The thin layer of atmosphere around the Earth contains the greenhouse gases (GHGs) which help retain some of the heat from the sun so that the average temperature on Earth is about 15° Celsius (59° Fahrenheit) instead of the below-freezing temperature of -15°C. In 1896 the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius estimated that if carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was doubled from the preindustrial level, the temperature on the Earth would rise by several degrees. In 1955 Gilbert Plass published “The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change.” Scientists have found that virtually all of the accelerated warming of the climate since 1970 is because of human causes. In 1972 the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment met at Stockholm, created the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), and devised international laws to protect the environment. In 1977 the US National Academy of Sciences estimated that unrestricted greenhouse gases could increase the global temperature by 10°F (5.5°C) and raise sea level by 20 feet.
In 1988 the United Nations Environmental Program and the World Meteorological Organization established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to study and report on the problems that may be caused by global warming on the planet Earth. At the Rio Conference in 1992 most national governments agreed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and from their recommendations the United Nations General Assembly established the Commission on Sustainable Development in January 1993; 53 member states were elected for 3-year terms with a third of them elected annually. The Climate Change Convention was strengthened by the Kyoto Protocol which was adopted in December 1997 and went into effect in 2005 for the 141 nations that had ratified it with the goal of 35 developed nations reducing their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 5.2% from 1990 levels by 2012. Vice President Albert Gore signed the Kyoto Protocol for the United States, but the Bill Clinton administration did not submit it to the Senate for ratification. The George W. Bush administration rejected it in September 2001, and Bush proposed voluntary measures in February 2002. The Kyoto Protocol has been signed by 191 nations. Canada withdrew in 2011.
The UNFCCC has been ratified by all 193 members of the United Nations. The main principles described in Article 3 are the responsibility to protect present and future generations, consideration for those who would have to bear abnormal burdens, the precautionary principle, and the right to economic development that should be sustainable. In Article 4 parties agreed to mitigate climate change by limiting emissions of greenhouse gases. The prosperous countries listed in Annex II are required to provide financial and technical assistance to developing countries.
In April 1998 the Global Environmental Facility first assembled with 199 governments represented along with 16 International Governmental Organizations (IGOs) and 185 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and by June 1999 they had granted $2.5 billion mostly to conserve biodiversity and prevent climate change.
Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by the United States in metric tons of carbon dioxide and its equivalent in the other gases were 6.233 billion metric tons in 1990, and the highest level so far was 7.325 billion metric tons in 2007. Since then American GHG emissions have gone down a little to 6.526 billion metric tons in 2012, but this is still 292 million metric tons more than in 1990. Total human GHG emissions reached 36 billion metric tons in 2013. In the last thirty years of the previous millennium they increased 1.3% per year, but in the first decade of the new millennium GHG emissions went up an average of 2.2% each year.
The developed nations with less than 20% of the world’s population have emitted nearly 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions. The United States with 4.4% of the world’s population has been emitting about 17% of the carbon. In 2006 China passed up the US as the largest emitter, but China has about four times as many people. Americans, Canadians, and Australians emit about 20 tons of carbon dioxide per person annually, and the next highest developed country is Russia with 10.5 tons per person. In 2013 US carbon emissions went up 2.9% while global emissions increased 2.3%. That year the consumption of oil in the United States increased by 400,000 barrels per day, and for the first time since 1999 America’s demand for oil grew faster than China’s. US production of crude oil increased from 5.7 million barrels per day in 2011 to 7.5 million in 2013. In 2014 US carbon emissions increased less, and in 2015 they decreased to 12% below the 2005 level. Carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere has increased 34% since 1990.
In the fourth report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 they estimated that even if greenhouse gases were kept constant at what was emitted in the year 2000, warming would continue at the rate of 0.1°Celsius per decade or 1°C for the century. A more probable scenario has suggested that the rate could be limited to about 0.2°C per decade for a 2°C rise by 2100. However, the “business as usual” (BAU) scenario of continuing the intensive use of fossil fuels could raise the temperature in the range of from 2.4°C to 6.4°C. To change this pattern and make human life on Earth sustainable humanity will have to face up to what is called the “social cost of carbon.” In the 2007 report the IPCC predicted that carbon emissions must peak by the year 2015 in order to avoid a rise in temperature of more than 2°C. Yet they also predicted that the trend in world energy use indicate that it will increase by 50% by 2030 with 77% of the increase being from fossil fuels. Continuing that trend would probably be catastrophic. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and others have recommended that fossil fuel subsidies be abolished. In 2016 annual government subsidies of fossil fuels reached at least $775 billion.
The IPCC report of its Working Group 1 in September 2013 was first published in April 2014. Between 1880 and 2012 they found that the average temperature has increased about 0.5°C. They calculated that warming of the upper ocean between 1971 and 2010 accounts for 90% of the accumulated energy. As of 2014 the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are losing mass at the rate of 500 cubic kilometers per year. Arctic sea ice is 40% less during the summer now. Spring snow in the northern hemisphere is decreasing as glaciers continue to shrink. Since 1870 average global sea levels have risen about 23 centimeters (9 inches). Greenhouse gases have increased with carbon dioxide going up by 40% since the pre-industrial era because of fossil fuel emissions and changing use of the land. The IPCC’s estimates of how much global temperatures and ocean levels will increase in the 21st century are based on several different scenarios of how humans may behave; but in all cases they predict that they will increase and will continue to do so for centuries.
During the Permo-Triassic extinction 252 million years ago volcanic eruptions put so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that 70% of all animals and plants on Earth were destroyed along with more than 90% of marine life. About 15 to 20 million years ago the Earth had about 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide, and the average temperature was about 4°C warmer with sea levels about a hundred feet higher than now. In the last 880,000 years the range of carbon dioxide in the air oscillated between a low of 180 parts per million (ppm) during ice ages and a high of 299 ppm about 330,000 years ago. The climate of the Earth as measured by the average temperature was stable for the previous 10,000 years until the 20th century. In the hundred years since 1910 the average temperature on the Earth has increased about 0.9° Celsius, and two-thirds of this was in the last three decades. Of the solar energy which comes to Earth as heat about 30% is reflected away by clouds, the ground, and the atmosphere, and 70% is absorbed by the atmosphere, the land, and the water. Sunshine on the Earth has thousands of times more energy than humans could ever use.
The four major “greenhouse gases” (GHGs) which increase this absorption are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) called halocarbons. Carbon dioxide accounts for 82% of the pollutants from burning (mostly fossil fuels) and stays in the atmosphere for about one or two centuries. Methane is 9% and does not last as long, but it causes 87 times as much warming as carbon dioxide in two decades. Nitrous oxide is about 6% of GHGs emissions but has 298 times more of an effect on global warming than carbon dioxide over a century.
In 1979 the World Meteorological Organization hosted the first World Climate Conference. Concern about the chlorofluorocarbons’ (CFCs) causing an ever-widening hole in the ozone layer protecting the Earth from ultraviolet radiation, which causes skin cancer, led to the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer in 1985. This and its Montreal Protocol were ratified by 196 nations and went into force in January 1989. Since then the consumption of ozone-depleting substances has decreased by more than 98%. This treaty is considered one of the most successful so far, and the ozone layer is expected to fully recover by 2050. Advanced countries began manufacturing hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) to replace CFCs. HFCs used for refrigeration and aerosol sprays are “super greenhouse gases” because they are 3,830 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 14 years. Production of HFCs is increasing 15% per year, and the Environmental Investigation Agency has estimated they could cause the equivalent of ten gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2040. Fluorochemicals have replaced some HFCs, and scientists have suggested that carbon dioxide could be a better refrigerant. In 2013 the G-20 nations agreed to phase out use of HCFCs.
According to the International Energy Agency more than 80% of the world’s energy produced by humans comes from fossil fuels, which are all limited. At current rates of production the estimated reserves of petroleum will last more than 40 years, natural gas 60 years, and coal 130 years. Coal in producing the same amount of energy releases 30% more carbon dioxide than oil and 80% more than natural gas.
In the year 1750 the concentration of carbon dioxide was about 290 parts per million (ppm), and by 1970 this had increased to about 325. Since then with the accelerated burning of fossil fuels this concentration reached 400 ppm in September 2016. (If one adds the other greenhouse gases, the carbon dioxide equivalent is more than 450 ppm.) The Earth is now within 1°C of having its highest average temperature in the past million years. One-fifth of the available fossil fuels that remain in the Earth have enough carbon, which if burned, would raise the global temperature 2°C beyond preindustrial times.
Each of the last four decades has been warmer than the one before. The last quarter of the 20th century had 23 of the 25 hottest years recorded up to that time since records began in 1866. All of the 17 warmest years ever recorded through 2016 have occurred since 1998. The warmest twelve were 2016, 2015, 2014, 2010, 2013, 2005, 2009, 1998, 2012, 2007, 2006, and 2003. According to the Copernicus Climate Change Service the average temperature in 2016 was warmer than in 2015, the previous high, and 1.3°C higher than pre-industrial levels.
Analyses by twenty global research groups published by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society studied 16 extreme weather events in 2013 and found that five heat waves which hit Australia, Korea, Europe, Japan and China were ten times more likely to be warmer and longer because of the effect of greenhouse gases. Each year humans are emitting about 9 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere, but only about 5 billion metric tons are being removed annually, thus adding 4 billion per year. With more than 400 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere the climate would be expected to warm another 0.5°C even if no more carbon was emitted. Leading climatologist James Hansen has advised that 350 ppm of carbon dioxide is a safe level, but above 350 increasing dangers will result from global warming. The Earth reached 402 ppm in April 2014, and in December 2016 carbon dioxide emission was 404.5 ppm. Many conscientious people believe that humanity must work together to reduce emissions enough to bring the level back down to 350 ppm. (See 350.org.)
At already more than 400 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere the temperature rise will be at least 1.2°C. If the recent trend of “business as usual” (BAU) in carbon emissions continues, global warming could bring the increase in average temperature to 2°C by 2020 and by as much as 6°C to 12°C by 2100. In 1960 the population of the nations emitting most of the greenhouse gases was less than one billion, but a half century later there are four billion people in those countries. Demand for petroleum is increasing at about 2% per year. When the Kyoto Treaty was signed in 1997, the annual increase in carbon dioxide emissions was about 1%; but since then the amount of annual increase has tripled.
In 2010 those with the largest portions of world emissions of carbon dioxide were China 26.4%, United States 17.3%, European Union 13.3%, India, 6.4%, Russia, 5.6%, and Japan 3.7%. The ten most populated nations are China with 19.1% of the people, India 17.4%, United States 4.4%, Indonesia 3.5%, Brazil 2.8%, Pakistan 2.6%, Nigeria 2.4%, Bangladesh 2.1%, Russia 2.1%, and Japan 1.8%.
In 2014 global emissions of carbon dioxide were about 35.7 billion tons, and they had risen about 0.9 tons per year in the previous decade. At this rate they could reach 44 billion tons per year by 2022. To limit the global warming to 2°C humans must emit only about 500 billion tons more of carbon dioxide. This could be accomplished by reducing the annual amount steadily to zero over the next thirty years starting in 2015. If humanity continues to increase or even emit the same amount for the next forty years the carbon dioxide will go over 500 ppm. Then warming will continue after that unless it is reduced. If the warm climate starts melting the tundra, methane will be released and will greatly increase the heating. Already there is extreme weather with worse hurricanes, cyclones, and tornadoes with floods in some places and droughts and fires in others. Insect infestations will kill forests, and the coral reefs in oceans will die. Jellyfish are replacing many fish.
