Listing the top 10 of a group is always appealing. Ten most-wanted fugitives by the FBI. Top ten songs, books, and best-dressed celebrities. And David Letterman, with his list of items such as Top Ten Reasons You Are Not Looking Forward to the NBA Playoffs. So why not list the top ten environmental problems facing America and the world? I asked two dozen ecology graduate students what their list would be.
If anyone knows what the real threats are, these people will: their opinions are science-based, not emotional. Using the Letterman approach of reading the list from 10 to 1, I present the top ten environmental problems in order of increasing importance. The total number of major problems identified by the people I asked ended up to be more than 10. Not surprisingly, some of the perceived problems are similar and interconnect, so I consolidated the students’ lists to end up with the magic number 10. 10. Invasive plants and animals.
The problems resulting from fire ants, Burmese pythons in the Everglades, and many more regional environmental problems have a human origin related to the introduction of exotic species. 9. Global climate change. Although “global warming” receives a lot of press, University of Georgia graduate student Brian Todd pointed out that “the global climate for the past 4 billion years has been one marked by change and relative instability. The problem we face today is the crippled ability of many ecosystems to appropriately respond to climate change as they have for the past 65 million years because we have already compromised the environment in other ways.” 8. Pollution of marine habitats.
The oceans are huge, but overharvesting and the degradation of marine environments are proceeding at a steady rate around the world, including a commercially extinct codfish industry and disappearing coral reefs along our own coasts. 7. Air pollution. Uncontrolled releases by industry and the excessive use of fossil fuels have led to acid rain, dissolution of the ozone layer, smog, and the general elimination of “clean air.” 6. Unsustainable agriculture. The human world is dependent on food production, yet agricultural siltation, pesticide runoffs, and loss of natural habitats are constant threats to a healthy environment. 5.
Threat of disease. Bird flu, West Nile virus, and mad cow disease are examples of how we could be affected overnight by unseen enemies, all a consequence of human overcrowding, overconsumption, and invasive species. 4. Water quality and quantity. Sewage from cities, unregulated releases from industrial and agricultural sites, and dumping of wastes in the oceans collectively exacerbate the worldwide problem of water pollution. Overuse of groundwater in many coastal regions leading to saltwater intrusion is a looming specter. Water wars are now a reality in the western states and even in the wetter Southeast, as evidenced in the court cases involving Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. 3. Habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation.
The loss of natural habitats because of human development and deforestation is viewed by most as the major cause of the decline in biodiversity nationally and globally. Many species are on an inexorable path toward extinction because their native habitats are gone or despoiled. 2. Human overpopulation. Most of the students ranked unchecked human population growth, which leads to overconsumption and associated world poverty, as their top culprit of environmental problems. Virtually every problem from 3 through 10 can be traced back to our simply having too many people for the resources available. Until political and religious leaders have the courage to realistically address the issue of birth control on a global scale, most of our environmental problems will worsen before they get better. 1. Apathy.
Dean Croshaw, a graduate student from the University of New Orleans, offered what I rank as the number one environmental problem. A clear indicator of our foremost problem is that world leaders seldom acknowledge, let alone propose solutions to, environmental problems. For those leaders around the world chosen by a democratic election process, that apathy is condoned and mimicked by the people who elect them. A major difference between David Letterman’s lists and mine is that none of mine are funny.
It’s hardly surprising that on the world’s driest inhabited continent, experts are concerned about how Australia looks after its water. “We need to get smarter about how we manage water — that means everything from replacing our ageing infrastructure to ensuring we capture rain water when it does fall,” urges Kim McKay, author of True Green Life. “Most rivers in southern Australia are suffering from decades of over-extraction for irrigation,” says Dr Linda Selvey, Greenpeace Australia Pacific CEO. “This is being exacerbated by drought, and the pressure will continue as climate change takes hold.”
Selvey and former Australian of the Year, Tim Flannery, are some of the many voices calling for urgent action in the Murray-Darling Basin, while the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) continues to remind the public of the far-reaching effects of unhealthy river systems in general. “Blue-green algal outbreaks kill fish and make water unsafe for drinking or swimming, while salty water isn’t useful for anything,” ACF spokesperson Josh Meadows said. 2. Climate change
It may be a global issue, but when scientists across the world are asked what the effects of climate change will look like, they quickly point to Australia. “Of all the wealthy countries, we’re probably the most vulnerable,” says Professor Will Steffen, executive director of ANU’s Climate Change Institute. “We’re locked in to another 0.5°C temperature rise due to past emissions, but what we do between now and 2050 is crucial for the magnitude and rate of climate change later this century and beyond,” he says. While government assessments predict over 250,000 Australian homes may be at risk from rising sea levels, Greenpeace’s Selvey notes climate change will affect us well beyond our front doors.
“Climate change also concerns security, the economy and justice. As a doctor, I’ve also seen the way it affects people’s health,” she says. The response, urges Professor Kurt Lambeck, president of the Australian Academy of Science, must be urgent and adaptable: “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions must be high priority, even if the full consequences of this are not yet understood,” he says. 3. Energy
“We should be replacing fossil fuels with renewable power,” says Selvey. “It’s critical that the Rudd government act to help us with the transition. It can be done; all that is required is political will,” she says. Fiona Wain, CEO of Environment Business Australia, sees an opportunity in the coming energy crisis. “We have capacity to be world leaders in solar, wind, marine and geothermal energies. We have these resources on tap, but we’ve become lazy thinkers. Why don’t we do minerals processing and manufacturing in Australia using these energy-efficient resources?”
