Approaching the Ecological Event Horizon

Stephen Mulkey, PhD
For The Natural Resources Council of Maine

15 September 2016

oregon-forest-mortality-2011View from Tam McArthur Rim of lodgepole pine and whitebark pine killed by mountain pine beetle within the prior 10 years, Deschutes County, OR, in the Deschutes National Forest, September 2011. (Photo: Garrett Meigs, Oregon State University)

“If looking into the sun may cause blindness, then human insights into nature entail a terrible price.” – Andrew Glickson, Australian National University, 2014

“If we don’t act soon, there will only be tiny remnants of wilderness around the planet, and this is a disaster for conservation, for climate change, and for some of the most vulnerable human communities on the planet.” James Watson, University of Queensland, 2016


This past July, I had the privilege of backpacking in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness with two extraordinary young adults, Andrew and Sachi, who call me Dad. A curse of being an ecologist is that I sometimes see things that others don’t, and these things are often alarming. In this instance, I was struck by the condition of the forests visible in the vista from Jefferson Ridge. It was evident to me that this landscape was quite damaged. Having hiked and camped in the Cascade Range of volcanos for over 30 years, I have watched the condition of forests in the Northwest transform as a consequence of climate-driven wildfires, insect outbreaks, and tree diseases. Andrew and Sachi were unaware of this aspect and simply enjoyed the view. Thus, they demonstrated the inter-generational conservation conundrum known as shifting baselines of perception. Their chronology of environmental degradation began with their awareness of the natural world. I experienced my own shifting baseline early in my twenties when looking from a high vantage point at the Ozark escarpment and realizing that the Oak-Hickory forest stretching out before me was anything but natural. All of the native pines were missing, and the resulting regrowth belied decades of clearcutting and forest mismanagement. These experiences are small examples of the massive transformation of the biosphere taking place in every corner of our planet.


A comprehensive review published in 2012 provided compelling evidence that as early as 2025 we will witness the beginning of a planetary-scale irreversible transition in Earth’s biosphere. The authors argued that global-scale “forcing” is emerging from accumulated local human impacts such as human land use, resource use, habitat destruction, and pollution, and they noted that global changes in climate would cause comprehensive transformation in coming decades. A forcing factor is a change in conditions that pushes a system to a new state, representing a regime shift. Such tipping points in the climate and associated components of the biosphere are defined by Tim Lenton and colleagues (2008) as large-scale elements of the Earth’s systems that may pass a critical threshold and rapidly change function under anthropogenic forcing. Andrew Glikson at Australian National University has coined the phrase Climate Event Horizon to describe the transition of the climate system to a state created by the oxidation of gigatons of fossil carbon since the late 19th century.


An event horizon as originally conceived in physics is a boundary in space-time, and in common parlance has come to mean “the point of no return.” There is little remaining doubt in the scientific community that we are rushing toward a point of no return for the climate system. Beyond this point, the climate would require millennia to return to conditions approximating the period during the Holocene when civilization developed. In recent posts, I have reasoned that the cumulative effects of climate change and human impacts on living systems are pushing the biosphere to a different state. The concept of an Ecological Event Horizon provides a metaphor for the reality that we are reaching a point of no return, beyond which our living home will be transformed irreversibly on any meaningful human timescale. It is appropriate that on 22 August 2016, scientists at the International Geological Congress in Cape Town recommended that a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, be identified as having begun in 1950.


Some scholars have taken issue with this line of reasoning, claiming that there is an absence of sufficiently uniform global-scale drivers to transform ecosystems worldwide, and thus push the biosphere to a novel state within the next few decades. This perspective strikes me as an example of self-described “ecomodernists” not understanding basic ecology, and missing the forest by focusing on the trees. The global-scale drivers are clear and are causing increasing impacts. Other authors have referred to such drivers as planetary boundaries, including (1) nitrate and phosphate enrichment affecting biochemical processes worldwide and creating marine dead zones in literally every corner of the planet, (2) wholesale and planet-wide loss of biodiversity affecting ecosystems in every biome on every continent and in the oceans, (3) rapid ocean acidification affecting the ecosystems of virtually all oceans, (4) atmospheric aerosol pollution variously altering rainfall patterns over broad swaths of the planet, (5) widespread land system change affecting habitat connectedness and ecosystem function worldwide, (6) depletion and pollution of freshwater in or near all but the most isolated terrestrial ecosystems, and (7) climate change, which is a global phenomenon (duh!) increasingly affecting all ecosystems everywhere. Human-caused climate change is presently an amplifier, rather than a primary driver, of human impacts on ecosystems.


Toward the middle of this century, without monumental decreases in our emissions, climate change will inexorably become the dominant cause of widespread disruption of the biosphere, accelerating species displacements and local, regional, and global extinctions. The objections raised to the concept of near-term irreversible biosphere change are publishable as points of academic discussion, but they are mostly trivial or wrong and offer little insight into the process of biosphere transformation.


The terms “forcing, tipping point, regime shift, and state shift” are new in the lexicon of ecology, having come into academic usage mostly since the turn of the century as profound changes have become apparent. The movies depict these concepts and the notion of an event horizon as abrupt phenomena. To be sure, passing through a temporal point of no return would be virtually instantaneous when falling toward a black hole in space. Although not instantaneous, passage through the global ecological point of no return will nevertheless be fast, requiring no more than a few decades as climate change accelerates and humanity transgresses planetary boundaries. This reality was driven home recently by James Watson and colleagues reporting in Current Biology that 10 percent of the Earth’s wilderness has been lost since 1990, with the Amazon and Africa hardest hit. Over the most recent 20 years, wildlands diminished 3.3 million km2  – an area almost twice the size of Alaska. In August, a joint report from the Canadian Wildlife Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service showed that, mostly due to habitat loss, breeding landbird populations in North America had been reduced one billion individuals since 1970.