Scientists have already named the new geological epoch the Earth is entering as the Anthropocene because it is the human species which is causing the rise in greenhouse gases that are changing the climate drastically. In 2009 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists warned humanity that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere “is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop.”
Greenhouse gases are produced mostly by burning fossil fuels for electricity and heat for industry, commercial and residential uses, and for transportation. Deforestation releases carbon dioxide from trees and plants that hold it by destroying trees and by burning brush-land and wood fires. In the past century about half of the world’s forests have been removed. Forests are disappearing at the annual rate of 13 million hectares to clear land and fell trees for lumber and paper. Commodities that cause much deforestation are palm oil, soybeans, beef, and paper.
In 2012 coal accounted for 44% of carbon dioxide emissions in the world. Coal puts much more carbon in the air but provides less energy than petroleum, though synthetic oil can be made from coal for about $70 per barrel. Nearly 40% of all power generation capacity under construction or planned by 2016 is for burning coal, though much of this may be replaced by consuming cheaper shale gas. As of 2012 some 59 nations are planning to construct 1,200 new coal plants. Natural gas emits less carbon than oil, and recently much shale gas has been found in the United States which costs only $3 per million BTUs (British thermal units), which is half of what natural gas costs in Europe. However, recent studies show that shale gas from fracking is so much less efficient than conventional natural gas that its effect on global warming is worse than petroleum and about as bad as coal.
American petroleum production reached a peak of about 10 million barrels per day in 1970 and declined to 5 million in 2009 but has climbed back up to 9.4 million barrels per day in 2015. World crude oil production increased to about 80 million barrels per day in 2014, and some have predicted that it will reach its peak and begin declining in 2017.
The gross world product (GWP) is increasing and has gone (in 1990 international dollars) from $5 trillion in 1950 to $78 trillion in 2014. These economies are demanding more and more fossil fuels and various metals. The eight largest oil fields in the world reached their peak production between 1972 and 2003. Huge companies, intent on increasing their profits, are extracting oil and gas by very difficult methods with increasing risks and dangers by drilling miles below the ground to extract shale oil and gas by fracturing (“fracking”) and miles below the ocean floor by off-shore oil-drilling. Dirtier oil such as the tar sands in the Athabasca wilderness of Alberta, Canada causes three times as much carbon dioxide as conventional drilling. They are going to less accessible places such as the Arctic, the Congo, miles below the bottom of the ocean, and in rock formations. China now has more than 95% of the world’s rare earth elements and is limiting production because of environmental and other concerns. In 2010 China produced 130 metric tons of rare earths out of the world total of 134 metric tons, but in the next five years they kept annual production at 105 metric tons or less.
These desperate measures have revived these fossil fuels in the United States, though the chemicals involved in fracking pollute ground water and cause earthquakes. Drilling for deep shale gas uses about five million gallons of water per well. According to analysis by the Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas about 386 million people in 20 countries live on land over shale plays, and in about 40% of them the largest use of water is for irrigating agriculture. In August 2014 the Stockholm International Water Institute reported that 1.7 billion people live where groundwater is threatened. The World Resources Institute has calculated that nearly 40% of shale gas and tight oil is in arid areas or where there is extreme water stress. Fracking also allows 30% more methane to escape into the atmosphere than conventional gas, making fracking worse for the climate than oil and as bad as coal.
In 2009 the European Union (EU) promised to increase their energy efficiency by 20% by the year 2020, and before the Copenhagen conference the Chinese announced they would reduce the energy intensity of their economy by 40% by 2020. Despite population and income growth, Norway has managed to reduce their household use of electricity in the last decade even though they are an oil-rich nation.
Currently only about half of greenhouse gas emissions are absorbed by oceans and forests, which means that the other half is being added to the atmosphere. If humans continue to use mostly fossil fuels for energy, emissions of carbon dioxide will increase 50% by the year 2050, warming the Earth about 2.5°C since the 19th century.
Because sunshine and wind power are intermittent, natural gas has been used by utilities to fill in the gaps until solar and wind power are developed enough to need this no longer. Yet oil and gas are getting harder to extract, and fracking makes them worse for the environment. Emission from airplanes and rockets have a larger effect on the warming when they are released at high altitudes.
Before the industrial revolution the atmosphere had about 560 billion metric tons of carbon, but in 2014 there was at least 730 billion metric tons. Humans have been adding carbon to the atmosphere primarily by burning fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Removing trees and plants through deforestation also releases the carbon stored in their plant cells. Plants’ photosynthesis removes carbon dioxide from the air and converts it to sugars. Scientists have estimated that slowing the rate of deforestation 50% by 2030 would save $3.7 trillion in ecological costs. Since 1981 China has required all citizens between the ages of 11 and 60 to plant three trees each year in a plan to plant about 100 million acres of new trees. About 60% of the carbon that was stored in soil and plants in 1800 has been emitted into the atmosphere. Currently humans are destroying or damaging 20,000 hectares (nearly 50,000 acres) per day from the remaining forests. Satellite imaging and mapping discovered that more than 8% of the Earth’s remaining intact forest landscapes were degraded between 2010 and 2013; that is an area three times the size of Germany. According to Greenpeace more than half the forests degraded since 2000 were in Canada, Russia, and Brazil, and these countries contain about two-thirds of the remaining forests.
People with financial interests, who believe they will be hurt by reductions in the use of fossil fuels or other measures needed to reverse global warming, organized a disinformation campaign to sow doubt in the minds of people that the scientific evidence for human-caused global warming is sufficient to justify remedial measures. Against the extensive evidence and the expert advice of almost all climate scientists they have argued that there is no extraordinary warming, that it is not caused by humans, and that reducing greenhouse emissions will cause more harm than good. The tactics of those who opposed governmental regulation of tobacco smoking have been employed to attack scientists as corrupt liars and alarmists, claiming that the scientific journals are biased against the skeptics. Yet to a neutral observer these charges more accurately describe the “skeptics” than the scientists whose work has been published in thousands of peer-reviewed articles as is usual with scientific debates.
About 99% of the scientists now believe that global warming is happening and that it is primarily caused by human actions which add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and reduce the carbon sinks on the Earth through deforestation, industrial agriculture, and other actions. The disinformation campaign promoted by conservative think tanks and politicians has been financed by fossil fuel interests and other corporations whose products and actions increase greenhouse gases or deforestation. In order to bolster their arguments in support of their profit motives and ideological predilections they cite carefully selected evidence while ignoring most of the data. They employ front groups to disguise the actual funders of the effort. Using propaganda they promote doubt in the minds of people who have little actual knowledge of the issue in order to delay governmental change that would help solve this massive problem. As a result twenty years have been lost already because of the lack of adequate responses by governments. The Guardian reported that between 2002 and 2010 American billionaires donated almost $120 million to groups that have cast doubt on the science behind global warming. Between 1997 and 2010 billionaires Charles and David Koch spent over $48.5 million funding disinformation.
Yet the effects of global warming are becoming increasingly apparent every year with hotter average temperatures, extreme weather conditions, destructive storms, heat waves, droughts, forest fires, melting of polar icecaps and glaciers, floods, ocean rising and acidification, etc. The mainstream media in the United States often have failed in their duty to investigate the lack of peer-reviewed science by the skeptics or to note how their claims come from a tiny minority of scientists.
Although most experts agree that the best ways to reverse global warming are to greatly reduce carbon emissions and to protect forests and increase them, a few would-be climate engineers have proposed extraordinary schemes to try to cool the atmosphere with technological fixes. In 1974 Mikhail Budyko suggested burning sulfur in the stratosphere so that the sulfate dust would reflect away more solar energy. Paul Crutzen in his “Albedo Enhancement by Stratospheric Sulfur Injections” calculated that this would cost at least $50 billion a year. Large eruptions of volcanoes can have a similar effect. In June 1991 Mount Pinatubo’s eruption put so many sulfate particles in the upper atmosphere that temperatures in the northern hemisphere were reduced by 0.5°C for about three years. However, this and the Mount Hudson eruption in Chile in August 1991 also caused the ozone hole over Antarctica to become larger than ever. Evidence from the Pinatubo eruption and other large volcanoes have shown that sulfur dioxide in the stratosphere disrupts summer monsoons in Asia and Africa, reducing rain needed for the food that supplies billions of people. India gets about 80% of its annual rainfall from summer monsoons.
The eruption of Laki in Iceland in 1783 caused drought and famine in India and Japan as well as extreme weather in Europe which caused an extremely cold winter and flooding. As a result several million people died in both Asia and Europe. On April 5, 1815 Mt. Tambora in Indonesia erupted and expelled so much dust into the upper atmosphere that cold temperatures caused famines in North America and Europe in the summer of 1816 because of poor crops. In 1912 the Katmair volcano erupted in Alaska and lowered the temperature, and in western Africa a famine killed at least 125,000 people.
Because such large-scale geoengineering experiments cannot be tested before being tried, they would be a foolish gamble with the likelihood of catastrophic consequences on a grand scale. The sulfate method might get fairly quick results; but they are temporary, and the process would have to be repeated often. Sunlight would be dimmed so that the sky would no longer appear blue nor would the stars be seen at night. If the sulfur injections were stopped, global temperatures would rise very quickly, resulting in even more severe consequences than gradual changes. This method would not reduce carbon in the atmosphere, and it could affect water cycles. Evidence from stratospheric sulfate aerosols shows they could also increase the risks of ozone depletion, droughts, and acid rain.
Methods of carbon dioxide removal aim to reduce the levels of carbon in the atmosphere by capture and storage, or by using biochar, which is charcoal made by pyrolysis (burning biomass at high temperatures). This is done without oxygen to avoid combustion. Then the carbon would have to be stored in the ground for centuries. This method would be an improvement on the slash-and-burn method used in the deforestation of the Amazon basins and other places which leaves only 3% of the carbon in the soil. Slash and char could retain up to half of the carbon in the ground. This method of sequestering carbon may be somewhat helpful in reducing the effects of deforestation; but like many geoengineering techniques, it is expensive, risky, and limited.
Ocean fertilization methods aim to remove carbon dioxide from the air while increasing marine food production. Iron fertilization could be used to increase the photosynthesis of marine phytoplankton. This was demonstrated when the Mount Pinatubo eruption deposited about 40,000 tons of iron dust in the oceans, and the fertilization decreased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere while increasing oxygen levels. However, carbon that is released below the plankton blooms does not sink to the seafloor but remineralizes and eventually returns to the atmosphere. Also scientists have pointed out that fertilization could cause harmful algal blooms that would be detrimental to marine food webs. So as a long-term solution ocean fertilization is considered inadequate and dangerous.
