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Environmental Challenges Predicted
to Multiply in the 21st Century

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Environmental Challenges Predicted
to Multiply in the 21st Century

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, December 8, 1999 (ENS) - Some of the biggest environmental problems of recent years - dwindling fresh water supplies, damaged ecosystems and global warming - will continue to plague the world through the next century, experts said today. But the environmental movement, at least in the United States, will have a harder job than ever persuading policy makers to take action to solve these problems, one expert warned.

At a panel organized by Environmental Media Services, some of the leading U.S. environmental authorities made their predictions regarding the greatest environmental challenges of the 21st century. While the panelists noted that environmentalists have done a great deal to bring issues into the public eye, they expressed concern that not enough is being done to curb major environmental threats, that could ultimately threaten every species on Earth.

Lester Brown, founder and president of the World Watch Institute, warned that the world’s rapidly expanding population - estimated by the United Nations to have passed six billion in October - is relying on a finite supply of drinkable water, and that supply is running out. "I don’t think we’ve yet fully grasped the consequences of our population," said Brown. "The demand for water is simply outrunning the supply."

Brown noted that competition for limited water will show up first on the world grain markets. As nations run short of water to irrigate crops, they will turn to other countries for grain to feed their populations. "Given that importing one ton of grain is equal to importing 1,000 tons of water, this is the most efficient way for water short countries to import water," he said.

Jane Lubchenco, a professor of marine biology at Oregon State University and the former chair of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said damaged ecosystems - or "ecosystem dysfunction" - is the most crucial problem the world is now facing. She cautioned that the Earth stands to lose the incalculable benefits of healthy ecosystems, like water and air purification and climate regulation, if steps are not taken soon to prevent further damage.

"We’re changing the planet in unprecedented ways," Lubchenco said, pointing to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide and the transformation of one-half to two-thirds of the planet’s land surface as prime examples. "The choices we make now could constrain our options later."

"This century, we became big enough as a species to affect everything around us," McKibben said. "You could almost call it a moral threshold we went across. The story of the next century is going to be the effects of crossing this threshold."

Global warming, McKibben noted, is responsible for recent news of dramatic ice thinning in the Arctic, which he termed "a very scary proposition." Disrupted climate patterns could bring "devastating changes," he said, affecting the entire world and disrupting even America’s "juggernaut economy."

But, as Earth Day cofounder Denis Hayes pointed out, "the good news is we know what to do about this problem." Listing renewable, nonpolluting energy sources like solar and wind, Hayes said the crucial point will be how quickly these technologies can be made economically viable. "The environmental movement is going to have to do a lot of the heavy lifting," said Philip Shabecoff, a veteran "New York Times" reporter who later founded the daily environmental news service "Greenwire." Unfortunately, said Shabecoff, the American political system is less hospitable now to environmentalism than it has been in the past.

"The public support is too shallow to lobby for the broad changes in policy that will be necessary," Shabecoff said. The political power wielded by corporate giants that donate vast sums to political campaigns is becoming increasingly difficult to overcome, he argued. Legislation calling for campaign finance reform is "the most important piece of environmental legislation now before Congress."

To effect real change, environmentalists will need to focus on the causes of environmental problems like pollution, rather than the symptoms. "The environmental movement will need to find ways to get at the root of the problems," he said, "instead of continuing to nibble around the edges."

For example, Hayes pointed out that the U.S. cannot achieve the massive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions needed to halt global warming without moving away from a fossil fuel based economy, making fossil fuel industries the natural enemies of legislation to fight global warming.

"After all, the coal industry does not have a future if you’re cutting carbon emissions by 70 or 80 percent," Hayes said.

So far, industry opposition has prevented the U.S. from meeting its promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, made as part of the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement negotiated in December 1997 with the intent of slowing global warming.

Eighty four countries, including the U.S., have now signed the agreement, which calls for a reduction in emissions of heat trapping greenhouse gases, including CO2, methane, nitrous oxide and three halocarbons used as substitutes for ozone damaging chlorofluorocarbons.

"Our credibility elsewhere depends on our success at home," warned Hayes.

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