twice the average global rate, and the ice has declined by about 13% a decade since 1979. In the past 10 years Greenland has lost two trillion tonnes of its ice mass.

These developments mean that rising sea levels could occur more quickly than was thought, and some scientists have reported that this is happening, and the sea could overwhelm coastal areas within decades. New York, Baltimore, Miami, Los Angeles, New Orleans are vulnerable in the USA alone. Some scientists say the data shows that sea levels may rise by 9 feet within the next 50 to 150 years.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report predicted the upper limit of the sea level rises will be 59 centimetres (23 in) by 2100. Low-lying island countries such as the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, are already extremely vulnerable: (Wikipedia) with an average ground-level elevation of 1.5 metres (4 ft 11 in) above sea level, it is the world's lowest country, which means that most of the republic's 200 inhabited islands (with a population of nearly half a million) may need to be abandoned. Due to the risks posed by rising sea levels, the government pledged in 2009 to make the Maldives a carbon-neutral country by 2019.

6. The American Green Party believes that already tens of millions of people have been turned into climate refugees, and hundreds of thousands die annually from... heat waves, drought-based food shortages, floods, rising seas, epidemics, storms and other lethal impacts of climate change

7. Super-storms are likely to become more frequent: there is from 5% - 8% more water vapour in the atmosphere than a generation ago, together with dry conditions in the parts of the world where super-storms originate.

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D. Underlying causes of environmental damage.

1. The role of industry, development and growth. (slide)

Turning now to the question of what are the underlying causes of the damage we have done to our natural environment, I would like first of all to return to the first example I gave you: air pollution.

It was clear that burning coal was the problem, and in this country legislation did hasten the move away from coal. Apart from the use of coal in the home, power stations to generate electricity began to move to gas and nuclear power. We are - still - gradually closing down our coal-fired power stations – there are now only 7 left in the UK and the government has pledged to end coal power generation by 2025. This is to meet our climate change commitments.

However there are still many premature deaths – about 40,000 a year - from air pollution (not all from coal of course – see below on cars), and a record number of people are dying from asthma.  So a lot still needs to be done!


So it is obvious that the growth of industry, to meet growing populations’ demands for energy and for consumer goods underlies some of the problems of pollution and damage to the environment. What is more, industries such as coal, and oil, and more recently the car industry, have become large and powerful.


(i) Take the oil industry:

1. The oil industry has been responsible for a number of serious instances of environmental damage:

- in 1989 the Exxon Valdez disaster led to a spillage of oil in Alaska – and the environment there has still not recovered 30 years later;

-in 2010 BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded killing 11 workers and spreading and spilling 4m barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico;

- and since the 1970s the Ogoni people in the Nigerian Delta have suffered from their land being made unusable by oil spills. Here the government colluded with the oil companies against the local people, and a leader of the Ogoni people’s campaign was executed - such was the influence of Shell.

2. And it is clear that the oil industry can exert tremendous influence over governments. I am sure you can think of many political conflicts that have their origin in a dispute over oil, and the oil producers such as OPEC have only to change the price of oil and the whole world economy is affected... Clearly such power gives them the ability to influence government, through lobbying, to ensure government policies benefit the oil industry.

3. We should also remember that one of the main by-products of oil is chemicals – especially pesticides. The widespread use of pesticides is having an incredibly destructive effect on wildlife, as we have seen. It is probably no surprise to you to learn that the industry is dominated by a very small number of very powerful companies. Recently Bayer (who are believed to have been manufacturing poison gas during the first world war) took over Monsanto (who made Agent Orange: a defoliant sprayed on trees during the Vietnam war – which has caused birth defects...), making one of the world’s largest companies. What is more, companies including Bayer are also behind the development of genetically modified crops. They would argue (though I think this argument is specious) that they can produce crops that are ‘better’ than the naturally-occurring versions: the aim is to develop GM crops that can resist drought and disease, and deter the insects and other creatures that might eat them. What these companies then do, is sell the seeds for these GM varieties to farmers in developing countries, but with the restriction that they have to keep buying the seeds each year, because they expire after a single use – and Monsanto owned the patent...  and farmers are not allowed to harvest seeds themselves. This ties the farmers into a relationship of dependency on the multinational companies. In India, thousands of farmers have been pushed into bankruptcy by this practice and have committed suicide. ‘One of the primary causes is failed investments by farmers that banked heavily on the success of newly-introduced GM crops. Multinational biotechnology giants like Monsanto and Syngenta promised farmers that GM crops would bring incredible yields at lower costs, and save the country from poverty. But in reality, many of the crops ended up failing, leaving millions of Indian farmers with absolutely nothing.’ (The Independent)

Monsanto’s name has such a bad reputation that when Bayer took the company over they said the name Monsanto would not be used any more. The company is now Bayer Crop Sciences.

What they also do is develop powerful weed-killers – the best-known is Roundup – and alongside them GM crops that are resistant to the weed-killers (they are ‘Roundup-ready’). Then, farmers are trapped into buying both seeds and weed-killers from the same large multinational company.

Finally on pesticides, glyphosate – the active ingredient of Roundup – has been blamed for causing cancer in people who use it. In America a man has successfully sued the company in the courts and been awarded enormous damages because he is dying of cancer caused by glyphosate. It is believed there are thousands of court cases pending.

