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2012: The end of the world, after all?

An environmental retrospect

‘Survival pods’ built by a Chinese inventor, underground bunkers developed to safeguard their Italian owners and a skyrocketing interest in one-way tickets to “Apocalypse safe havens”, reported by fare finder websites. Still sounds familiar? Leaving the doomsday believers somewhat disappointed, the 21 December, regarded as the end-date of a 5,125-year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican calendar passed by serenely. No end of human civilization, no start of a period of physical transformation, no beginning of a new era, no meteoroid impacts, not even a single alien invasion. We dodged the bullet of the 2012 phenomenon. Or did we?

It is time to take a different perspective and see what 2012 meant for the global eco- and climate system – our life support system. In this fashion we might be surprised to find catastrophes and transformations after all.

Remainders of global biodiversity pushed towards extinction

Let us start with a 2012 tragedy, rather insignificant at first blush. The rarest animal in the world is no more. Lonesome George, the last of the Pinta Island tortoises, was found dead in June. However, this case is symptomatic for the loss of our species richness worldwide. 2012 will be remembered for its remainders of the global megafauna, such as Bluefin tuna and rhinos, being pushed fiercely towards extinction. Bird and insect numbers continued to plunge, coral reefs retreated, marine life diminished – while over a billion people rely on oceanic ecosystems as a source of food.

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Nevertheless, humans thrived – at least their number, with 7.063 billion individuals at the end of 2012. In April the Royal Society forewarned in a significant report that world population needs to be steadied quickly and high consumption in rich countries rapidly reduced to avoid a downward spiral of economic and environmental harms. At today’s rate of population increase, developing countries would have to build the equivalent of a city of a million people every five days from now to 2050.

A new era of climate change

Another disaster, the Mayas did not see coming, hit us in 2012 with a slam. Parts of the planet have seen levels of carbon dioxide rise above 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time. Although it is largely symbolic, the milestone is an unmistakable aide-mémoire of humanity’s powerful influence on the atmosphere, increasing the greenhouse gas way beyond the pre-industrial concentration of 280 ppm. It is also yonder the arguably save threshold of 350 ppm, e.g. the campaign group 350.org fights for.

Call it catastrophe, call it transition, a new era has truly begun in 2012. Global climatic change left the grey shades of academic ivory towers and political disputes, and provided a foretaste to what this era might hold: From metropolises in the United States to the remotest areas of the Philippines, people learnt the hard way what an increase in extreme weather events, triggered by climate change, may feel like.

The worst drought in 60 years, covering two thirds of the US and costing at least $ 150 billion was quickly followed by the opposite extreme: Hurricane Sandy known as one of the worst tragedies to occur in New York City, compared even to 9/11, turned from a weather event, a tragedy, to a humanitarian event and a fiscal topic – with a death toll in the hundreds and damage in the hundred millions. A similarly gloomy reminder was the recent flood in Metro Manila caused by a tropical storm that swept through the Philippines in September leaving 80% of the city underwater and dozens dead – marking the beginning of perhaps a new epoch of climatic superlatives.

Superlatives such as the arguably greatest environmental change in human history, the loss of the Arctic sea ice. Smaller, patchier and thinner than ever the extent of the Arctic ice cap hit a record low in September with 18% or 500,000sq km less than the previous record, and its final collapse predicted to be complete by 2015/16. A horrid scenario, considering sea ice in the Arctic is seen as a key indicator of global climate change.

A deep concern in place of action

Many researchers are connecting the dots between these extreme weather trends and climate change; dots that cannot easily be wiped away anymore, as 2012 showed. And, as cynical as it may sound to the many victims, we seem to need periodic, recurring disasters. People and their nations only react on irrefutable evidence of damage. Australia was plagued by droughts for seven years. It looked as this would influence the way citizens and politicians think. Now, for two years it is raining again, unfortunately taking the issue of climate change off the table.

This national unwillingness and incapability to act is very much mimicked internationally. Some argue that in 2012 governments turned their backs on the living planet, validating that no persistent problem, however severe, will take priority over an immediate concern, however trivial. The world leaders’ apathy cumulated in the Rio Earth Summit in June, where some of the world’s most powerful governments – the US, the UK, Germany and Russia – did not even take the trouble to show their faces. Almost as unsurprising as the postponed end of the world, the final declaration was a caricature of procrastination, a mere expression of ‘deep concern’. Likewise, the climate meeting in Doha at the end of the year was far from a positive transformation of souls and spirits as perhaps yearned for by some Maya inspired new agers. The conference produced a similar combination of absurdity and inconsistency, when governments silently abandoned the 2C target. Instead we’re on track for between four and six degrees, with all the consequences showcased in 2012.

From apocalypticism to realistic solutions

So far 2012’s account suggests many signs of the end of the natural world indeed, but gives no hints for a new political era of adequate action whatsoever. So are we definitely doomed, with human society’s expiry date just postponed to 21 December plus X?

This view might be convenient as it serves the psychological phenomenon of apocalypticism, encapsuling the understandable desire for easy explanations to an increasingly complex world and the freedom from any moral imperatives, admonishing us to act responsibly. Many popular belief systems offer such escape routes, which time and time again prove to be far from the truth. May it be creative deciphering of Bible codes, doomsday books or UFO cults.

A more apt answer to our societies’ problems seems however a realistic view on the world, reflecting success stories and displaying roadmaps, scenarios and strategies to a sustainable future, 2012 was also filled with.

For instance solar panels became the cheapest energy source in parts of the tropics, highlighting one very feasible remedy for climate change. Or take the BP oil spill aftermath, where in November BP pleaded guilty to felony charges related to the Gulf oil spill, one of the biggest environmental disasters ever. For these charges, the company has to pay $4.5 billion, the biggest corporate criminal penalty in U.S. history.

Also in the frustratingly cumbersome quagmire of international environmental negotiations one finds notice on the bright side. One example is the severe global problem of overfishing, where the European Commission reforms passed this year as the major shake-up of the common fisheries policy for decades.

Another spark of optimism was this year’s Conference of Parties (COP 11) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), marking the move from policy-making to implementation, with developed countries redoubling their conservation payments to developing countries by 2015.

If there is hope, it lies with the people

Yet, in the turfs of political lethargy there is hope, and it lies with the people. Opinion polls prove that voters do not support their governments’ inaction. Even a majority of Conservatives believe that the UK should generate most of its electricity from renewables by 2030. In the US, 80% of people polled now say that climate change will be a serious problem for their country if nothing is done about it: a substantial rise since 2009. The real conundrum is that many of these concerned are not prepared to act on their beliefs. Citizens, as well as governments and the media, have turned their faces away from humanity’s greatest problems.

To make best use of the reprieve from 2012’s apocalypse, we must translate these inactive worries into a mass mobilization. Groups such as 350.org show how it might be done. Governments care only as much as their citizens force them to care.

So, if you have not concluded your new year’s resolution yet, how about this fairly simple one: Get engaged to save the world from any predicted doomsday – let alone survival pods or underground bunkers.

 

 First published on Saturday, 12 January 2013 18:37 Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror