ASSETs for Life
Unprecedented Challenges of Global & Historical Magnitude

The accumulating evidence derived from a wide range of trans-disciplinary research on the earth’s physical climate and biogeochemical systems starkly show that business-as-usual global economic growth is transgressing planetary boundaries in the terrestrial, atmospheric, and oceanic spheres. 

The research is extensive and far-reaching, encompassing interdisciplinary supercomputer modeling, the mathematical study of complex adaptive systems with their nested clusters of interacting nonlinear dynamics, paleo-science discoveries in climatology, ecology, and marine geochemistry, and a prodigious accumulation of field data collection and time-series observations. 

Humanity is spiraling into a future of more frequent and severe local, regional, and global disasters of increasingly ‘biblical’ proportions, e.g., 100- and 500-year flood and drought episodes occur-ring in a period of several years.

Sixth Largest Species Extinction Spasm

Biologists and ecologists have been sounding alarms over the last quarter century of an unfolding extinction spasm of planetary dimensions, due to humanity’s liquidation of intact ecosystems and assemblages of flora and fauna occurring in the wake of converting nation-size landscapes for food, feed, fiber, forestry, fuel, and other commodities.

Extinction of species inevitably occurs over geological time spans, with some 99.9% of all life having gone extinct since life first formed some 3.85 billion years ago. What is different about the current human-triggered planetary mass extinction is the phenomenal rate, estimated to be three to four orders of magnitude higher than the average natural background rate.

As soberly detailed in the multi-volume Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the more recent The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) and the report of Principles for Responsible Investment, Universal ownership: Why environmental externalities matter to institutional investors, the wholesale destruction of worldwide ecosystem services, the planet’s natural capital, is destroying some 5 trillion dollars per year of assets and economic value.

This is a conservative estimate, given that just 1% of the planet’s species have been studied, many holding potentially immense future value generated by the 21st century’s exponentially growing bioinformatics sector and biotechnology industry, and will be irretrievably lost before science discovers them.

Ecosystem Services Irreversible Losses

With the world adding the population size of the United Kingdom every year, the projected 10 billion population by 2050 will require a 70% increase in food production. Along with the increased energy and materials feeding humanity’s rising economic ‘metabolism’, the continued loss of ecosystem services and natural capital is estimated to cost nearly 20% of annual Gross World Product by 2050.

Expanding environmental degradation and ecosystem collapses are being recognized as monumental threats to human security,11, 12 with evidence of or correlations between loss of ecosystem services and piracy, land conflicts and resource wars, ethnic cleansing, and genocidal crimes (e.g., Rwanda13 and Darfur14).15, 16

Climate Destabilization and Mega-Catastrophic Consequences

In 2010, global CO2 emissions exceeded the worst case scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with 33 Gt carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted from oil, coal, natural gas, and cement production.17 An additional 15–20% (5–6.6 Gt CO2e) are estimated from deforestation, nearly 12 Gt CO2e from non-CO2 GHGs,18 and potentially 1 Gt CO2e of methane emissions from hydro damsc .19

Scientists recently calculated that the net present value of climate change impacts from business-as- usual is $1240 trillion, assuming stabilization of  atmospheric concentrations of CO2e below 850 ppm by 2100.20 In reality, society is not only on pace to exceed 850 ppm, but new evidence also indicates far greater climate sensitivity at much lower levels previously thought ‘safe’ (∼450 ppm).

Three recent global modeling assessments indicate that the planet faces a 5–7◦C increase in global average temperature this century—a drastically large and rapid change unprecedented in the history of Homo sapiens.21, 22, 23 Implications include desertification of roughly a quarter of global agricultural lands (half in Africa),24 as well as resulting in largely irreversible changes in global ecosystems for 1000 years after emissions stop.25

An estimated two-thirds of the world plant and animals species could be driven to extinction, especially when compounded by humanity annually burning down and clearing tropical forests and ecosystems the size of England.

