Photo: It's time to heed warnings about humanity's collision course

(Credit: Nattu via Flickr)

By David Suzuki

The longer we delay addressing environmental problems, the more difficult it will be to resolve them. Although we've known about climate change and its potential impacts for a long time, and we're seeing those impacts worsen daily, our political representatives are still approving and promoting fossil fuel infrastructure as if we had all the time in the world to slow global warming.

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We can't say we weren't warned. In 1992, a majority of living Nobel prize-winners and more than 1,700 leading scientists worldwide signed a remarkable document called "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity".

It begins, "Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that we will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about."

It then outlines critical areas where the collision was and is still occurring: the atmosphere, water resources, oceans, soil, forests, species extinction and overpopulation. In the 25 years since it was published, the problems have worsened.

The document grows bleak: "No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished. We the undersigned, senior members of the world's scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the earth and life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated."

Now, as monthly and annual records for rising global average temperatures continue to break, as extreme weather events become more frequent and severe, as refugees overwhelm the capacity of nations, and as tipping points for climatic feedback loops and other phenomena are breached, the need to act is more urgent than ever.

The warning suggests five steps needed immediately. That was a generation ago. They can still help prevent the worst impacts:

  1. "We must bring environmentally damaging activities under control to restore and protect the integrity of the earth's systems we depend on." It specifically mentions reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air and water pollution. It also highlights the need to address deforestation, degradation and loss of agricultural soils and extinction of plant and animal species.
  2. "We must manage resources crucial to human welfare more effectively." This one is obvious. Finite resources must be exploited much more efficiently or we'll run out.
  3. "We must stabilize population. This will be possible only if all nations recognize that it requires improved social and economic conditions, and the adoption of effective, voluntary family planning."
  4. "We must reduce and eventually eliminate poverty."
  5. "We must ensure sexual equality, and guarantee women control over their own reproductive decisions."

The warning recognizes that we in the developed world are responsible for most global pollution and therefore must greatly reduce overconsumption while providing technical and financial aid to developing countries. This is not altruism but self-interest, because all of us share the same biosphere. Developing nations must realize environmental degradation is the greatest threat to their future, while rich nations must help them follow a different development path. The most urgent suggestion is to develop a new ethic that encompasses our responsibility to ourselves and nature and that recognizes our dependence on Earth and its natural systems for all we need.

The document ends with a call for support from scientists, business and industrial leaders, religious heads and all the world's peoples. Like Pope Francis's groundbreaking 2015 encyclical, "Laudato Si", the "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity" was an attempt to galvanize the world to recognize the dangerous implications of humanity's path and the urgent need for change.

Forewarned is forearmed. We can't let the lure of the almighty buck blind us. We must come together, speak up and act for the good of all humanity.

January 5, 2017

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Mar 22, 2017
12:35 PM

Some of your respondents still don’t get it. Still future shocked. Ostrich like. This year may be the first since mankind has been on the planet that the Arctic could be ice free. In many cases we are in positive feedback loop. Change is happening quickly and accelerating. Long-held paradigms have to be abandoned. Please look at the research results — coolly. THEN formulate a plan as to how you are going to respond to it. If you want to get off the world and pull the sheet over your head,that is of course your choice. Whatever you do will define you. Graham.

Jan 09, 2017
10:31 AM

“We must ensure sexual equality, and guarantee women control over their own reproductive decisions.”

See, this is why a lot of Conservatives from around the world have to attack speeches on climate change. A “woman’s control over their own reproductive decisions” has nothing to do with the environment. This is a political opinion. You think it does because that’s your political bias and I’m sure you bend over backwards and perform some impressive linguistic gymnastics and overly verbose rhetoric to make your point more believable. The problem is planting irrelevant statements like this into your discourse actually hurts your intentions, which I imagine are to convince people that we need to take action to prevent further problems within our shared environment. Your intentions are further hampered by moral platitudes like this “We must reduce and eventually eliminate poverty.” How exactly is poverty completely eliminated? Any answer to this question will be deeply political and will likely side with a very specific economic system, be it capitalism or Marxism.

I sometimes question Suziki’s intentions …

Jan 06, 2017
7:58 PM

Why don’t you come over for environment burgers, David? I mean, I don’t get it. How does a guy Like you not see it like it is, that it is a societal relinquishing of it’s illusion of control through a knowledge system that is the needed prima face. Governments appear to acknowledge that ‘perception management’ is as good as it gets these days. Why not start talking another language? Science got us out on this limb. It created “the environment”. And just like ecologists preaching a steady state world gave way to the structure/function/change matrix, why have you not? I’d continue to follow you. Heck, I’d even ‘like’ you. It’s time for a good ole reckoning so that a good, christian nation can evolve without abandoning the needed creation story that puts us on this planet as if we meant to stay. B/C it’s all just blinding us with science, now, you realize.

Jan 06, 2017
5:34 PM

Over the christmas break my wife and I watched the documentary “Cowspiracy”. I must say as a meat eater that I was shocked. Why is this not mainsream news? Why are no politicians meantioning this? Why are none of the so called “enviromental groups” sceaming warnings about this? I do realize that fosil fuel consumption isn’t off the hook, but why is the cattle industry allowed to get away scott free? And the pig and chicken industry? My wife has been writing letters to prorest animal cruelty in all those industries to both the governments who regulte them and to the companies that are responsible, but we are now feeling that all of those protests are really useless! What should happen is that they should be limited to much lower amounts and more plant based farming for human food increased. I will be making a real attempt to change my food choice by working towards veganism. I hope that groups such as yours is willing to say something that makes the world take notice.

Jan 06, 2017
3:48 PM

I think what is under stated that the resources such as water grains etc are used to feed animals not people. Most of the geeen house gases are produced by factory farming animals and the eating of there flesh is know to cause cancer, heart disease and diabetes. We need to eat what is sustainable, plants , grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables.

Jan 06, 2017
10:16 AM

I am interested in hearing a frank analysis of guy McPherson’s message concerning near term human extinction. It makes sense and everything I am seeing and reading is consistent with his conclusion.

I see no-one refuting him and it is terrifying. Can someone calm me down or is he right?

Jan 05, 2017
7:27 PM

SO in answer to your question, what you need is a powerful vision of the future. With all its dangers. But it is also quite thrilling. It will be an escape from the staticness of the world we have today. And to do that, you’ve got to engage with the giant forces of power that now run the world, at the moment. And the key thing is that in confronting those powers, and trying to transform the world you might lose a lot. This is a sort of forgotten idea. Is that actually you surrender yourself up to a big idea and in the the process you might lose something but you’d actually gain a bigger sense, because you change the world for the better. I know it sounds soppy, But this is the forgotten thing about politics. Is that you give up some of your individualism to something bigger than yourself. You surrender yourself — and it’s a lost idea. And I think really in answer to your question: You can spot real change happening when you see people from the liberal middle classes, beginning to give themselves up to something. Surrender themselves for something bigger. And at the moment, there is nothing like that in the liberal imagination. -adam curtis

Jan 05, 2017
4:44 PM

Why do we fish off our shores in Canada, flash freeze the catch and then ship to China for food processing in one of the most polluted environments in the world. Why do we support them. They are the biggest polluters. Money? Better to have a chat with our company executives here in Canada about this don’t you think? There must be some huge environmental benefits by keeping the production and processing here locally.

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