Once committed to a new regime, the biosphere will likely continue to change for centuries and likely for millennia in response to climate destabilization. Our response to ongoing dynamic transformations and disruptions of ecosystems will require global awareness and coordinated regenerative management through the 22nd century and beyond. Restoring the biosphere to the conditions before 1950 is unrealistic under current conditions, and it will be utterly impossible as we pass through the Ecological Event Horizon.


Although it is not realistic to hope for the biosphere of days past, it is necessary for us to extend every effort to maintain ecosystem services. The ecosystems that make up our biosphere will be transformed, but we must support essential elements of their form and function while saving as much biodiversity as possible.  Bill McKibben and others have put forward compelling arguments for all-out mobilization like that of WWII to accomplish turning the massive ship of civilization in a new direction. Consistent with this approach is recent sweeping legislation in California, which mandates a 40 percent reduction in fossil fuel emissions by 2030 relative to 1990 emissions. The most striking feature of this law is that it will require restructuring of mostly every part of California’s economy, the seventh largest in the world. If every major polluter nation state on Earth were to achieve this, it would certainly slow climate warming. However, it is unlikely that it would be enough to halt the transformation of our planet. Any certainty that average global warming will stay below 2˚C will require essentially net zero fossil fuel emissions by 2050.


Is all-out mobilization possible? There are no data to allow an assessment of how realistic this might be across all nations. What is clear is that the nonbinding agreement reached in Paris in December 2015, even if fully enacted, would fall far short of being effective. The current targets declared by participating countries would result in average global warming above 3˚C by 2100. Mark Jacobson and colleagues at Stanford have produced compelling plans for every US state and many countries that would reduce emissions from power generation by 80 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. McKibben provides rough estimates to suggest that mobilizing the US manufacturing sector to meet these goals might be possible, but in the article, the engineer Tom Solomon noted, “It’s at the upper end of what I could possibly imagine.” The group has produced a comprehensive Victory Plan that provides a step-by-step approach for mobilizing the US economy and the federal government to respond to the climate emergency. Scholars of governance have conceived policy frameworks for managing climate change but are skeptical that political cooperation will emerge in time to avoid serious consequences.


Broad transformation of the world economy means that capitalism itself must function according to different values and rules. In this sense, the title of Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything is not hyperbole. Klein drew the criticism of many in the business world and some environmental wonks because her work has been interpreted to mean that capitalism itself is fatally flawed, and thus we must embrace austerity as we move to a more sustainable relationship with Earth. Instead, her work reviews the horrific consequences of unrestricted capitalism, and she implies that the core tenets of capitalism will remain with us. Governments must now exercise their authority through the ancient doctrine of the Public Trust and impose wide-ranging consequential sanctions and incentives to provide a financial basis for building a new economy fueled by renewable energy. Included in this new approach must be means of preserving and regenerating the form and function of ecosystems. Far from being the end of capitalism, such a transition could create a new adaptive radiation of economic diversification and energize a world economy driven by renewable energy and the life-supporting value of the ecosystems of Earth.


The global commons of the biosphere often cannot, and arguably should not, be privatized. Because markets lack the means to appropriately value externalities such as climate and ecosystems, governments as stewards must define this new regime of economic valuation. Presently, many corporate leaders recognize that the business case for environmental stewardship is compelling, but experience shows that the legal primacy of shareholder value almost always precludes timely actions to preserve ecosystem services. Overwhelming evidence shows that large corporations routinely manipulate research to hide negative impacts or create doubt about the harmful effects of their products. As we approach the Ecological Event Horizon, continued unrestricted extractive use of natural resources, especially fossil fuels, is tantamount to the demise of civilization.


To this end, corporate legal expert Robert Hinkley makes a strong case that the time has come for a new legal requirement of corporate responsibility that extends fiduciary duty beyond the current mandate to maximize shareholder value: “The duty of directors henceforth shall be to make money for shareholders but not at the expense of the environment, human rights, public health and safety, dignity of employees, and the welfare of the communities in which the company operates.” Such strong government restriction of capitalism is more than an idea whose time has come; it is urgently necessary to create the regenerative society that can exercise responsible management of the climate system and the biosphere. Fearful of this reality, Oxford scholar Steve Raynor cautions that the regulations required for mobilization of the world economy would be a fundamental threat to the democratic process.


The certainty that our kids will inhabit a very different planet burdens many of my generation. As we move through the Ecological Event Horizon, I worry not just that Andrew and Sachi will be limited in their awareness of the history of the natural world, but that its transformation will threaten their very survival. My understanding of the data compels me to demand global mobilization to holistically manage our climate and biosphere. If we engage in a monumental effort now, we can create a culture of regeneration and eventually a resilient civilization. Andrew and Sachi will indeed live in a transformed biosphere, but it need not be one in which civilization fails to thrive.


I choose to believe that we will mobilize to salvage our civilization and preserve the function of our living planet. Certainly, this is mostly an article of faith and is not reflected in the stream of data confirming our rush toward the Ecological Event Horizon. I carry on and I hope you will too.

“If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”
– Martin Keogh in Hope Beneath our Feet

Here are two of the many reasons that I have hope:

andrew-and-sachi-jefferson-wildernessAndrew Mulkey and Sachi Mulkey on the trail in the Jefferson Wilderness. Oregon, July 2016. (Photo: Stephen Mulkey)