Humanity is facing a number of grave threats. Climate breakdown and extreme weather are getting worse, we’re in the middle of the world’s sixth extinction crisis, and food and water shortages are affecting people all over the world. These threats are all serious on their own, but research shows that their combined effects could be even worse than the sum of their parts.
In a 50-page report from the international sustainability research network Future Earth, over 200 scientists showed that the interplay of the climate crisis, extreme weather events, the decline of life-sustaining ecosystems, food insecurity, and water scarcity “have the potential to impact and amplify one another in ways that might cascade to create global systemic collapse.”
Extreme heat, for example, intensifies water and food scarcity and can also lead to events that release greenhouse gases which heat up the planet, the researchers found. It can also contribute to biodiversity loss, which itself creates food scarcity and weakens ecosystems’ ability to recover from extreme weather.
You don’t have to look far to see what they mean.
Take the recent heatwave and drought in Australia. As temperatures topped 40 degrees Celsius, ecosystems suffered, water for drinking and agriculture became more scarce, and of course, conditions also became ripe for bushfires. Those fires killed an estimated 1.25 billion animals and lead to even greater water scarcity. They’re also contributing significant amounts of carbon to the atmosphere, which makes global heating worse.
Any proper response to these threats, the researchers say, must take these compounding impacts into account. “Despite this ubiquity of connections, many scientists and policymakers are embedded in institutions that are used to thinking and acting on isolated risks, one at a time,” the report says. “This needs to change to thinking about risks as connected.”
The good news is that by doing so, policymakers and scientists could usher in solutions that have amplified effects. Restoring Earth’s wetlands, for instance, would not only counteract biodiversity loss, but also reduce water pollution and soil erosion. Those compounding benefits would both improve water security and improve wetlands’ capability to withstand extreme weather.
It won’t be easy to take on threats of this magnitude, especially because, as the report says, the world is facing so many other ones, too—social infrastructure is deteriorating and inequality is rising, for instance.
But since ecological crises often inflict the worst consequences on poor and marginalised populations, reversing course could go a long way to restore social justice, too. Restoring ecosystems in Australia would have untold societal benefits for Aboriginal populations. Improving water availability would not only provide millions of people with drinking water, but also create better agricultural conditions, which could improve farmers’ lives and help the world avert violent conflict.
Inaction on these ecological threats would be catastrophic. Our fate depends on how quickly we get to work.
“2020 is a critical time to look at these issues,” Amy Luers, Executive Director of Future Earth, said in a statement “Our actions in the next decade will determine our collective future on earth.”