Like Flannery, who believes a lack of triple-bottom-line accounting in government and industry is costing the environment, Wain says those in manufacturing need to shift their thinking, and fast. “It’s time to be thinking very big picture, so we need boards of directors that can think further than their three-year term of office,” she says. 4. Coal
Tim Flannery is not the only expert surveyed who expressed serious concern over Australia’s 20-odd conventional coal-fired power plants. “We’re the biggest coal exporter in the world,” says McKay. “We may think our global carbon contribution is small (almost two per cent of global emissions), but it’s much, much greater than that due to our bulk coal exports to countries like Japan, South Korea, the Netherlands and China.” “It’s unbelievable we haven’t developed alternative, renewable energy sources on a large scale.
We’re dragging the chain presumably due to short-term, next election-cycle thinking,” she says. While brown coal is responsible for much of our carbon dioxide (CO2), Wain believes we should be further investigating sequestration of the climate-changing gas. “Regardless of what else we do we’re still going to need to draw down CO2 from the atmosphere to get it to 350 parts per million.” Wain points to a commercial trial aiming to turn CO2 captured from coal-fired plants into algal oil (to produce plastics or biodiesel); and another trialling brown coal deposits as the base for soil fertilisers as two potential solutions. “There are consortiums of developers just getting on with it,” she says. 5. Biodiversity
With 1500 land-based species threatened, what Flannery terms “the extinction crisis” is agreed upon as a serious environmental challenge. “We have already seen a fairly disturbing loss of our biodiversity, but the problem tends to get overshadowed by climate change, land degradation and water issues,” says the ANU’s Will Steffen.
“There’s a whole suite of services we enjoy thanks to a biodiverse-rich ecosystem, from provisioning services like food or water, through to nutrient flow and pollination,” reminds Steffan. He believes our highly urbanised society only compounds the problem. “We are quite disconnected from the services our ecosystem provides. Aside from products like food or timber, we don’t see a value or price for these services in an economically focussed system. But Australia has an extinction debt building up, and the trend is not improving,” he says. 6. Oceans
Despite knowing the problems faced by one of our best-loved tourist attractions, we’re still not doing enough to protect the Great Barrier Reef. “Rising sea levels and the impact of fertiliser run-off are damaging the reef. It needs more attention, because once it’s gone, it’s gone for good,” reminds McKay. As the ACF calls for a national network of large marine sanctuaries, and an Australian Oceans Act to regulate sustainable harvesting and production of seafood, Greenpeace’s Selvey highlights the current situation. “Seventy-six per cent of the world’s fisheries are in dire straits, and overfishing by commercial and illegal fleets is threatening to fish some of our favourite seafoods to extinction. If we continue on this trajectory all fish stocks will collapse within 50 years. Scientists say eventually we will be left with only jellyfish and plankton,” she says. 7. Population
With Australia’s population projected to reach 35 million by 2049, commentators continue to express concern about the pressure this growth will place on resources. “It means more consumption, and greater challenges for providing infrastructure to manage our country in a sustainable way,” says McKay. While the ACF is calling for long-term strategies to meet and increase humanitarian obligations while reducing overall migration to more sustainable levels, the debate over ideal population continues.
Experts may not see eye to eye on a figure, but most agree decisions need to be made. “We need to determine what our carrying capacity is” says Lambeck, “and how can we achieve a sustainable population.” 8. Sustainable cities
With Australians using more water and energy per person than almost any other country in the world, rethinking how we live in and develop our cities is vital, says the ACF’s Josh Meadows. “We should invest in energy-efficient houses and buildings, and then export our ideas and the smart technologies behind them.” Lambeck says smarter infrastructure would go along way to addressing the issue: “We need sustainable infrastructures for transport, power generation and distribution that minimise the impact on energy, water and biodiversity.”
According to Wain, there is huge scope for greater efficiency in our built environment. “I’m an eternal optimist, but we need to think at scale — not house to house, but street to street and suburb to suburb. We need solutions that are scalable, so they become more investable and bankable.” 9. Transport
The perennial debate about lack of investment in public transport continues to frustrate many experts. “People complain about the per capita cost of investment in public transport, but it’s far cheaper than the cost of putting cars on the road. We’re not very logical in the way we think about these things,” says Wain. While the ACF points out that removing the “nonsensical fringe benefit tax concession” for company car use would shift many away from relying on their cars, Wain is excited by the planned roll-out of a national electric car network, beginning in Canberra within the next two years. “Programs like this could conceivably take all tailpipes off the road in our cities,” she says. 10. Ourselves
While the majority of surveyed experts highlighted the need for government action, and fast, it seems the buck doesn’t stop there. “We elect our leaders and we have the right to hold them to account,” reminds Selvey. “We can pick up the phone to call our MP, write a letter, or visit them in their constituency office. Companies are doing it to protect their interests, we need to do it to protect ours.” Lambeck says educating ourselves is key.
“We need a population that understands the issues, and can make constructive contributions to the debate to force politicians to develop longer than three-year ‘solutions’,” he says. What stands in the way, McKay believes, is apathy.
“It manifests in the politician who would prefer to do the minimum rather than risk not being re-elected; or in business leaders who adopt a ‘business as usual’ approach to ensure their annual bonus. “It’s also in you and I ignoring the issues and hoping they’ll go away. I’ve seen people come together and change things, and I really believe we can learn to live in a
more harmonious and sustainable way.”