New Environmental Study — ‘Earth Is Now Well Outside Of The Safe Operating Space For Humanity’

September 13, 2023

Comfortable warmth in bright sunshine this late-afternoon Wednesday here in California’s Central Valley — a nice niche point on livable weather on a livable planet.

However, maybe not for long. A new, scary study/assessment published today at Science Advances makes the case that a dangerous, accelerating worldwide climate warming isn’t the only really bad environmental problem we humans are facing — our life support systems, like water and wildlife, are just about f*cked, and have been for a while.
Opening sentence of the study’s Abstract: ‘This planetary boundaries framework update finds that six of the nine boundaries are transgressed, suggesting that Earth is now well outside of the safe operating space for humanity.

Read and weep:

The study’s lead author, Dr. Katherine Richardson, professor in Biological Oceanography at the University of Copenhagen’s Sustainability Science Centre (Salon): ‘“The planetary boundaries framework, introduced in 2009, identifies guardrails for humanity’s impacts on the global environment … Current scientific understanding suggests respecting these guardrails would minimize the risk of human activities triggering a dramatic and potentially irreversible change in global environmental conditions … We live by using the Earth’s resources and we throw our waste into the open environment ..The Earth’s resources are limited and our demand exceeds their supply. You can party even when you bank account balance is declining — but you cannot party forever and that is the situation humanity has brought itself into.”

Analysis of the study via the Guardian this afternoon:

Their assessment found that six out of nine “planetary boundaries” had been broken because of human-caused pollution and destruction of the natural world. The planetary boundaries are the limits of key global systems – such as climate, water and wildlife diversity – beyond which their ability to maintain a healthy planet is in danger of failing.

The broken boundaries mean the systems have been driven far from the safe and stable state that existed from the end of the last ice age, 10,000 years ago, to the start of the industrial revolution. The whole of modern civilisation arose in this time period, called the Holocene.

The assessment was the first of all nine planetary boundaries and represented the “first scientific health check for the entire planet”, the researchers said. Six boundaries have been passed and two are judged to be close to being broken: air pollution and ocean acidification. The one boundary that is not threatened is atmospheric ozone, after action to phase out destructive chemicals in recent decades led to the ozone hole shrinking.

The scientists said the “most worrying” finding was that all four of the biological boundaries, which cover the living world, were at, or close to, the highest risk level. The living world is particularly vital to the Earth as it provides resilience by compensating for some physical changes, for example, trees absorbing carbon dioxide pollution.

The planetary boundaries are not irreversible tipping points beyond which sudden and serious deterioration occurs, the scientists said. Instead, they are points after which the risks of fundamental changes in the Earth’s physical, biological and chemical life support systems rise significantly. The planetary boundaries were first devised in 2009 and updated in 2015, when only seven could be assessed.

Prof Johan Rockström, the then director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre who led the team that developed the boundaries framework, said: “Science and the world at large are really concerned over all the extreme climate events hitting societies across the planet. But what worries us, even more, is the rising signs of dwindling planetary resilience.”


Prof Simon Lewis, at University College London and not part of the study team, said: “This is a strikingly gloomy update on an already alarming picture. The planet is entering a new and much less stable state – it couldn’t be a more stark warning of the need for deep structural changes to how we treat the environment.”

“The planetary boundaries concept is a heroic attempt to simplify the world, but it is probably too simplified to be of use in practically managing Earth,” he continued. “For example, the damage and suffering from limiting global heating to 1.6C using pro-development policies and major investments in adapting to climate change would be vastly less than the damage and suffering from limiting warming to 1.5C but doing this using policies that help the wealthy and disregard the poor. But the concept does work as a science-led parable of our times.

Further from Dr. Richardson and the aspect of global warming within the study/assessment at Scientific American:

Another clearly violated boundary is climate change, which the researchers evaluated in two ways. First, they considered the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, which is now at 417 parts per million (ppm), whereas scientists had previously estimated it was just 280 ppm before the industrial revolution. They identified the safe boundary limit as 350 ppm, which was surpassed in 1987. The scientists also considered radiative forcing, a measure of the balance of energy from sunlight that hits Earth, compared with thermal energy the planet loses. On both fronts, the team finds, we’re currently operating outside of recommended planetary boundaries.

But one of the key messages of the research is that the integrity of the living world is just as important as climate, despite the way climate dominates conversations about Earth’s future. “Every planet has a climate, for heaven’s sake—there’s nothing special about that,” Richardson says. “What’s special is having life.”

A visual explainer on ‘planetary boundaries via Mongabay, a nonprofit environmental science and conservation news platform:

Another result of doomscrolling, or not, yet once again here we are…

(Illustration out front: Pablo Picasso’s ‘Agonizing Horse,’ found here.)

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