Wednesday, March 30, 2005

UN warns that environment nearing 'tipping point'

From Times Colonist – March 31, 2005
By Tom Spears

A new assessment of Earth’s environment – this one from the United Nations – brings the usual gloom, with a twist: Sometimes a problem that has been going slowly downhill reaches a ‘tipping point’, and bad things happen very suddenly.l

A prime example is the sudden and final crash of Canada’s cod fishery. Another is a situation in India in which people gradually cut the trees on a mountainside until there was sudden flooding and cholera.

The catch is that you can’t forecast when we’ll reach these tipping points. It’s like waiting for a house of cards to fall down, say organizers of the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a work by 1,300 scientist, economists and others in 95 countries, to be released today.

The fancy name for this sudden crashing is ‘non-linear degradation’, but A.H. Zakri, a Malaysian genetics professor who co-chairs the project, puts it more simply. “After a certain amount of time when you keep degrading the ecosystem, you would reach the tipping point and then all hell sort of breaks loose.”

There have been plenty of overviews of Earth’s ecology, but Zakri says this one is unique because it ties the pollution and endangered-species issues to the UN plan for global development. The key, the report says, is that we are pushing some resources too hard in our struggle to make economic gains.

Among the worst threats:
¨ Vast amounts of ordinary fertilizer from intensive farming are polluting our water and causing ‘dead zones’. Fertilizer is turning out to be far more lethal than many chemicals we usually consider toxic.
¨ Many dry areas are running out of fresh water. Canada’s Prairies are one of the regions under threat.
¨ Climate change threatens to cause more dry areas, but also more severe storms and floods. No country has a good handle on fighting this problem.

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