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Despite worldwide public concern, environmental degradation continues to outpace reform. What are the key factors driving this crisis and our understanding of it?

Starting with the positives, knowledge of the environment and the available data on its destruction is constantly expanding. Also positive are the many efforts of individuals to protect the environment. On the margin are the United Nations goals for limiting global warming, which are never met. Most negatively, powerful corporations have lobbied against environmental regulations and for tax reductions so that governments can only pursue feeble environmental policies.

Despite significant challenges, however, there is some hope for limiting environmental disaster: Investing more deeply in social science may help identify the trends in human society that prevent protection of the environment.

All these points are each discussed in a bit more detail in this brief review of Earth’s environmental crisis.

Three Types of Knowledge About Earth’s Climate

Long-term climate change: As of 2004, estimates of Earth’s average temperature became available for the past 500 million years. Figure 1 shows the results of collaborative research by numerous groups. Using different methods for each time period, analysts calculated Earth’s average temperature for the last 20,000 years (at right) to 500 million years ago (at left), with a logarithmic compression of earliest times.

Temperature of Planet Earth
Figure 1. Temperature of Planet Earth


Overall, Earth’s temperature varied by no more that 20 °C (or 35 °F), enabling living species to persist. Further, temperature declined steadily from a peak 60 million years ago to a low point in the last Glacial Maximum. The past 10,000 years show the stable temperatures that enabled agriculture to expand. But the long-term decline is being reversed by the 21st-century rise in temperature, shown in red.

Collaborative climate modeling: Equally impressive advances have been made in analysis of short-term temperature change since 1900. Syukoro Manabe (who analyzed CO2 in the atmosphere) and James Hansen (who analyzed CO2 in the ocean) joined together. Other scholars then joined to analyze the temperature effects of clouds, reflection from snow, ice cores for past data, pollution-generated aerosols, varying solar activity, volcanic activity, and flaws in instruments. The result was a successful model of worldwide climate change over years and decades. In 1979, during meeting of experts at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, plans were made to create global databases of these climate models.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: The United Nations stepped forward in 1988, establishing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to collect and report on climate change as seen in worldwide research. It had three tasks: (1) assessing the risks of climate change through scientific analysis of the rise in Earth’s temperature; (2) estimating the potential impacts of climate change, including ecological damage and health damage from increased temperature; (3) exploring options for prevention, including social campaigns for environmental reform and technical remedies, especially limiting fossil fuels.

The IPCC regularly publishes comprehensive assessment reports on climate. It published its latest assessment report—its sixth—in 2021; previous reports were released in 1990, 1995, 2001, 2007, and 2013. The reports’ predictions of rising temperatures and ecological damage have been quite accurate, because of the scientific strength of IPCC. But the options for prevention were weaker. Further, the lack of detailed social analysis showed that IPCC was unprepared for the corporate rejection of environmental reform.

After the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015 (See below for more on this treaty.), the IPCC was invited to produce a special report on global warming. To explain temperature change, the IPCC set a basis for comparison—Earth’s average temperature (1850–1900) of 13.9 °C—and decided that further increase of 1.5 to 2.0 °C (or average temperature as 15.4 °C to 15.9 °C) would disrupt humanity and the Earth. Figure 2 shows the base temperature up to 1900 and that the 1.5 °C danger line will be passed somewhere between 2030 and 2050.

Data from the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming (2018)
Figure 2. IPCC Special report on global warming, 2018


Steps Toward Policy Change, 1980 – 2020

With United Nations leadership, a solid framework has been established for global environmental reform. The best example of potential reform was the Montreal Protocol (1987)—the first universally ratified treaty in UN history. The agreement restricted release of chlorofluorocarbons (industrial refrigerants), which were shown to be depleting Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer—itself essential for absorbing solar ultraviolet radiation.

Since the Stockholm Conference of 1972, the United Nations has convened three comprehensive meetings to design and implement global policy for environmental protection.

