A Perfect Storm: Climate Change, Biodiversity Loss, Global Water Scarcity

May, 2022

A. Karim Ahmed and Stephen P. Hubbell

Almost all environmental and economic indicators projecting our world’s future show that we are headed towards a perfect storm by mid-century. This bleak outlook is the result of increasing global impacts of climate change, the distinct probability of a massive extinction of species, and a world without adequate freshwater resources to sustain life. Not since the modern human species evolved some two to three hundred thousand years ago, have we been faced with such a combination of existential threats to all living organisms on our planet.

Today, the impacts of climate change and global warming are no longer a distant happening, but a stark reality for many communities around the world. To begin with, the past ten years (2010 – 2019) recorded the warmest decade historically, while atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (~ 420 ppm) rose well above any level observed in ice-core measurements reaching back 400,000 years. The past twenty years have seen dramatic increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, along with marked rise in heat wave episodes and wildfire incidences in different regions of the globe. These events were accompanied by either heavy rainfall and widespread flooding in some areas or prolonged drought and loss of agricultural productivity in other regions.        

To illustrate this growing problem, let’s look at the situation in one of the most populous countries in the world today. In recent years, Bangladesh has become the poster child of the ravages of climate change and global warming. With over 160 million people, it is located in a densely populated, low-lying river delta region of South Asia. According to the reputable non-profit, Germanwatch, it is among the ten countries most affected by climate change during the past few decades, suffering a series of devastating cyclones, heavy monsoon rains, coastal flooding and sea level rise. A recent US government report concluded that over a third of its population (53 million) reside in very high “climate exposure areas”, which does not bode well for its future.

Turning to the severely drought-stricken regions of East Africa, the widespread loss of animal species in the past several decades continues to be of grave concern to many wildlife conservationists. For instance, the annual large-scale migration of wildebeest between Serengeti and Masai Mara plains precipitously declined by nearly 75% from the mid-1970s to 2016. Similar loss of migratory patterns have also been observed in other grazing animals, such as zebras and Thomson’s gazelles. Not only will the decline of such species affect the entire wildlife ecosystem in the savannah grassland region, it has an enormous impact on the economies of countries that depend on tourism as one of their chief sources of income. 

Massive losses of biodiversity are happening not only in Africa, but all around the globe.  For example, North America has lost an estimated three billion birds, many from migratory species, since 1970.  The accumulated loss of biodiversity in the past half century is unprecedented, on a scale not seen since the last (fifth) mass extinction of species some 65 million years ago. That episode occurred at the end of the Cretaceous period, when a giant asteroid crashed into Earth, destroying a vast variety of animal and plant species, including the dinosaurs that roamed the planet then. This catastrophic event led to the loss of 76% of existing species, while eliminating whole biological genera (40%) and families (17%) of all life-forms on the planet. Today, leading evolutionary biologists believe that we have entered a sixth mass extinction period of present-day species. Many ecologists and conservation biologists have concluded that this loss of biodiversity is directly linked to human-caused habitat loss and climate change during the newly emerging, human-dominated “Anthropocene” time period.    

According to a 2019 report issued by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the current prognosis on world-wide species loss appears “to present an ominous picture”, as characterized by its chair, Sir Robert Watson. The report mentioned that a 20% decline of habitats of major land-based species have occurred since 1900, reducing the survival and reproduction of mammals, reptiles, insects and birds around the globe. Current human-caused impacts threaten 40% of amphibian species and about one-third of coral reefs and marine mammals. The IPBES report concluded that about one million animal and plant species are seriously threatened by extinction today, which would likely occur within a short time frame of only a few decades. 

An especially disturbing global trend is the growing scarcity of freshwater to both human settlements and to domesticated animals and wildlife. At present, it is estimated that over 1.1 billion people lack access to clean, potable water, while 2.7 billion inhabitants live in water-stressed areas in many parts of the globe. In addition, rapidly receding glaciers, caused by global warming in major mountainous regions – such as the Himalayas, Alps, Rockies, and Andes – will result in disastrously low river water flow in the next few decades. This has serious implications for human and animal water consumption needs, in curtailing regional hydropower generation, and for leading to global food shortages, resulting in widespread malnutrition and hunger. 

Given the state of the world summarized above, humanity faces a daunting challenge – how do we avoid the perfect storm that is clearly headed our way? Let’s examine what options we do possess to meet this looming calamity. Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released parts of its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), those specifically related to greenhouse gas mitigation. Warning that time is quickly running out, the report emphasized that, to meet the Paris Accord’s goal of not exceeding an average global warming of 1.5°C over pre-industrial mean temperature, we must reduce global carbon emissions by about 45% by the year 2030, a date just eight years away. 

Reaching this goal is, indeed, a tall order for curbing climate change, since for all practical purposes we are still globally following a Business-As-Usual path. The greatest obstacle before us is the current heavy dependence on fossil fuels as our chief source of energy. Thus, the first necessity is a very rapid phase-out of the consumption of coal, oil and natural gas as the mainstay of our economy. This can be achieved in various ways, including instituting adequately-priced carbon taxation, creating financial incentives for both producers and consumers, and generously subsidizing the renewable energy sector. Since time is of the essence right now, such measures should be launched and implemented at the earliest possible date. 

A similar approach should be considered for drastically reducing biodiversity loss in all regions of the globe. This would include the restoration of degraded natural ecosystems, empowering local inhabitants to help preserve and curb human encroachment on species habitats, and calling for an internationally-agreed prohibition of all large-scale deforestation projects. Additionally, the enormous quantities of plastic waste killing life in the oceans and coastal environments must be cleaned up by an ambitious world-wide effort.

Finally, the problem of global water scarcity needs immediate attention. Above all, availability of water resources should be considered a basic human right, with communities being given ready access to clean water and sanitation services. This would entail providing financial assistance and grants for the construction of local water resources infrastructure, along with fair and equitable pricing, and in the proper allocation of both surface and groundwater in the community. Strong emphasis should be placed on nature-based solutions and on water conservation measures, including instituting sustainable, regenerative agricultural practices, and in protecting local watersheds and urban vegetation. 

Given the present global trends, none of the above listed approaches will succeed unless we take stock of where we are today and make a conscious choice to confront the coming world-wide cataclysmic perfect storm with an abundant sense of urgency, keen intelligence, compassion for peoples most affected, and age-old wisdom. As the former Greenbelt Movement leader and Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai once perceptively stated, “In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.” 


Opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the GCSE or its members.