Many have criticized the engineering solutions as avoiding the long-term solutions by attempting unproven experiments which could be hazardous. None of these engineering projects would reduce the carbon in the atmosphere nor prevent adding more carbon to the atmosphere. Neither would they stop the acidification of the oceans. Fossil fuels are running out, and humans must learn to use renewable sources of energy not only to prevent drastic global warming but also as sustainable ecological solutions. Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
More than 90% of global warming is absorbed by the oceans, and this water expands when it becomes warner. In 2014 a study found that the upper 700 meters of the ocean have been heating up 55% faster since 1970 than previously believed. Since 1950 global sea levels have risen more than 10 centimeters (4 inches). Estimates by the IPCC for its projected rise in the 21st century range from 18 to 59 centimeters, but Eric Rignot and others believe these are too conservative and that the oceans are likely to rise another 32 centimeters by 2050. Accelerating ice loss means that the Arctic Ocean will probably be ice-free during the summer by 2030. Thawing of the frozen tundra in the Arctic releases large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane. After the ice covering the Arctic Ocean has melted, the warming of the oceans will accelerate because less ice will be reflecting back solar energy. If carbon in the atmosphere is limited to 450 ppm, the heat is still likely to raise the seas another 20 centimeters by 2100. Melting glaciers would probably add another 33 centimeters. Thus melting ice and glaciers and thermal expansion could raise the oceans between 40 and 83 centimeters by the end of the century. About 150 million people live in areas that are less than one meter above sea level. Scientists estimate that for each meter of sea-level rise approximately one hundred million people will have to leave their homes.
The largest possible effect on the sea levels would be if much of the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland melted. This could take centuries; but if all the Antarctica ice melted, the sea levels would rise by 73 meters. Greenland’s ice melting could cause the seas to increase by 6.6 meters. On August 5, 2010 the Petermann Glacier broke off the northwest coast of Greenland to become an iceberg of 97 square miles that is four times the size of Manhattan and as thick as half the height of the Empire State Building. In 2014 NASA glaciologist Rignot warned that the collapse of the West Antarctica sector is unstoppable and would raise sea level four feet in coming centuries.
About 15 million years ago the atmosphere had between 350 and 450 ppm of carbon dioxide; but the temperature average was between 3°C and 6°C warmer than today, and sea levels were 25 to 40 meters higher than now. About 14,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age the seas rose 4 to 5 meters per century for several centuries. Myths of deluges were passed down to ancient peoples from that era. Such rises in ocean levels in our time would be devastating to much of human civilization.
More than half the people in the world live within 120 miles of the ocean. Many islands and coastal areas could be wiped out by small rises in the oceans that are already occurring. On October 17, 2009 Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed held a cabinet meeting underwater to publicize the likely fate of their nation of 386,000 people with GDP per capita of only $4,500 a year. Tuvalu is another island nation that could disappear under the ocean in coming decades. Maldives, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Tokelau, Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Papua New Guinea, and other island nations (37 member states of the United Nations) formed the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) to increase the influence of their 40 million people.
The largest populations threatened by the rising of the oceans are in China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, Egypt, United States, Thailand, and the Philippines, and the most vulnerable cities are Calcutta, Mumbai, Dhaka, Guangzhou, Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai, Bangkok, Yangon (Rangoon), Miami, Hai Phong, New York, Tianjin, Tokyo, and Hong Kong.
Bangladesh with an increasing population of 164 million is one of the poorest nations with an annual income of about $1,440 per person. A sea-level rise of one meter is expected to submerge 17.5% of the nation, and this would force about 20 million people to leave their homes. The Sundarbans, the largest mangrove swamps in the world covering 3,800 square miles, would be ruined by a sea-level rise of 60 centimeters (2 feet), removing a natural barrier against storms and flooding. Bangladesh has a population density of 1,100 people per square kilometer compared to 482 in South Korea, 385 in the Netherlands, and 33 in the United States. Bangladesh’s crops could fall by 30%. Refugees would flee to other parts of the country and might try to cross borders to India and Myanmar (Burma) even though India is already building a fence to keep out migrants. In November 1970 East Pakistan, as Bangladesh was called then, was hit by the Bhola Cyclone which caused about 400,000 human fatalities.
In the Netherlands and Germany 13 million people live in coastal floodplains and would be endangered by a rise of one meter in sea levels. In 2008 the Delta Commission warned the Netherlands that they should prepare for the North Sea to rise as much as 1.3 meters by the year 2100 rather than the projected 80 centimeters and to plan for a 2-4 meter rise by 2200.
In late August 2005 hurricane Katrina flooded 80% of New Orleans and destroyed more than 200,000 homes. Damage from this storm has been estimated at $75 billion. Warmer oceans make hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons more likely and more severe. On May 2, 2008 Cyclone Nargis attacked the Irrawaddy delta and Myanmar’s capital Yangon (Rangoon) with 12-meter surges, causing 138,366 human deaths, destroying more than a half million homes, and leaving 2.4 million people homeless. Between 1990 and 2009 more than 2.2 billion people were injured or displaced by floods. On November 8, 2013 coasts in the Philippines were devastated by Typhoon Haiyan which killed more than 6,000 people and seriously affected 14 million others. Currently each year natural disasters harm about 270 million people in the world and cost an average of $143 billion, and these catastrophes are becoming worse every year.
The oceans have become more acidic from absorbing about 25% of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans, and this is seriously affecting coral reefs, shellfish, and plankton. In polar regions tiny marine snails called “pteropods,” which are usually eaten by salmon, herring, and other fish, are having their shells damaged. About a hundred tons of carbon are being dumped each second into the oceans. About 95% of coral reefs are threatened by pollution, and they could be destroyed by 2050. Coral reefs provide habitat for at least one quarter of marine species, and about 500 million people depend on them for food and income. Toxic chemicals and other human waste dumped in oceans has been creating dead zones which have doubled in number every decade since 1960. At the Convention on Biological Diversity in October 2014 An Updated Synthesis of the Impacts of Ocean Acidification on Marine Biodiversity reported that acidification of the oceans has increased 26% in the last two centuries. They also reported that its impact on coral reefs could affect the livelihoods of 400 million people and that a study found the annual effect of acidification on coral reefs could be $1 trillion by the year 2100. Scientists advised that the only solution to ocean acidification is to reduce the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Scientists estimate it could take tens of thousands of years to reverse ocean acidification.
The world’s glaciers began shrinking slowly in the late 19th century. Melting increased in the 1940s and began accelerating in the 1980s. As the glaciers become smaller, less snow melts each year providing less fresh water in the dry seasons, causing droughts which have increased in the last fifteen years. Glaciers store up water that is used annually as it melts in the warm seasons. With smaller glaciers melting each year rivers, lakes, and reservoirs have less water for agriculture and domestic use.
In the Andes mountains people have depended upon the melting of glaciers to provide them with fresh water for centuries, and now about 80 million people depend on this water. The IPCC has calculated that warmer temperatures will probably destroy the Andes glaciers by the year 2022. The Chacaltaya glacier disappeared in 2010 after providing water for 18,000 years. Bolivia is a poor country that emits a very small amount of greenhouse gases, but now they are suffering because of what more affluent humans have been causing with their industrial life-styles.
More than half the people on Earth live in watersheds of major rivers that are supplied by glaciers and snow in the mountains. About 97% of the freshwater resources on Earth are in the polar regions. Climatologists have estimated that if the surface of the Earth warms up 2°C by the end of this century, about half of the glaciers’ volume would be gone. With a rise in temperature of 4°C only about 20% of the glaciers’ size would remain. Most affected by these changes would be billions of people in Asia where the Indus river basin serves 178 million people, the Ganges 407 million, the Yangtze 369 million Chinese, the Yellow River (Huang He) 147 million, and the Brahmaputra river basin which nourishes 119 million people in Tibet, India, and Bangladesh. Temperature increases between 1°C to 6°C are expected to reduce glaciers in the Himalayas-Hindu Kush, Kunlun Shan, Pamir, and Tien Shan mountains by 43% to 81%. China’s glaciers which supply their rivers have been decreasing 7% per year.
Many people in Europe use water from the glaciers in the Alps which have decreased by 20% since the 1970s. Some scientists predict they could be gone by 2050. California’s agriculture has been providing between a third and a half of vegetables, fruits, and nuts in the United States. About 75% of the water supply for California comes from north of its capital at Sacramento, but 75% of California’s use of water is south of Sacramento. In southern California the city of San Diego has bought the annual rights to 247 million tons of water from the Imperial Valley for 75 years, and Los Angeles purchased 137 million tons of water per year for 35 years. Americans use more water per person than almost any other people on Earth. In 2008 the Westlands Water District announced that water allocations were being reduced by 60%. Farmers in this water district produce $1 billion a year. About 65% of California’s water supply comes from the snow pack in the High Sierras, but predictions are that by 2050 this water source will be reduced by 25% to 40%. The Great Western Drought of 1977 severely affected California. Scientists estimate that by 2050 a drought that bad or worse will occur about once every seven years, and by 2100 one out of every three or four years would be that bad. In 2014 the snow pack in the High Sierras was estimated at one-third of normal.
As temperatures rise, there will be more rain instead of snow, and the increased water flowing in the cold months will cause flooding and lost water, followed by less water being available in the dry seasons. Affluent societies may construct canals, reservoirs, and dams to collect the extra rain water for later use; but if poorer regions are not assisted, they will suffer much more for effects caused by affluent polluters.
Although improvements in agriculture have dramatically increased the supply of food in the last century, as of 2010 an estimated 13.5% of all humans still live with hunger. Africa is a warmer climate with less glaciers, and the effects of global warming are expected to be much worse there where poverty is more widespread. An increase of only 1°C is predicted to cause Africa to lose 10% of its grain production. One-third of Africans already live in drought-prone areas, and the arid and semi-arid land is expected to increase by 5% to 8% by the 2080s. The Sahel region of Africa suffered a famine from 1968 to 1973 that took about 250,000 lives. In 1984 a famine in Ethiopia resulted in the death of about 700,000 people. The situation was made worse by the corrupt government of Mengistu Haile Mariam who in absentia was convicted of genocide by an Ethiopian court in 1991. Foreign aid helped end the Ethiopian famine in 1985, and by early 1986 nearly 6 million people were receiving food aid.
Colder regions of the world may be improved in some ways by the effects of global warming, but the populations of Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Scandinavia, and Canada in 2013 had only about 225 million people or about 3% of the world population. Northern portions of Asia, Europe, and the United States could also benefit somewhat from warmer climate. The theory that increasing carbon dioxide in the air will help plants to grow more does not necessarily mean that the amount of food produced will be significantly increased because of more massive decreases caused by having less water for agriculture. Problems caused by global warming can be major factors in making wars more likely. North Africa and the Mideast are the driest regions on Earth. They have 4.4% of the world’s population but only 1.1.% of all renewable water resources. Their population is growing at the rate of about 2% a year which is the second fastest region after sub-Saharan Africa. In the last decade the Mideast has increased its withdrawal of ground water by 29%.
In the Mideast 75% of the fresh water supply is in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The ancient Tigris and Euphrates rivers flow from the mountains of Turkey. The Euphrates goes through the middle of Syria while the Tigris is only a short part of Syria’s northeastern border. Then both rivers flow through Iraq to the Persian Gulf. The last part of the combined rivers is Iraq’s border with Iran which contains the eastern portion of the Tigris river basin. Increased regional demand on both rivers is expected to result in water shortages between 2020 and 2030. In the 1960s Turkey began its Southeast Anatolia Development Project, planning to build 22 dams, 19 hydropower projects, and irrigation for 6,500 square miles in Turkey. Syria’s water supply from the Euphrates is expected to decrease by 40% and Iraq’s by 80%. Iraq’s water from the Tigris is also predicted to be reduced by nearly 50%. Iraq currently gets 40% of its water from the Euphrates and 60% from the Tigris. These two rivers for several millennia have been to Mesopotamia what the Nile River has been for Egypt. If Turkey continues to increase its use of this water, the effect on Syria and especially Iraq will undoubtedly be very serious. Three years of drought in Syria starting in 2008 pushed more than two million Syrians into extreme poverty and provoked the uprising in 2011 that led to the civil war which killed 450,000 Syrians by December 2016.