  • Rio Conference (1992): It adopted the concept of “sustainable development” 20 years after the Stockholm conference. The concept was to balance economic, social, and environmental concerns for human needs.
  • Kyoto Protocol: This treaty was adopted at a 1997 meeting and implemented in 2005 with 192 national signatories. Signatories agreed to monitoring emissions, a registry of projects for reducing emissions, and compliance with targets for greenhouse gases. The three Kyoto market-based mechanisms for meeting emissions targets are emissions trading (known as “the carbon market”), the clean development mechanism (CDM), and joint implementation (JI) .
  • Paris Agreement (2015): A legally binding treaty among 196 nations, the Paris Agreement’s overarching goal is to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and pursue efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” In 2024, tensions surrounding the Paris Agreement are high, as many nations have failed to meet their targets, and temperatures have risen much faster than anticipated.

Two Positive Notes

The Earthshot Prize (led by Prince William of the UK) has been awarded to small projects of excellence in 2021, 2022, and 2023 in the categories of Nature, Air, Oceans, Waste, and Climate. This award by nonprofit organizations is intended to encourage advances in environmental policy. Separately, in recent years, some (mostly small) nations developed exceptional strength in their own environmental reforms. In 2022, the most environmentally friendly countries were Denmark, the UK, Finland, Malta, Sweden, and Luxembourg.

Failure to Meet the Environmental Challenge

Despite meaningful efforts by individuals and small groups, as well as large-scale social movements, powerful organizations have rejected changes that would limit environmental degradation. Further, special interest groups have acted on the behalf of these large companies to further oppose environmental reform.

Here are several of the steps that have accelerated opposition to environmental reform.

  • Multinational enterprises (MNEs) expanded rapidly through foreign direct investment (FDI) to build corporations that produce and sell in multiple countries. These enterprises emphasized growth and profitability with little thought to the external effects of their work; they lobbied governments for tax breaks.
  • International economic blocs: The G77 group of formerly colonized nations formed in 1964 to claim equal trading rights with big powers. In 1975, the G7 group of big powers formed and rejected such trade reforms. Then, the Soviet bloc and the G77 nations set aside environmental concerns, pressing for economic advances. By 2008, a new group of economic blocs had formed: the original G7, the G20 (expanded from G7), and BRICS (non-G7 members of the G20).
  • Economic analysis: The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), tied to the EU and the G7 countries, calculated economic statistics of global interest. In doing so, the OECD neglected welfare economics, group behavior, and global and historical social statistics. Academics in the discipline of International Business (IB) have been critical of corporate methods—yet still focused on the growth and profit of the MNEs, not the rest of the economy.
  • Neoliberal economic ideology: From 1980, top business leaders rejected Keynesian concern for income distribution and instead emphasized privatization, deregulation, welfare cuts, and structural adjustment programs. They redefined the environment as a subtopic within energy. In an extreme example of this ideology, the United States under President Trump harshly rejected environmental reform and resigned from the Paris Agreement from 2018 to 2021.

The Need to Combine Social and Natural Science

The natural-world environmental problems include climate change, species extinction, and resource exhaustion. But equally dangerous are the social environmental problems of social inequality, oppressive hierarchy, putting profit over life, and suppression of democracy.

Large-scale study by social scientists, in association with natural scientists—and with deep involvement of the general population—are the best hope of limiting environmental collapse.

  • The required framework: In parallel to research on climate, analysis of the human social order should begin with a simplified one-dimensional analysis of social institutions, followed by collaborative analysis of social obstacles to policy change.
  • Required theory must analyze the most important social dynamics: the dominance of hierarchy over collaboration, types of group behavior, and the functioning of social institutions, democracy, and diversity.
  • Required data include global and historical data at all social levels—not just information from multinational corporations, but also data on the social and economic welfare of those displaced by multinational corporations.
  • Required social action must include reform of the UN Security Council. This means eliminating big-power vetoes of majority decisions in social and environmental issues.
  • It is essential to study the COVID experience in order to understand malfunctioning institutions during the pandemic. During this fraught period, administrative hierarchy impeded and frustrated health care workers’ efforts to save lives.

Without taking actions such as these—without a greater focus on the human aspects of this crisis—Earth’s environmental emergency may only worsen.

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