The end of the world in 2100?
It’s a rumour that has spread though the internet since the beginning of June: the planet’s ecosystems may experience a total and irreversible collapse by 2100. The phrase “The end of the world in 2100” was posted on many blogs, forums and websites.
Unlike many prophecies about the end of the world, this story appeared in reliable news outlets such as the French Le Monde or American Forbes. The story intrigued bloggers actively writing about ecological issues, like Marcelino Fuentes and Christophe Magdelaine.
The origin of this apocalyptic prophecy is not a sect of fanatics or a lack of advertising medium in the latest American blockbuster. The hypothesis appeared in a study in the serious journal Nature, considered a reference among scientific publications. The thesis? As a result of damage caused by humans, the environment could cross a point of no return before the end of the century, writes Audrey Garric, journalist at Le Monde, in her blog.
In “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere”, the authors, 22 researchers from a dozen international scientific institutions, express their shock at the rapid loss of biodiversity and acceleration of climate change.
According to the study, almost half the climates we have today on Earth may soon be gone. These climates, which make up between 12 and 39 per cent of the globe, would be replaced by conditions that have never been known by living organisms. This change would occur in a brutal way, leaving species and ecosystems unable to adapt.
As noted by Garric, upheavals of the natural environment have always taken place, both at a local level (at the basin or coral reefs) and regionally – 5,500 years ago the Sahara was made up of fertile grasslands. The Earth has experienced seven major crises: the Cambrian explosion, five mass extinctions that wiped out some 90 per cent of life on Earth, and the passage from the last ice age, 12,000 years ago, to our time.
The Cambrian explosion and the warming of the Holocene were triggered by natural disasters. Now along with changes in the composition of the oceans and solar intensity, a new pressure is being exerted on ecosystems: 7 billion human beings – 9 billion by 2050.
Scientists warn of the urgency to revolutionise humanity’s lifestyles and suggest four actions: reduce population pressure; mass populations in the areas of high densities in order to let other areas try to find natural balances; develop new technology to help produce and distribute food without consuming more resources; and lower the gap between the rich and the poor.
Results have been criticised
On the Belgian website RTL.be, the study’s findings were strongly criticised. Prof. Aaron Ellisson, expert on dynamic relations to biodiversity and climate change at Harvard University, denounced the banality of the study: “We already know very well that things change very quickly and we must understand what will happen, considering the urgency of the situation.”
For Bradley J. Cardinal from the University of Michigan, the research was suggestive but not definitive. “Only time will give us the answer,” Prof. Cardinal noted. “This is not the first time that such study is published.”
But according to the report’s director Arne Moers, until now, “Human beings haven’t done anything really important to avoid the worst because existing social structures are just not good. It is as if we refused to think about it. We are not ready. My colleagues are not just worried. They are terrified.”
Scientific debate is a completely normal phenomenon, as is the fact that the apocalyptic results are greeted sceptically. According to former BBC journalist Alex Kirby, what we currently know is that “Climate change is happening; that it’s happening fast; that scientists cannot explain what is happening unless they factor in the influence of human activities; that decisions and actions we take – or fail to take – today may have effects decades and centuries ahead; and that apart from anything else climate change will make other problems – like water shortage, hunger and species loss – even harder to solve.”
But some things take years to change. The US and China are still not ready to make big, legally binding decisions. The EU, despite domestic financial concerns, is still the forerunner in terms of global environmental issues. Some countries in the EU, such as Denmark, are extremely ambitious in their move towards green living and reluctance to wait for global decisions.
The Rio+20 UN conference on sustainable development is over. “The conference declaration, titled ‘The Future We Want’ is a weak and meaningless document. It aims at the lowest common denominator consensus to say it all, but to say nothing consequential about how the world will move ahead to deal with the interlinked crises of economy and ecology. Is this the future we want or the future we dread?” wrote Sunita Narain, a columnist for The Huffington Post, on her blog.
For some people in Europe, climate change is already an obvious reality. One of the examples described by The New York Times is the history of the tiny French island off the cost of Brittany, Île de Sein. Its inhabitants and their ancestors, who trace their origins to the Celtic druids, have lived through frequent periods of hunger, a terrible flood, and two cholera epidemics. During World War II, many of the islanders refused to accept German occupation and fled by boat to join Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Army.
Today, residents of Île de Sein are confronted by a more existential threat. With increasingly rough storms and a global rise in sea levels of 0.14 inches per year since the early 1990s, their existence on the island which is on average just five feet above sea level seems increasingly at risk.
“It is like living on a volcano that can burst at any time,” Michel Touzet, a retired pilot who settled on Île de Sein 20 years ago, was quoted in The New York Times. “In winter, we never know whether we’ll find ourselves sitting on the roof of the church or not.”
After storms in Lithuania, the news website Delfi published an article in which a weatherman explains that local people need to get used to catastrophic wind and heat waves.
While the debate about the end of the world rages, the residents of Île de Sein face life-changing challenges.