Desalination can remove salt from seawater; but it is energy intensive and quite expensive, and poor nations like Yemen cannot afford to pump water from the sea to higher elevations. Yemen’s capital at Sanaa is extracting groundwater at four times the rate of its replenishment and is expected to be the first nation to run out of water by 2025.
Israel is also under water stress as it has been using up its aquifers, causing salinization and depletion. In the 1950s the new nation of Israel planned the National Water Carrier (NWC) project to divert water from the Upper Jordan River to northeastern Israel, its cities, and to the arid south. In 1960 at an Arab League Summit leaders decided to divert water from rivers in Syria and Lebanon before their water reached the Upper Jordan. The Arab plan was implemented by the time Israel’s NWC project was completed in 1964. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) attacked the NWC system on January 1, 1965, and sporadic fighting went on until the Six-Day War erupted in June 1967. During this war Israel captured the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and two-thirds of the Golan Heights from Syria. Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had called water diversion a “stark issue of life and death.” Fighting over the Golan Heights resumed in the Arab-Israeli War in October 1973 until an armistice was made in March 1974. Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981. Since 1967 the Golan Heights has supplied much of Israel’s water, and Israel controls Lake Tiberias (formerly the Sea of Galilee). Use of this fresh water has caused shrinking Lake Tiberias to fall by 14.5 feet since 1967.
The IPCC has estimated that during an increase in temperature of between 2°C and 4°C precipitation in the Mideast will decline by about 25%. This could reduce the discharge of the Euphrates River by 38%. The Jordan River may be reduced by 85% by the end of the century. In 1994 Lebanon agreed in a treaty with Syria that they would limit the amount of water they take annually from the Asi-Orontes River. In 2011 the World Bank predicted that by 2050 per-capita water supply in the Mideast will decline by 50%.
The Himalayas, the highest mountains on Earth, are the source of the Indus River which gets 80% of its water from glaciers. Tributaries pass through India and Kashmir before reaching Pakistan on their way to the Arabian Sea. India was named after the Indus River and gets much water from it; but Pakistan, which was part of India until 1947, depends on the Indus for almost all its water. During the first war between India and Pakistan in 1948 India blocked water from two big canals that had been used to water crops in Pakistan. At that time both nations were financially dependent on the World Bank which mediated a resolution of this conflict. In 1960 India and Pakistan agreed to the Indus Water Treaty that reserved 80% of the water from the six rivers in the Indus basin for Pakistan downriver. At the end of 2016 India’s population was about 1.33 billion, but it is expected to reach about 1.7 billion by 2050. Pakistan by the end of 2016 had about 195 million persons, and for 2050 the estimate is 310 million. The Indus River is used so much for irrigation and to generate energy that it no longer reaches the sea. Instead the sea has already pushed inland forty miles and destroyed more than a million acres of farmland. More than 85% of the mangrove-forest ecosystem has been ruined.
In 1971 India supported people in East Pakistan in a fight for their independence which created the nation Bangladesh. The Simla Agreement in 1972 ended the war. In 1984 India seized the mountain passes that control the Siachen Glacier, violating the Simla Accord. However, the Ganges Treaty of 1996 guarantees Bangladesh half of the Ganges water during the dry months from March to May and more than half the rest of the year. India is building and has nearly completed an iron fence 2.5 meters high on its 2,100-mile-long border with Bangladesh. Every year about 270,000 children less than five years old in India die of acute respiratory infections that are caused by air pollution.
The former Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir has been divided between modern India and Pakistan and is still a place of conflict between the two nations. During a dispute in 1999 both countries put their nuclear weapons on alert. The Himalayas are also the source of other rivers which nurture India, China, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. The Ganges serves more than 400 million people in India. If global warming melts the Himalayan glaciers, its rivers will lose about one-third of their water. The melting from global warming causes flooding, and its results also increase flooding as rain replaces snow; but during dry seasons there will be less water. In July 2010 the annual monsoons flooded almost one-fifth of Pakistan, forcing 20 million people out of their homes and destroying 5,000 miles of roads, 7,000 schools, and 400 health facilities. India has been building dams on the Indus River to generate electric power but still releases the water for Pakistan. However, in a crisis India could block the flow of water to Pakistan, which as a smaller nation is relying on its recently acquired nuclear arsenal to deter its more powerful neighbor. India has an economy nearly ten times that of Pakistan, which refuses to agree to a “no first-use” policy with nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s bio-capacity is 80% less than its demands.
A recent article on “Earth’s Future” by Michael J. Mills of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Earth System Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado and by others reported that a limited regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan in which each side exploded about fifty atomic (not hydrogen) bombs could result in about 5 teragrams of black carbon ascending into the stratosphere and spreading around the globe. This would cause severe heat in the stratosphere but a sudden fall in surface temperatures that would last about nine years. Also the global ozone loss over populated regions could be between 20% and 50%. During the summer ultraviolet (UV) effects of 30% to 80% over mid-latitudes could cause serious damage to human health, agriculture, and ecosystems on land and in water. Extended frost would reduce growing seasons between ten to forty days each year for five years. Surface temperatures would be reduced for more than 25 years as sea ice expanded. Reduced rainfall could cause many areas to become even drier. In other words in just a few days during which such a nuclear war could occur a limited “nuclear winter” would set in for a quarter century, causing a massive famine that would make the serious problems of global warming over decades seem trivial by comparison. After that devastating interlude global warming could increase more rapidly. If a nuclear war using hydrogen bombs occurred, the results would be many times worse. This study should be an urgent warning that humans must abolish all nuclear weapons as soon as possible, or else the consequences of even the limited use of such weapons could be extremely dire with the possible loss of one billion people or more.
For many reasons Africa is likely to experience the most serious consequences of global warming. Most of Africa is far from the poles, and glaciers and snow are limited without large mountain ranges. Africa has a large band of desert regions that are expanding as the Earth heats up. Lake Chad had provided water for 20 million people; but during a drought in the 1970s the northern half of the lake dried up, and much of the rest is a swamp. The annual catch of fish has been reduced by more than 99% to 50,000 tons a year. Libya’s cities of Tripoli, Benghazi, Sirte, and Misrata are using up ancient groundwater transported from under the Sahara Desert.
The 20 million Nigerians living in the Niger Delta are barely above sea level, and their risk of being flooded by storm surges is similar to that of 40% of those who live in West Africa. In 2007 the United States military organized an African command (AFRICOM) to prepare for possible conflicts. Nigeria has been exporting much oil, but the people in the Niger Delta have been suffering poverty, violence, and pollution without reaping the benefits taken by the government and those in northern Nigeria. Aggressive militias formed the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) to fight back. They have stolen oil, purchased weapons, and reduced Nigeria’s oil production by more than 25%.
In the Darfur region of Sudan rainfall levels decreased 7% from the 1960s to the 1970s and then 18% more in the 1980s. As conditions became worse, violence over water and grazing rights increased until a war broke out from 2003 to 2009 during which about 300,000 people died mostly from disease as 2.7 million left their homes. This has been called the first significant “climate war,” though after a drought a civil war began in Sierra Leone in 1991 that lasted eleven years and killed more than 50,000 people.
Heat waves are becoming more severe with one in 2003 killing 70,000 people in Europe and another in 2010 causing 55,000 deaths in Russia. That year Russia lost 40% of its wheat production. Southwestern parts of the United States have been experiencing severe droughts every year since 2002. Drought conditions covered 65% of the United States in 2012. The warm seasons are becoming longer with spring beginning about a week sooner and autumn lingering on for another week. Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s and created the largest man-made lake in the western hemisphere, but Lake Meade is expected to run dry before the year 2020. In California about 1,100 miles of levees have been constructed to prevent flooding in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. If they fail because of a storm, about 20 million Californians would lack fresh water for months.
The western military alliance called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has warned that environmental degradation from depleted natural resources and boundary issues affected by shared water resources can lead to regional conflicts and violence.
Every year about 1.5 million children under the age of five die of diarrhea and other diseases because of unsanitary conditions and poor hygiene. If the levels of greenhouse gases are not reduced but continue to rise, causing droughts which reduce fresh water supplies and make storms and fires worse, many people will become refugees in their own countries or migrants to other places. The Stern Review in 2006 predicted that there may be 200 million climate migrants by 2050. The stress of intensive crowding in cities or refugee camps will make people more susceptible to diseases, and massive epidemics may spread. Pathogens moving to new regions as the climate becomes warmer will find new populations with less immunity. People suffering from poverty, hunger, and thirst while lacking clean water will be vulnerable to many diseases. The magnitude of the suffering will depend upon how many people are displaced and the response of people, organizations, and governments which may also be severely stressed.
In a warmer climate malaria, dengue fever, and encephalitis are especially likely to spread and be more virulent. Malaria has been killing about a million people a year, mostly children, and every year about 300 million people have suffered and survived malaria which leaves many permanently disabled. Many countries spend about 40% of their public health budgets on malaria. As the climate of more regions becomes warmer, mosquitos carrying malaria and dengue fever may invade. When warmer temperatures last longer, the parasites in mosquitos are able to mature more quickly to infect more people. Forty years ago higher elevations in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia were free of malaria because they were too cool; but now malaria is there. The World Health Organization (WHO) has calculated that an increase of global temperature by more than 2°C will probably put 3% to 5% more of the world’s people at risk for malaria. By the year 2050 that could be 400 million people. Dengue hemorrhagic fever only affected nine countries before 1970, but now more than sixty nations have had cases. WHO has named dengue fever the “most important mosquito-borne viral disease in the world.” They estimate that a 2.5°C rise in global temperature will double the number of people at risk to more than 5 billion.
Cholera is also more likely to spread in warmer water as dormant plankton blooms. Peru had a cholera outbreak that infected 300,000 people in 1991 and 160,000 more cases in 1992. A strong El Niño weather pattern for several years is considered one of the causes of this epidemic. In 2009 Kenya had a severe drought with a cholera epidemic. The West Nile virus came to the United States in 1999, and within four years it spread to every state. In 2002 the disease killed 284 Americans; 264 died in 2003, and 286 succumbed in 2012.
More extreme precipitation is expected to increase waterborne diseases by 50% or more. Polluted air makes respiratory problems worse, and already about 300 million people suffer from asthma. If fossil fuels, forests, and palms are still being burned, smoke and smog will become worse. Higher temperatures mean more heat waves that will last longer. More foodborne illnesses will also spread, killing more children and others with diarrhea.
About 2.5 billion people still lack access to clean water for adequate sanitation, and about 800 million do not have safe drinking water. Each year more than 7.5 million children under the age of 5 die from malnutrition and mostly preventable diseases.
After fresh air, fresh water is the natural resource most essential to life and health, and, unlike oil, gas, and minerals, water is indispensable and irreplaceable. An indication of the value of this diminishing resource is that the price of bottled water has surpassed the international spot price on crude oil. Although 70% of the Earth is covered by water, 97.5% of that is salty seawater. Two-thirds of the rest is frozen in the polar icecaps and in glaciers, leaving about 1% of the Earth’s water for human agriculture and consumption. Evaporated seawater does return as rain and snow. What is called “blue water” is channeled from rivers, lakes, and aquifers for irrigation, municipal, and industrial uses, and “green water” from precipitation nourishes plants in the soil. Both the aquatic and the terrestrial ecosystems are essential. At least 60% of the food is produced by green water.
