Earth Has Breached Its 'Safe Operating Space for Humanity'

Planet's climate, biodiversity, and other key measurments 'are all out of whack'
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 14, 2023 9:08 AM CDT
Earth Isn't Doing So Well: 'The Patient Is Sick'
Haze blankets the main business district in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Aug. 11.   (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara, File)

Earth is exceeding its "safe operating space for humanity" in six of nine key measurements of its health, and two of the remaining three are headed in the wrong direction, a new study said. Earth's climate, biodiversity, land, fresh water, nutrient pollution, and "novel" chemicals (human-made compounds like microplastics and nuclear waste) are all out of whack, a group of international scientists said in Wednesday's Science Advances journal, per the AP. Only the acidity of the oceans, the health of the air, and the ozone layer are within the boundaries considered safe, and both ocean and air pollution are heading in the wrong direction, the study said. "We are in very bad shape," said study co-author Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. "We show in this analysis that the planet is losing resilience and the patient is sick."

In 2009, Rockstrom and other researchers created nine different broad boundary areas and used scientific measurements to judge Earth's health as a whole. Wednesday's paper was an update from 2015 and added a sixth factor to the "unsafe" category. Water went from barely safe to the out-of-bounds category due to worsening river runoff and better measurements and understanding of the problem, Rockstrom said. These boundaries "determine the fate of the planet," said Rockstrom, a climate scientist. The nine factors have been "scientifically well established" by numerous outside studies, he said. If Earth can manage these nine factors, Earth could be relatively safe. But it's not, he said.

The nine factors are intermingled. When the team used computer simulations, they found that making one factor worse, like the climate or biodiversity, made other Earth environmental issues degrade, while fixing one helped others. Rockstrom said this was like a simulated stress test for the planet. The simulations showed "that one of the most powerful means that humanity has at its disposal to combat climate change" is cleaning up its land and saving forests, the study said. Returning forests to late-20th-century levels would provide substantial natural sinks to store carbon dioxide instead of the air, where it traps heat, the study said. Biodiversity—the amount and different types of species of life—is in some of the most troubling shape and doesn't get as much attention as other issues, like climate change, Rockstrom said.

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The fact that the ozone layer is the sole improving factor shows that when the world and its leaders decide to recognize and act on a problem, it can be fixed. But Carnegie Mellon environmental engineering professor Granger Morgan, who wasn't part of the study, said, "Experts don't agree on exactly where the limits are, or how much the planet's different systems may interact, but we are getting dangerously close." He added in an email: "I've often said if we don't quickly cut back on how we are stressing the Earth, we're toast. This paper says it's more likely that we're burnt toast." Jonathan Overpeck, environmental studies dean for the University of Michigan, noted that "people should be worried" by the study, but noted that it's "not overly alarmist." "Importantly, there is hope," said Overpeck, who wasn't part of the study.

(Read more Earth stories.)

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