Companies like Monsanto have been able to get away with this kind of thing because they have links at high levels with the American government agencies (Michael Taylor, Obama’s Deputy FDA Commissioner, and Linda Fisher, who was appointed Deputy Administrator of the EPA in 2001, and US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas – all had jobs previously with Monsanto! (The Corbett report – open source intelligence news).

(ii) Car Manufacturing.

The most recent example of the power of industry, however, is also very serious – this time it is the car manufacturing industry: in 2015 the American Environment Protection Agency took action against VolksWagon for manufacturing cars that cheated the emissions tests. Some 11 million cars worldwide had been fitted with software that gave misleading readings on emissions of NOx (nitrogen oxides that are damaging to health) – and this had been going on since 2008. The company has been fined billions of dollars – and sales of diesels have declined.

But the question remains: how could a large and popular company deceive the public, and the regulators, in this way?

[I cannot leave this question of the role of industry and its impact on the environment - without mentioning ‘dark money’... This is the phenomenon of secretive funding by industry of the activities of groups and organisations that have influence over politics. For example, the Institute of Economic Affairs is funded by the tobacco industry and the fossil fuel industry. It has denied there is a connection between smoking and cancer, and it helps to undermine the science of climate change. There are quite a number of ‘think tanks’ that give the impression of being expert and unbiased, while spreading doubt about climate science.

MIT Associate Professor David Hsu ... found 35 thinktanks based in the USUK, Australia, and New Zealand that promote both the tobacco and fossil fuel industries’ interests.

Of these organisations, DeSmog can reveal that 32 have taken direct donations from the tobacco industry, 29 have taken donations from the fossil fuel industry, and 28 have received money from both.

There are also networks, based around the Koch brothers and Atlas Network, which are involved in coordinating or funding many of the thinktanks.]


2. Population growth, and the consumer society:

In 1968 Professor Paul R Ehrlich (and others) published a book called ‘The Population Bomb.’  In it he argued there are too many people in the world, since there are not enough resources to meet everyone’s needs. He believed that millions of people would starve to death in the next few decades.

Although his predictions have proved to be exaggerated, they started a discussion that is going on today, and he recently re-stated his view: Population growth, along with over-consumption per capita, is driving civilisation over the edge: billions of people are now hungry or ... malnourished, and climate disruption is killing people.”

He has also pointed out that there is an increasing toxification of the entire planet by synthetic chemicals that he says may be more dangerous to people and wildlife than climate change, and that an unprecedented redistribution of wealth is needed to end the over-consumption of resources.

I believe these are important statements that need to be considered carefully. He is surely right that a combination of high (and growing) population together with over-consumption (consuming more than we need) is unsustainable.

We cannot criticise developing countries for wanting to have the same standard of living as ourselves – but (i) we should help them to achieve this in ways that do not damage the environment (by using renewable sources of energy, for example) (ii) a minority of people in the developed world are clearly living excessively lavish lifestyles, using up more than their fair share of resources, and causing excessive pollution, and we must find ways of restraining these excesses and not encourage others to imitate the extravagant few! 

The question of population growth is of course a delicate one: but I would reinforce what Paul R Ehrlich says: the problem in terms of damage to the environment lies with us, in the developed world and not in poor countries where many people are struggling just to survive.

David Attenborough was recently asked about population growth and the environment, and he said: “The trouble is that we don’t know the answer. What we all say is that if women are given political freedom and education and medical facilities and all the rest of it, the birth rate falls. That’s actually not the whole question. It’s more complicated than that... One should be very cautious about imposing, from where I sit, regulations where other people have got the problems.”

Finally, if we are trying to draw some general lessons from the points I have made so far, then I believe we must also question the expectation of continual growth. As Paul R Ehrlich said: “it is madness to want continual/perpetual growth: that is what cancer does... “

E. What can be done? (slide)

1. The principles of individual responsibility:

Reduce, Re-use, Re-cycle and Re-connect with nature.

Reduce consumption to preserve raw materials and to minimise pollution and waste. Reduce your carbon footprint by driving less, if at all, making sure your home is well-insulated etc. Check that what you do buy is produced sustainably and preferably locally. Eat less (or no) meat, and make sure fish and sea-foods are sustainable and dolphin-friendly.

Re-use – don’t throw away things that can still have a use

Re-cycle – recycling is good, of course, but requires energy so it should come after the first two Rs.

Re-connect with nature – grow flowers for bees, encourage birds, hedgehogs etc into your garden (and don’t use pesticides, slug pellets etc which can kill wildlife!).

Drive less!

2. Principles of Collective Responsibility: sustainability, corporate social responsibility, education, political pressure.

1. The very least you can do is to encourage wider discussion, and educate those with whom you come into contact.

2. Join an organisation to protect our natural environment and wildlife (there are many to choose from...)

3. Boycott goods that are not sustainable.

4. Campaign for your college to make sure none of its investments are in fossil fuel companies (fossil fuel divestment).

5. Campaign for your local council to declare a climate emergency – 25 have done so already and are accelerating decarbonisation.

5. Lobby your MP on these issues – follow the example of the schoolchildren who have gone on strike...  A natural history GCSE to re-connect with nature.

6. Argue for a “green new deal” transition towards renewable energy.

Further notes at: HFoE 2017  Our Responsibility... and protectingupdates2018part1