About 70% of the world’s fresh water is used for agriculture, and 11% is for cities and towns; but the fastest growing portion is the 19% used by industry. The developed economies are about a quarter of the world’s population but use nearly half of all agricultural products. China and India have 37% of the world’s population but use less than 10% of the water and have less than 20% of the arable land. Africa has only 9% of the world’s fresh water but uses less than 4%. The three nations with the largest freshwater resources are Brazil, Russia, and the United States, and they have about 9% of the population and use 29% of the cultivable land. A study of Brazil warns that the rise in temperature by 2100 could be 7°C or more and that this would cause 40% of the Amazon forest to be eliminated and replaced by a desert. Rainfall in the northeast would decrease, and the Paraiba River that flows in three states could be reduced by 90%.
More than half the people in the world today live in water-stressed conditions, and this is expected to increase to two-thirds of humanity in the 2020s. Average annual availability of fresh water in the world has fallen from about 13,390 cubic meters per person in 1962 to 5,926 in 2014, and it is projected to be about 5,000 cubic meters per capita in 2025. Water stress is defined as less than 1,700 per year and water scarcity or poverty as below 1,000 cubic meters annually for each person. When fresh water falls below 2,000 cubic meters per person, it restrains economic development and environmental protection. In 2050 when the human population is estimated to reach about ten billion, fresh water supplies will need to increase by 80% just for the production of food. Professor Benjamin Sovacool of Aarhus University in Denmark has warned that if humanity continues on its current course, there will be widespread drought over a third of the Earth by the year 2020 and an insurmountable water shortage by 2040. He noted that power companies do not even know how much water they are consuming.
Several small nations have high per capita renewable freshwater availability, but of the 51 most populated countries as of 2014 Canada has 80,183 cubic meters per person per year, Peru 52,981, Colombia 44,883, Russia 29,982, Brazil 27,470, Venezuela 26,227, Australia 20,968, Malaysia 19,397, Myanmar 18,770, Democratic Republic of the Congo 12,020, United States 8,836, Indonesia 7,935, Nepal 7,035, Argentina 6,794, Philippines 4,832, Vietnam 3,961, Mozambique 3,685, Japan 3,382, Thailand 3,315, Mexico 3,262, France, 3,008, Italy 3,002, Turkey 2,928, North Korea 2,677, Spain, 2,392, United Kingdom 2,244, China 2,062, Iran 1,644, Tanzania 1,621, Afghanistan 1,491, Poland 1,410, Germany 1,321, South Korea 1,286, Ethiopia 1,258, Nigeria 1,245, Ghana 1,131, Ukraine 1,215, India, 1,116, Uganda 1,032, Iraq 998, Morocco 855, South Africa 829, Bangladesh 660, Uzbekistan 557, Kenya 461, Pakistan 297, Algeria 289, Sudan 102, Yemen 80, Saudi Arabia 78, and Egypt 20.
Water in 2012 was most abundant on the continents of South America (30,890 cubic meters per person per year) and in the United States and Canada (16,314). Central America and the Caribbean had just under 9,328. Sub-Saharan Africa had 4,431 and Asia around 2,816; but the Mideast had only 1,559 and North Africa only 279 cubic meters per person per year. Most of Africa’s water resources are in Central Africa and West Africa, leaving 300 million Africans without clean water and adequate sanitation. In the last decade about 800 lakes in Africa have dried up, including Lake Chad which was the largest lake in Africa.
Global extraction of groundwater doubled between 1960 and 2000 to 734 billion cubic meters per year, and it will soon reach one trillion per year. By 2030 the global demand for water is expected to be greater than the supply by 40% while in the developing world the deficit will probably be more than 50%. Increasing population and economic development are accelerating the consumption of water.
In 2012 a US intelligence assessment warned that water will be used increasingly as a weapon in the next ten years as powerful upstream nations impede downstream flow. People are turning to nontraditional sources of water such as wastewater reclamation, desalination, ancient aquifers, and interbasin water transfer (IBWT) which moves water from one river basin to another. Recycling water and desalination are constructive, but IBWT projects and tapping “fossil” aquifers have negative environmental effects. Desalination costs three to four times as much as conventional water, requires ten times the energy, adds to greenhouse gases, and produces toxic residues. It is being used by the oil-rich but dry Persian Gulf nations.
The freshwater crisis is raising food prices, exacerbating malnutrition of the poor. Water scarcity in the Arab world is provoking worse conflicts as indicated by the upheavals following the Arab spring of 2011. Most of the failing states in the world are water famished. Violence over water and grazing rights is breaking out on the boundaries between the Republic of South Sudan and the Central African Republic as well as between Ethiopia and Kenya.
During the industrial revolution Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) noted that food production increases arithmetically while population may grow geometrically, causing a misery gap or a limitation on human population. However, the development of industry also led to revolutions in transportation, agriculture, and biotech which have enabled the world population to multiply by seven in the last two centuries. Nonetheless the use of water in the last century has increased more than twice as fast as the multiplying population. Fertilizers helped increase food production, but now the massive use of fertilizers is causing water pollution and eutrophication of waterways by phosphates and nitrates, and the excessive growth of algae. The growth of crop yields have slowed down since the late 1980s. In 1972 the Club of Rome published The Limits of Growth. Based on pioneering computer models, they warned that increases in population and consumption, causing resource degradation and depletion, will limit growth within a century and lead to declines in population and industrial capacity.
Now water shortages are pushing up the price of energy, grain, and metal. In the developing countries nearly two-thirds of waste water is discharged into rivers and watercourses. More than half of the major rivers in the world are polluted, and 3.5 million people die each year from waterborne diseases such as cholera and schistosomiasis. The World Health Organization reported that 35 new waterborne agents were discovered between 1972 and 1999.
Water tables of aquifers are diminishing where about half the people in the world live such as in northern China, India, and western United States. Pumping water out of aquifers is causing wetlands and lakes to dry up and land to sink. Groundwater aquifers fill back up at a rate of less than 0.5% per year. Seawater is flowing into over-tapped coastal aquifers. Local people in water-stressed areas are protesting government and corporate efforts to build water-intensive energy and manufacturing plants. Wealthy societies have more capacity to store water in wet seasons for use in dry times. Thus people in underdeveloped countries suffer more from water stress.
Water wars can be waged without the use of the military by controlling the flows across boundaries. During wars dams have been destroyed. In May 1943 British planes bombed Germany’s Mohne Dam, causing flash floods that destroyed smaller dams downstream and left 1,200 people dead. Dams and irrigation systems were bombed during the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and in 1991 the American-led coalition attacked Baghdad’s water-supply system. In 1990 and in 2012 terrorists favoring Pakistan tried to destroy Indian projects on Lake Wullar in Jammu and Kashmir. The 1977 Protocols Additional to the Geneva Regulations prohibited attacks that threaten the survival of humans including dams, dikes, and nuclear power plants.
Nuclear power requires more water than all thermoelectric technologies. Those placed on the seacoast can use seawater for cooling, but then they become vulnerable to storm-surges such as those that shut down India’s second largest nuclear complex at Madras in December 2004 and Fukushima’s reactors in March 2011. France gets 78% of its electricity from nuclear power, and they use about half of France’s fresh water. The International Energy Agency has estimated that the water used in energy production will increase at twice the pace of energy demand from 2012 to 2035.
Although nuclear power emits less greenhouse gases, it has other problems that are even more dangerous with its lethal radiation. Already tons of nuclear waste that is difficult and dangerous to store have been piling up and need to be cooled or buried and will be radioactive for many centuries. The financial costs and the risks of catastrophic accidents are so great that no capitalists are willing to pay the high insurance rates that investors would need. The radioactive waste presents a terrible problem for future generations; nuclear plants can be used to develop materials for nuclear weapons; and a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant could be catastrophic. China and only a few other nations are still considering taking on these risks. Germany has already planned to eliminate its nuclear power plants by 2022. In the United States the financial liability of nuclear power plants is still protected by the 1957 Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act which covers all nuclear plants built before 2026 so that as a result of any disaster the company only has to have insurance for about $13 billion (as of 2011) with American taxpayers paying anything over that. The estimated damage of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster is $257 billion and almost that much again to clean it up. After the meltdown all of Japan’s forty nuclear reactors were shut down for at least three years.
Water wars can be averted by sharing water through cooperation, open information, and dispute resolutions. Yet since the year 2000 there has not been one major water-sharing treaty. In this century conflicts over water have increased 28%.
China with its Tibetan Plateau and Xinjiang region controls the flow of many rivers shared by other nations. Since 1949 China has relocated 22.9 million people as it built 22,000 dams, which are nearly half the world’s total. The United States is second with about 5,500 large dams. The nations most affected by China’s control of rivers are India, Russia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, and Myanmar. China also has a near monopoly on rare earths and uses this for trade leverage. China’s per capita water supply is only 2,816 cubic meters per person compared to the global average of 6,079. In August 1975 a typhoon in Henan province caused a series of dams to collapse, killing 83,000 people and leaving millions homeless. Then famine and epidemics took about 230,000 more lives. In 2008 an earthquake in the eastern rim of the Tibetan Plateau killed more than 87,000 people, and experts believe the weight of the water in the Aipingpu Dam may have triggered the quake. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2005 China had 85,108 dam reservoirs capable of storing 562 billion cubic meters of water. In 2013 China had 37 corporations involved in building more than a hundred dams in developing countries. Many protests have erupted because the Chinese have violated their regulations requiring localization. Dams and their reservoirs are responsible for about 4% of human-caused climate change primarily because the rotting organic matter in them emits methane. India’s population is expected to pass up China’s in a few years, but China’s renewable water resources are nearly twice that of India’s.
In Central Asia the Amu Darya river basin and its dam provide water to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Although these nations have agreed to continue using the Interstate Coordinating Water Commission set up after the fall of the Soviet Union, conflicts have increased since 2001 when Uzbek troops used force to control water installations in Turkmenistan. Because of the developing Rogun dam, Uzbekistan stopped exporting gas to Tajikistan in 2012. Uzbek President Islam Karimov warned that large dam projects could lead to war, but Tajik President Emomalii Rahmon in 2013 affirmed his commitment to the Rogun dam project. As the glaciers melt and with less snowpack, the supply of water is diminishing. Tajikistan’s increasing its dam reserves threatens the water supply of the Uzbek people.
The growing human population, especially in Africa and Asia, is obviously making water problems more difficult. Using agriculture to produce biofuels for energy and transportation limits the capability of food production. Livestock population has increased from 3 billion to more than 7 billion in the past fifty years and is also straining water resources. Livestock are responsible for more than 8% of fresh water use and about 18% of global warming from greenhouse gas emissions, and beef and dairy are about 65% of that.
Brazil produces oil for $45 a barrel from sugarcane; the United States manufactures biofuel oil from corn and sugar beets for $100 a barrel; and Europe makes wheat-based ethanol for $120 per barrel. Using food for fuel obviously makes it unavailable for nutrition. Scientists have estimated that if biofuels provided 12% of world oil production, there would hardly be enough food for humans. China has restricted using corn for ethanol, and Indonesia has raised export duties on palm oil in order to have enough cooking oil. Yet the Democratic Republic of the Congo has agreed to grow palm oil for biofuel on 2.8 million hectares of land to sell to China.
