Today, August 22, is Earth Overshoot Day, marking the date when humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year. We are now operating in overdraft. For the rest of the year, we will maintain our ecological deficit by drawing down local resource stocks and accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Throughout most of history, humanity has used nature’s resources to build cities and roads, to provide food and create products, and to absorb our carbon dioxide at a rate that was well within Earth’s budget. But in the mid-1970’s, we crossed a critical threshold: Human consumption began outstripping what the planet could reproduce.
The fact that we are using, or “spending,” our natural capital faster than it can replenish is similar to having expenditures that continuously exceed income. In planetary terms, the costs of our ecological overspending are becoming more evident by the day. Climate change—a result of greenhouse gases being emitted faster than they can be absorbed by forests and oceans—is the most obvious and arguably pressing result. But there are others—shrinking forests, species loss, fisheries collapse, higher commodity prices and civil unrest, to name a few. The environmental and financial crises we are experiencing are symptoms of looming catastrophe. Humanity is simply using more than what the planet can provide.
Earth Overshoot Day is an estimate, not an exact date. It’s not possible to determine with 100 percent accuracy the day we bust our ecological budget. Adjustments of the date that we go into overshoot are due to revised calculations, not ecological advances on the part of humanity. The when is less important than the what."
How should we think about the relationship between climate change and day-to-day experience? Almost a quarter of a century ago James Hansen, the NASA scientist who did more than anyone to put climate change on the agenda, suggested the analogy of loaded dice. Imagine, he and his associates suggested, representing the probabilities of a hot, average or cold summer by historical standards as a die with two faces painted red, two white and two blue. By the early 21st century, they predicted, it would be as if four of the faces were red, one white and one blue. Hot summers would become much more frequent, but there would still be cold summers now and then.
And so it has proved. As documented in a new paper by Dr. Hansen and others, cold summers by historical standards still happen, but rarely, while hot summers have in fact become roughly twice as prevalent. And 9 of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000.
But that’s not all: really extreme high temperatures, the kind of thing that used to happen very rarely in the past, have now become fairly common. Think of it as rolling two sixes, which happens less than 3 percent of the time with fair dice, but more often when the dice are loaded. And this rising incidence of extreme events, reflecting the same variability of weather that can obscure the reality of climate change, means that the costs of climate change aren’t a distant prospect, decades in the future. On the contrary, they’re already here, even though so far global temperatures are only about 1 degree Fahrenheit above their historical norms, a small fraction of their eventual rise if we don’t act."
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