Nor is this the worst of all possibilities. Other recent scientific research indicates that atmospheric CO2e emissions under business-as-usual carbon- intensive economic growth could trigger disastrous ‘tipping points’, releasing vast storehouses of the earth’s carbon stocks into the atmosphere.

Nearly a dozen negative tipping points have been identified,d ranging from the melting of the permafrost and release of massive amounts of the potent GHG methane, to the dieback of the Amazon rainforest or boreal forest. Each of these could increase the global average temperature by 3–5◦C.26

Recent studies indicate critical aspects of ecosystem functioning beginning to collapse at 2.5◦C, with the loss of major ice sheets, the collapse of the Amazon rain forest, extinction of coral reefs, and large-scale release of methane from deep-sea deposits and tundra could occur at temperatures as low as 2–4◦C of warming.

The threshold temperature for irreversible dieback of the Amazon rain forest could be as low as 2◦C, rather than the more commonly cited 3– 4◦C.27, 27a A 2005 Amazon drought was estimated to have caused the loss of 1.6 Gt of carbon in that single year.28

Ocean Acidification Threat to Fisheries Collapse

The oceans face multiple extreme risks. Recent marine evidence has found that over the past half-century phytoplankton, the base of the ocean food web has declined 40%, corresponding with a 0.5◦C global temperature increase over the past century.29 In addition, humanity’s annual 30 + gigaton pulse of CO2 emissions is accelerating the rate of ocean acidification faster than any time during the last 300 million years.

Marine scientists warn that the failure to peak global CO2 emissions by 2015 and then steadily reduce these emissions by 5% per annum could, by the end of the century, cause acidification levels that essentially unravel the ocean ecosystem and collapse major fisheries and marine species.30 Only 1% of marine fishery catch revenues are not influenced by changes in ocean ph.31, 32

Climate change and marine acidification risks are compounding humanity’s already massive over- fishing, depletion, and collapse of major fisheries.33 Worldwide, approximately 1 billion people are dependent on fish as the principal source of animal protein and half a billion people depend on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods; the vast majority of them live in developing countries.

Coral reef-related fisheries constitute approximately one-tenth of the world’s total fisheries, and in some parts of the Indo-Pacific region up to 25% of the total fish catch, while also representing the breeding, nursing, and feeding grounds for one-fourth of marine fisheries.

One-third of all coral species are already at risk of extinction as a result of bleaching and disease caused by ocean warming in recent years.34

In terms of catastrophic risk, acidification interacts with the temperature stress on coral reefs; with 1.7◦C warming, all coral reefs will be bleached, and by 2.5◦C they will be extinct.35


If one examines the history of tax subsidies and preferential policies and regulations for energy development over the past half century, both in the USA and internationally, governments have driven the market into expanding power plants fueled with fissioning transuranics - radioactive uranium, plutonium and thorium -- while largely ignoring harnessing the Sun's fusion (until very recently).  For each dollar of federal funds to solar power, nuclear fission received 100 times more.  Nuclear power has never been a least-cost-and-risk option for delivering electricity to end-users, and that remains the case given the large and rapidly expanding pool of least-cost-and-risk alternatives.  

Most advocates of nuclear power as a way to deal with climate change are uninformed or ill-informed about the competition.  See my chapter posted on my home page, as well as this pdf of a letter I recently sent to Dr. James Hansen, the highly respected NASA climatologist, sharing with him the range of facts about nuclear and its competition.  Dr. Hansen has been advocating for accelerating nuclear reactors, when I believe what he really wants to accomplish is accelerating emission-free power.  As my letter indicates, the empirical evidence shows that each dollar invested in nuclear reactors actually slows down backing out of fossil emissions, by several factors to an order of magnitude.  PDF: nuclear_letter_to_hansen_totten_april_7_2013_pdf.pdf
3.8 MB

Check back for further developments.  michael p totten, founder & principal,  LinkedIn background info.

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