Fat people use more food and energy, and the obesity epidemic in wealthy countries is adding to water depletion. Human obesity in the world more than doubled between 1980 and 2008, and the number of diabetics increased from 153 million to 347 million. The World Health Organization has found that two-thirds of all humans live in countries where being overweight kills more people than being underweight.
The Pew Research Center has estimated that the world’s Muslim population will probably increase at twice the rate of non-Muslims between 2010 and 2030. Birth rates are lower in Shi’a Iran compared to the large majority of Sunnis elsewhere because Persian couples have to attend a family-planning class in order to get a marriage license. More than 35% of Arabs still work in agriculture despite the limited yields. From 1975 to 2000 about 380 billion cubic meters of water were withdrawn from the aquifer under the Arabian peninsula, and only one billion is replenished each year.
The United States uses by far more water per person (about 650 liters per day), followed by Australia and other rich nations. India uses about 90 liters per person and China about 80. The cities of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix are in danger of running out of water.
The largest aquifer in the world is the Ogallala which extends from northwest Texas north to South Dakota with most of it under Nebraska as southern portions are already going dry. American aquifers are used mostly for agricultural irrigation and oil and coal extraction, and the Ogallala aquifer supplies 27% of America’s irrigated agriculture as well as 82% of the drinking water for 2.3 million people in the region. Most of the 13 trillion gallons of water taken annually from Ogallala is used to produce beef. Because of this and global warming, between 2000 and 2008 this aquifer dropped nearly three times as much as during the entire 20th century with an annual loss of 20 million acre-feet (25 cubic kilometers). Water had accumulated there from the melting of the last ice age more than 12,000 years ago. Depleted areas would take more than 6,000 years to be replenished by natural rainfall.
In 2009 the New York Times reported that more than one-fifth of US water treatment systems have violated the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) in five years. This Act regulates 91 contaminants. Now more than 60,000 industrial chemicals are used in the United States, but not one chemical has been added to the list of contaminants since 2000. Even those which are regulated have standards that are too high. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 excluded from consideration by the SDWA the underground injection of fluids and propping agents used in hydraulic fracking with the exception of diesel fuels. The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that by 2006 as many as 16.5 million Americans were becoming ill each year because of parasites, viruses, and bacteria in drinking water.
Capitalists have attempted to privatize water to exploit this crisis; but this only worsens the problem of excessive economic inequality while increasing conflict. Water scarcity worsens unemployment, food insecurity, extremism, and political instability. Water security is essential for economic viability, food needs, environmental protection, public health, and regional and international peace. In 2010 both the United Nations General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council affirmed the right to clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right. Alleviating poverty is not possible without access to clean water. The Blue Planet Project has reported that every year more than 3.5 million people die from water-related disease, and Maude Barlow informs us that one child from the global south dies of dirty water every three seconds.
Of the 276 transnational rivers and lake basins in the world only 18 have mutually binding water-sharing agreements. In May 1997 the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses drew up the first accord on international water law. Although approved by 103 nations with only China, Turkey, and war-torn Burundi voting against while 27 abstained with 52 absent, this treaty has not yet been ratified by 35 nations to bring it into effect.
Solving freshwater problems involves balancing equitable and reasonable utilization with the principle of not causing significant harm. Riparian rights grant the owner of the river bank access to the water in that river. The principle of a reasonable and equitable share goes back to the Helsinki Rules of 1966 and the Groundwater Rules of the International Law Association in 1986. These were broadened and superseded by the Berlin Rules in 2004 which require nations to implement the sustainable management of domestic waters. The ethic of no harm has been focused by the Precautionary Principle which was defined by scientists, environmentalists, and philosophers at Wingspread, Wisconsin in January 1998 as follows:
When an activity raises threats of harm
to human health or the environment,
precautionary measures should be taken
even if some cause and effect relationships
are not fully established scientifically.
In this context the proponent of an activity,
rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.
The process of applying the precautionary principle
must be open, informed and democratic
and must include potentially affected parties.
It must also involve an examination
of the full range of alternatives, including no action.
This prevents the planning of works that threaten to seriously or irreversibly damage the environment. Lack of complete scientific certainty should not postpone cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. The 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development affirms the right of sustainability and the “polluter pays” principle.
Use of water in agriculture can be made more efficient by using drip irrigation which can reduce the water used by more than half. Micro-irrigation systems also prevent salinization. If fertilizers and herbicides are used, they apply them more efficiently. Treating and recycling waste-water is another way to save water. The World Health Organization has set international standards for using recycled water as potable. The United States, Australia, Brazil, and China lead the world in water storage, but India has very low storage capacity.
Desalination can be used in coastal areas with strong economies. There are now more than 15,000 desalination plants in the world producing at least 15.3 cubic kilometers of water annually, but this is only 0.1% of the global water demand. Most of these plants are powered by fossil fuels. Although the cost of desalination has been reduced by about 70% in the last two decades, it is still expensive.
During industrial development in the 20th century human population increased by a factor of 3.8, urban population by 12.8, irrigated area by 6.8, energy by 12.5, industrial production by 35, petroleum production by 300, fertilizer use by 342, and fish caught multiplied by a factor of 65. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased by 30%.
Soil erosion and desertification are reducing agricultural productivity. In the past 150 years half the Earth’s topsoil has been lost, and in the last forty years 30% of the arable land on Earth has become unproductive. China is losing topsoil at 57 times the rate of its natural replacement, Europe 17 times, and the United States 10 times faster than it is replenished. In China every year nearly 1,400 square miles of arable land are becoming deserts. Drier land causes the topsoil to be blown away by wind erosion. Annual dust storms in eastern China have been affecting 250 million people, and the dust storm that covered Beijing on March 20, 2010 moved to become the worst dust storm ever recorded in South Korea. In April 2001 a dust storm from northwestern China and Mongolia traveled to the western United States and then from Arizona to Canada. Beijing was coated with a dust storm in March 2002. In April 2010 a dust storm from China carried millions of acres of topsoil as far as North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Australia had a large dust storm on September 23, 2009; Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan suffered from dust on December 5, 2010, and Mexico on November 27, 2011. The soil scientist Rattan Lal has calculated that 2.5 trillion tons of carbon are stored in soils, and its losses into the atmosphere increase climate change while reducing land productivity.
In August 2010 the United Nations reported that one-quarter of the Earth’s land has been affected by desertification. The United States experienced the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, and about 2.5 million people moved away from the Great Plains. Afterward a massive program to restore soils returned much eroded cropland to grass and tree shelterbelts. As land becomes drier, goats adapt much better than cattle and sheep. China has about 92 million cattle and 281 million goats. Expert Wang Tao has estimated that deserts in China increased by an average of 600 square miles per year between 1950 and 1975. In the next twelve years the desertification expanded by 810 square miles annually, and in the remainder of the 20th century 1,390 square miles were lost to desert each year in China. China’s State Forestry Administration reported in 2013 that 27% of China, which is more than one million square miles, suffers from desertification. The bio-capacity of China has the largest deficit in the world as the Chinese have less than half of the natural resources they demand.
Although food production has doubled since 1970, food consumption per person in rich countries is almost twice that in poor countries. Food production went up from 2.4 metric tons per hectare in 1970 to 4.6 in 2010 while cultivated land increased 15%. Consumers in rich nations waste nearly as much food per capita as the people in sub-Saharan Africa have to eat. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 842 million people were undernourished in 2013. About two-thirds of these people live in Asia and about one-quarter in Sub-Saharan Africa. World food prices began rising sharply in 2006 and fell during the Great Recession of 2008, but in 2009 a sharp increase continued up to a peak in 2011. Since then food prices have been declining gradually, though the FAO Food Price Index did go up 2.3% in March 2014 because of bad weather and tension over the Ukraine crisis. The FAO estimates that about one billion people are unable to buy the food they need. Between 1980 and 2010 the world’s production of wheat decreased 5.5%.
Urbanization and land degradation are reducing farmland in the world by about six million hectares per year. In 2000 an International Food Policy Research Institute study reported that almost 40% of all agricultural land in the world had been seriously degraded. Per-capita grain production in the world began declining in 1984. Between 1978 and 1997 China increased the share of grain it fed to livestock from 8% to 26%. By 2010 nearly 60% of the world’s soybean exports went to China. In 2012 China imported more than 5 million tonnes of corn and in 2013 over 5 million tonnes of wheat.
With increasing population and decreasing fresh water, another green revolution may be needed by 2050 to grow the food supply by a projected 70%. However, this might prove to be as difficult as reversing the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in order to stabilize civilization. Food production is projected to keep increasing until about 2040, and then it may start declining because of global warming. Although more carbon dioxide stimulates the growth of plants, increased heat and dryness will cancel out those gains as more land becomes desert. Modern agriculture uses so much diesel fuel that it takes a calorie of fossil-fuel energy to produce one calorie of food. The Green Revolution was expanding food production 3.5% annually thirty years ago, but now the growth rate is only a little more than one percent per year. Scientists estimate that each rise in temperature of 1°C will reduce food production by 10%.
A warmer climate means more evaporation from the oceans and therefore more rainfall. However, higher temperatures also dry up the soil more. In the circulation of atmospheric air moisture rises from the equatorial region, then moves toward the poles and turns eastward by the Coriolis effect, creating the subtropical jet streams while the lower air turns westward as trade winds. The cool, dry air eventually comes back down as Hadley cells about 3,000 kilometers from the equator warmed by adiabatic pressure at lower altitudes, causing deserts at about 25 degrees latitude north and south. Regions in the north most likely to be affected by this warming include the southern portion of the United States, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, North Africa, the Mideast, Pakistan, most of India, the northern part of Southeast Asia, and southern China. To avert this calamity, carbon emissions would need to be reduced by 80% within twenty to thirty years. Experiments in the Philippines show that rice yields decline by 15% for every rise in temperature of one degree during the growing season. A prolonged drought in Australia is reducing its food exports, though its food exports to Asia are still more than 40% of the total to Asia.
Since 1945 farmland has increased by only about 10%; but the use of fertilizer has multiplied by ten, using ammonia from natural gas for nitrogen. The increased yields have been feeding the rapidly growing population. Yet using artificial fertilizers degrades the soil, and the process of creating them adds to greenhouse gas emissions. Irrigated land has tripled since 1945 and is now 40% of crop production. Most of the additional irrigation has come from pumping water out of aquifers which are diminishing. Recently world grain production has leveled off, but population is still growing nearly as fast as before.
India has 17.8% of the world’s people and 18% of the cattle but only 2% of the land. The Indian Space Research Organization has estimated that 24% of India’s land is becoming desert, and 40% of Indian children are chronically hungry and underweight. The Integrated Research and Action for Development think tank in India has estimated that a rise in global temperature of 2°C will cause a 25% reduction in Indian food production. Since India’s population is expected to increase to 1.7 billion by about 2050 and because India has only been producing enough food for its own people, a 2°C rise by 2050 would mean that about 400 million people would need to be fed by improved agriculture and imports.
Africa has the highest birth rate of any region in the world, and its population is expected to reach nearly two billion by 2050. In 2009 the number of people in Africa reached one billion with 862 million livestock. Grassland cannot sustain nearly that many grazing animals, and overgrazing is turning some of it into deserts. Experts estimate that the number of Africans who will experience water stress by the 2020s will be between 75 and 250 million and in the 2050s between 350 and 600 million. The expert Gordon Conway has projected that Africa is likely to get warmer by about 4°C in this century which could reduce crop yields as much as 50% by 2050 and 90% by 2100. Africa is losing almost three billion tons of fine soil each year in dust storms. North Africa and the Mideast are already largely deserts.
More carbon dioxide in the air will help plants grow faster, though warmer weather will require more water. Studies show that with extra carbon dioxide some crops will have less zinc and iron, and many poor people lack these essential minerals. Also rice and corn will be less nutritious and will have more starch and sugars. Since the 1930s dairy and meat have declining amounts of magnesium and calcium as well as less iron. One-third of farmland in the United States is used for growing corn which accounts for 40% of the corn (maize) grown in the world. Unfortunately corn is very vulnerable to floods, droughts, and heat waves.
Marine fishing has been declining since the early 1990s, but it is being replaced by aquaculture fish farms. In 1975 there were 800,000 wild Atlantic salmon, but by 2000 only 80,000 remained. In 1992 Canadian cod fisheries collapsed, and that fish stock has not yet recovered. In 1997 the UN Food and Agriculture Organization announced that eleven of the world’s fifteen major ocean fishing grounds had seriously declined from overfishing, and 34% of fish species were in danger of extinction. However, Unilever, Europe’s large buyer of fish, worked with Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to establish the Marine Stewardship Council to certify the sustainability of wild fish. The United States, the European Union, Japan, and Oceania are adhering to sustainable regulations to preserve their fishing territories, but so far the coastal commercial fisheries of Asia, Africa, and South America have no such controls.
In 2008 the three largest beverage and food companies—PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and MacDonald’s—spent $2.4 billion globally on marketing. That year the Swedish companies Black Earth Farming and Alpcot-Agro bought 1.1 million acres of farmland in Russia. The next year Morgan Stanley purchased 98,000 acres in Ukraine. Also in 2009 the British hedge fund Dexion Capital invested $270 million on nearly 3 million acres in Australia, Russia, and South America. The Gulf Cooperation Council representing Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates has been buying land in Laos, Indonesia, Vietnam, and elsewhere. Recently China has bought nearly 5 million acres of land in other countries. The world grain trade is dominated by the multi-national corporations Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Bunge, and Cargill.
In the thirty years from 1968 to 1998 world food production increased by 84% while world food trade went up 184%. In 2007 the United States imported almost 2.5 million young cattle and 10 million hogs from Mexico and Canada for feedlots. In 2008 the US exported 1.9 billion pounds of beef and veal while importing 2.5 billion pounds of those meats. The United States is producing about 3,800 calories of food per person per day, which is nearly twice what is needed. The US Department of Agriculture has calculated that Americans waste about 141 trillion calories of food each year which is 1,249 calories per person per day. Developed nations produce about 3,300 calories per person each day. The organic waste dumped in landfills decomposes and causes about 4% of the pollution that causes global warming.
In order to prevent devastating famines in the future improved efficiency will be needed to feed the growing world population as resources of water, oil, fertilizers, and other materials diminish. Finite resources need to be replaced by renewable alternatives. Otherwise the consequences are likely to be massive starvation, environmental catastrophes, and wars.
By genetic engineering Monsanto and other agribusinesses have pioneered the dangerous practice of putting genes from other organisms into the seeds of grain to make them resistant to herbicides and pesticides. This enabled Monsanto and others to sell more herbicides and pesticides to industrial farms, and they have also forced farmers to buy new genetically engineered (GE) seeds every year. Spraying with Monsanto’s Roundup and other herbicides on GE soya and canola increases the toxins in the plants and creates super-weeds. Genetically engineered Bt proteins from bacteria puts poison in Bt corn, potatoes, and cotton to kill insect pests and stimulates the evolution of resistant super-pests. Monsanto now owns and controls 95% of the cottonseed.
Genetic engineering has also been used for other crops, animals, and even microbes. To keep customers from knowing whether genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are in the foods they are buying, they have persuaded politicians to block laws that would require labeling when GMOs are contained in produce and food products. Because of the dangers these GMOs can cause many problems such as the evolution of pests and weeds that can survive and multiply. Sometimes the pesticides and herbicides are even engineered into the crops, and this threatens to create toxic crops that could multiply. From 2008 to 2013 Monsanto spent more than $7 million per year lobbying politicians.
Many people have become aware of GE dangers, and the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Mexico banned genetically engineered crops by the year 2000. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, supplementing the Convention on Biological Diversity, was signed on May 15, 2000 by 130 nations and went into effect on September 11, 2003, authorizing nations to ban importation of genetically modified seeds, crops, animals, and microbes. The Protocol requires countries to be informed of possible GE imports and has been ratified by 166 members of the United Nations. However, the United States has lagged behind and still has not even been able to institute labeling so that American customers can know what they are buying and eating. Yet about 90% of Americans favor labeling genetically engineered food products.
In 2009 the US Global Food Security Act gave Monsanto a $7.7 billion subsidy to distribute GM seeds worldwide through the US Agency for International Development (USAID). According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s February 2014 “Economic Research Report No. (ERR-162), in 2013 about half of all American cropland, 169 million acres, was planted with GE crops, mostly corn, cotton, and soybeans. The countries with the most GE crops in 2013 in millions of hectares was the United States with 70.1, Brazil 40.3, Argentina 24.4, India 11.0, and Canada with 10.8 million hectares.
Since 1950 the number of farm animals in the world has multiplied by five, and they now outnumber humans by at least three to one. By 2010 the number of cattle, pigs, goats, and sheep had increased to 4.3 billion. The number of chickens has multiplied from about five billion in 1970 to more than twenty billion in 2011. According to the United Nations the land used for grazing and to grow feed crops for animals is now 30% of all land on Earth. According to the USDA Economic Research Service and Agricultural Research Service 16 pounds of grain are needed to produce one pound of feedlot beef. Production of one calorie of protein from beef requires the burning of 54 calories of fossil fuels while soy protein needs only two calories of fossil fuels and wheat or corn only three. About 12 million tons of grain would be needed to feed the people on Earth who die of hunger and related diseases each year, and that amount of grain could be saved if Americans reduced their consumption of beef by 10%.
In 1980 Thailand fed to animals only one percent of its grain, but by 2000 the animals’ share had increased to 30%. In the same period Egypt’s share of grain fed to animals went from 10% to 36%. In 25 years Mexico’s livestock went from eating 6% of the country’s grain to more than 50%. Between 1960 and 1980 El Salvador’s beef exports multiplied by six, and Costa Rica’s beef production quadrupled. Between 1990 and 2000 in South America more than 80% of deforestation was for large-scale agriculture and pasture. By the year 2000 the world had 1.2 billion overfed and overweight people and the same number malnourished and underweight, and 55% of each group had diminished health.
In 1997 Cornell University ecologist David Pimentel reported, “If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million.” Pimentel also calculated that the energy used to produce beef is fifty times greater than the protein output compared to four times for chickens. He also found that 7 billion livestock in the US consume five times as much grain as all of the American population. Over two-thirds of the land in the western states of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho (about 525 million acres) is used to graze livestock. Cattle, sheep, and other animals are grazed for private profit on 70% of western National Forests and 90% of Bureau of Land Management real estate. Livestock ranchers in New Mexico, for example, do not pay property tax, sales tax, or other taxes because of special deductions and exemptions granted to the cattle industry, costing government billions of dollars every year.
A study of California agriculture found that it takes 23 gallons of water to produce one pound of lettuce or tomatoes, 24 gallons for one pound of potatoes, 25 gallons for one pound of wheat, 33 gallons for one pound of carrots, and 49 gallons for one pound of apples; but producing one pound of chicken requires 815 gallons of water, one pound of pork 1,630 gallons, and one pound of beef 5,214 gallons. Japanese scientists have found that producing one kilogram of beef also emits as much carbon dioxide as an average car going 250 kilometers and consumes the amount of energy that lights a 100-watt bulb for nearly twenty days. The world is producing enough grain to sustain a population of ten billion people; but only 46% of it feeds humans while 34% goes to livestock and 19% for biofuels, starches, and plastics. Americans consume nearly one quarter of all the beef eaten in the world and import about 200 million pounds of beef a year from Central America. According to the Centre for Science and the Environment in India the real cost of a hamburger from beef raised from clear-cut forest is about $200.
In the past five decades annual meat production has gone from 70 million tons to 308.5 million tons in 2013. With the growing development of the middle class this is expected to reach 465 million tons by 2050. Per capita meat-eating in the developed world now is 75.9 kilograms a year, and worldwide it was 42.9 kilos per person in 2013. Nearly 70% of the Earth’s agricultural land is being used for animal pasture, and another 10% grows grain to feed livestock. Beef production uses about 60% of all farmland but provides less than 5% of all protein consumed. China’s consumption of meat quadrupled between 1980 and 2010, and the Chinese account for nearly half of all the production of pork. Australia and New Zealand ship 84% of all the lamb and mutton that is exported. If the 20% of protein from animals currently consumed is not reduced to 5% by 2050, a severe food crisis could result. Yet thus far no national government has encouraged citizens to eat more vegetable protein than animal protein except Sweden.
Production of animal protein requires eleven times as much fossil fuel as plant protein. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has predicted that in the first half of this century the consumption of meat will increase 102% from 229 million tons to 465 million, and dairy products will go up by 82% from 580 million tons to more than one billion. Feeding grain to cattle requires at least nine times as much grain as the beef produced and three times the weight for chickens. Large factory farms called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) each have about 1,000 cattle, 2,500 hogs, 55,000 turkeys, or 125,000 chickens. Cattle spend the last three to six months of their short lives in feedlots where they eat soy and grains to gain up to four pounds per day before they are slaughtered.
While about a billion people suffer from malnutrition, most of the corn and soybeans grown are fed to cattle, pigs, and chickens. Feeding these to confined animals has been combined with the administration of antibiotics, though in 2006 the European Union (EU) banned the use of antibiotics on healthy food animals to avoid the evolution and multiplication of drug-resistant bacteria, also called “super-bugs.” About 70% of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used for these food animals to compensate for unhealthy conditions and to stimulate growth. Each year more than two million Americans suffer from infections that are resistant to antibiotics, and about 23,000 of them die. Yet the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could restrict the use of antibiotics by factory farms.
In the last two decades or so about 300,000 family farmers in the United States have been driven out of business, and suicide is the leading cause of death among American farmers. In the last decade in India more than 250,000 farmers have committed suicide, most by drinking the poisonous pesticides they felt forced to use on Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) crops.
In 1988 the European Commission (EC) prohibited using sex hormones (steroids) to promote growth in farm animals because they cause human cancers. The American meat industry got its lobbyists to prevent that in the United States and even had tariffs imposed to force Europeans to buy American meat and complained to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Even though the EC Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures Relating to Public Health found evidence that 17-beta oestradiol is a “complete carcinogen,” the WTO ruled in May 1999 that the EU had to pay US and Canadian meat companies $150 million annually as compensation for their financial losses. The Europeans were willing to pay that in order to keep out the carcinogenic meat. That year the European Union checked the Hormone Free Cattle from the US and found that 12% of them had been treated with sex hormones.
On October 20, 2014 the WTO ruled that country-of-origin labeling of meat products required by the United States violates their trade rules. If the ruling withstands appeal, Canada and Mexico could impose trade sanctions against the US for that policy.
One-third of the world’s cereal including half of all corn and 90% of soy are used to feed animals on factory farms. In the United States 80% of soy and two-thirds of corn is grown for animals rather than people. Almost half is for domestic livestock, and 19% is exported to feed animals abroad. Half of all synthetic fertilizer used in the United States is for feed crops. About one quarter of the fish caught in the world are fed to livestock or farmed fish. Industrial poultry and pigs consume nearly half of the world’s fish oil and fish meal. A Cornell study estimated that the average meat-eater requires 2.1 acres of farmland while those with plant-centered diets need only a half acre each. Beef has been called the food with the greatest environmental impact. Americans consume an average of 222 pounds of red meat and poultry annually. Because of recent awareness that the cholesterol in red meat causes heart disease, the consumption of mammals is now declining in the United States.
Farms used to apply manure to fertilize the land for crops; but in the big feedlots the waste from millions of livestock is mixed with wastewater and stored in manure lagoons. Large amounts of animal manure pollute waterways, and depleting oxygen causes many fish to suffocate. The methane does not dissolve nor does much of the carbon dioxide; so they rise into the atmosphere as soon as they are generated. According to the EPA in fifteen years the methane emissions from cow manure in the United States increased by half and methane from pig manure by nearly two-thirds. Animal waste produces 27% of the methane emitted in the world. In the United States agriculture accounts for three-quarters of all nitrous oxide emissions. The IPCC has predicted that annual agricultural emissions of methane and nitrous oxide could increase 60% from the 1990 level by the year 2030.
Greenpeace has learned that nearly 80% of deforested land in the Amazon rainforest is now used for cattle ranching so that they can export products to Europe. Livestock have short lives, and 20 billion are alive at one time; but 56 billion are slaughtered each year for human consumption, not counting fish and seafood. By volume livestock are 88% of all wild and domesticated animals. Pigs are 39% of these, poultry 26%, and cattle 23%. Breeding them for food has reduced the biodiversity to a few species.
In the last 400 million years the Earth has had six periods when many species have become extinct. In the third one about 245 million years ago 96% of species disappeared. Most of the dinosaurs died off 65 million years ago in the fifth extinction. The current period is the only one caused by humans; it is the most severe as about one hundred species are being wiped out every day. With warming the wildfires in the Amazon rainforest will increase the dieback. According to the World Resources Institute the Earth is in danger of losing 11% of the 8,615 bird species, 25% of the 4,355 mammal species, and 34% of fish species. According to the journal Science more than 320 terrestrial vertebrates have become extinct since the year 1500, and about one quarter of remaining vertebrates are endangered or threatened.
In a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) study managed by the Zoological Society of London of more than 3,000 species of vertebrates they found that between 1970 and 2010 the number of fish, birds, mammals, and amphibians in the world declined by 52%. Populations in freshwater declined 76% compared to 39% for marine species and land populations. Latin America had the sharpest decline, losing 83%. High-income countries had an ecological footprint five times as high as low-income nations. Humans caused these impacts by climate change, habitat degradation, and exploitation. Agriculture accounted for 92% of the global water footprint.
Ocean warming and acidification is reducing the species in cold water as well as corals, coccolithophorid marine algae, and crustaceans. The oceans are now more acidic than they have been in the last 55 million years. Coral reefs are dying including half of the largest one—the Great Barrier Reef near Queensland, Australia. By 2001 about 80% of the coral reefs in the Caribbean had been lost. Agricultural runoff containing nitrogen and phosphorus causes algae to grow. When bacteria consume the algae, that part of the ocean is deprived of oxygen, creating dead zones.
Peatlands cover only 0.2% of the Earth, but according to Wetland International so many are being destroyed that Southeast Asian peat lands now account for 8% of global warming emissions. Indonesia was 21st in carbon dioxide emissions from wetlands, but now it is the highest. About 87% of the world’s palm oil now comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. In 1997 and 1998 during a hot El Niño peatland fires burned nearly 25 million acres in Indonesia.
Recycling of metals is replacing mining. China produces 95% of all rare earth concentrates which are needed in modern technology. China is the largest producer of coal and also the largest importer of coal.
The number of disasters from droughts, heat waves, wildfires, floods, and storms has increased from 660 reported events in the 1970s to 3,322 in the 2000s. In 2011 disasters cost the world a record $380 billion. That year the United States had eight weather disasters that cost more than one billion dollars including the storm Irene which caused $15 billion in damage. Flooding from a tropical cyclone in the Philippines in December 2011 killed 1,268 people. The Rio+20 Conference in June 2012 was attended by participants from 192 UN member states, 57 heads of state, and 31 government leaders. However, US President Barrack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and British Prime Minister David Cameron failed to attend, and the conference made little progress. A study estimated that 4 billion tons of methane could be released if the Antarctic ice sheet melts. In November 2012 the Superstorm Sandy caused $71 billion in damages in the coastal regions of New York and New Jersey.
Despite his rhetoric on climate change, President Obama has implemented a policy of promoting oil and extraction even by the polluting and dangerous methods of fracking and deep-water drilling. As a result the number of railway cars hauling oil in the US has increased from 9,500 in 2008 to about 400,000 in 2013. Energy Wire reported that in 2012 more than 6,000 spills and accidents occurred at American onshore oil and gas sites. By 2013 the Wall Street Journal estimated that more than 15 million Americans are living within one mile of a well used for drilling or fracking since 2000.
Canada has been led by the conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper since 2006, and in July 2013 a train carrying 72 tank cars of fracked Bracken oil exploded in the town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec, killing 47 people and destroying half of downtown.
A June 2014 report by the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution estimated that about 8.4 million people in developing countries are dying each year because of pollution. This is more than the lives lost from diseases. Pollution from air, water, sanitation, and hygiene causes about 7.4 million deaths annually, and at least another million are due to toxic chemical and industrial wastes which get into the air, water, soil, and food in poor countries. In 2012 the Pure Earth/Blacksmith Institute found that the health of about 125 million people in 49 developing nations has been harmed by toxic sites and industrial dumps from mining waste and lead smelters. There are now more than 143,000 man-made chemicals with about one thousand new industrial chemicals being released each year with little testing for their effects on humans and the environment.
Carbon emissions were high in the 1960s with average annual increases of 4.5%, but ecological awareness helped reduce the rise to 1% per year in the 1990s. However, rapidly increasing world trade between the years 2000 and 2008 jumped the annual growth rate to 3.4%. The financial crash of 2008 lowered carbon emissions in 2009 slightly from 8.77 billion metric tons per year to 8.74 billion, but they bounced back with a 5.9% increase in 2010 to 9.19 billion and went up to 9.47 billion in 2011 and to 9.8 billion in 2014. The World Meteorological Organization noted that in 2013 carbon dioxide reached 142% of its preindustrial-revolution level, methane 253% and nitrous oxide 121%. Carbon emissions held steady in 2015 and were estimated to have a slight increase of 0.2% in 2016.
Carbon from coal burning may be captured and stored, but this is difficult, risky, and expensive. In 2011 the Global CCS Institute reported that the world has 75 large-scale integrated carbon capture storage (CCS) projects that are each able to capture, transport, and store more than 800,000 tons of CO2 annually for a coal plant and more than 400,000 tons for other industries including natural gas. Of the largest eight CCS projects in operation five are in the United States (one shared with Canada), two are in Norway and one in Algeria. Six large CCS plants are under construction, and three of those are in the US, two in Canada, and one in Australia. Nonetheless after decades of trying, this technology still is unproven with coal, and ecologists criticize that the costs of the process are not worth the results. Greenpeace points out that CCS doubles the costs of coal plants. Sequestering (burying) carbon dioxide from coal is cumbersome and can be dangerous. In 1986 a major leak of CO2 from Lake Nyos in Cameroon killed 1,700 people and 3,500 livestock by asphyxiation in nearby towns and villages. Ecologists argue that it would be better to invest in renewables than to waste money building hundreds of expensive CCS plants that would be needed to make coal viable in the current climate.
China’s increasing use of coal and massive foreign trade alone accounted for nearly half their total emissions between 2002 and 2008. China’s emissions in 2011 were 28% of the world total. With the multiplication of automobiles in China and the continued use of coal the smog problem in Chinese cities is very serious. In 2013 Beijing had 129 days of unhealthy air and 60 days with pollution beyond emergency levels. Yet that year nine other Chinese cities suffered even more days of severe smog than Beijing. The World Health Organization reported that in 2012 about seven million people died because of air pollution and that 40% of them lived in the region dominated by China. Indoor smoke killed 4.3 million people and outdoor air pollution 3.7 million, which is nearly triple the 1.3 million who died from pollution in 2008. In March 2014 Chinese Premier Li Keqiang declared “war on pollution.” China announced plans to reduce carbon emissions, and its Xinhua news agency reported that in the first half of the year, China’s carbon emissions dropped by 5%.
The Carbon Tracker Initiative in London has calculated that the reserves claimed by the fossil fuel companies represent 2,795 gigatons of carbon with a financial value of about $27 trillion. However, a study has found that to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius the amount of carbon emitted between 2011 and 2049 must be limited to 565 gigatons, and to achieve that those companies would have to give up cashing in on $21.5 trillion worth of stranded assets. To keep global temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius the world needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 9% a year, and that is if we started in 2014. Although emissions were levelling off in 2015 and 2016, the decreasing needed has not yet started.
Ecologists have calculated that human beings have been using from 40% to 50% more bio-productive land and waste sink capacity than the ecosphere of the Earth can regenerate, resulting in a large ecological debt that must be balanced to achieve a sustainable civilization. Carbon dioxide is being added to the atmosphere because there are not enough forests to absorb all that is being emitted. One-sixth of the world’s forests have been removed in the last half century. Future generations will pay the price for the over-consumption of past generations. This is a collective problem that requires global solutions. For the first time in human history individual and national interests need solutions achieved by humanity as a whole. Humans are the one species with intelligence capable of planning ahead and cooperating on a global scale with compassion for others. We must learn from scientific evidence to find global policies to achieve and maintain sustainability. The total economic activity must operate in a steady state that is dynamic and safely within the limits of Nature. Philosophers have noted that God always forgives; humans sometimes forgive; but Nature never forgives.
The world needs to restrict the exploitation of non-renewable resources while investing in and developing sustainable alternatives. That means leaving most of the remaining fossil fuels in the ground, protecting and replenishing forests, and increasing carbon sinks by using organic agriculture. Governments should stop subsidies that promote exploitation and excessive consumption so that market costs will reflect the actual costs of production ecologically. The richest 20% of humans, who are mostly in the northern hemisphere, have been using 77% of the resources while the poorest 20% barely subsist on 1.5% of them.
Expansion of international “free trade” (rather than fair trade) has transferred wealth and natural resources from poor nations to the rich ones. Much of the transportation of heavy goods is inefficient and wasteful, and the ships and planes burn fossil fuels that increase global warming.
About three billion people are surviving on less than $2.50 per day. The United States with 4.4% of the world’s population has an ecological footprint using 8 hectares per capita of the Earth’s resources compared to the global average of 1.8 hectares per person. The rich and powerful have been reaping benefits and causing most of the global warming while the poor and the weak are suffering the consequences of the ecological deficits. This unequal and unjust situation is ecologically, economically, and politically unstable. The best scientists are warning us that the collapse of the ecosystem could provoke geopolitical chaos and resource wars. At some point public opinion must bring about political responsibility to transform our society into a more just and sustainable condition.