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Great Lakes Article:

Study predicts dire future for world environment
By Lee Bergquist
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published in The State (SC) April 6, 2005

MILWAUKEE - A new study paints a grim picture of today's environment, arguing that the world is living far beyond its means.

But as part of the study, experts laid out four scenarios that offer hope that humans can turn things around.

Those scenarios paint pictures of the world in 2050 in which policy-makers in some cases make a mess of things. But in other instances, a combination of enlightened leadership, free markets and the promise of technology come together to solve mounting pollution and resource problems.

"In other words, the future is in our hands," said Stephen Carpenter, a zoology professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Carpenter co-chaired a section of the four-year Millennium Ecosystem Assessment that tries to look decades into the future to see how humans might attack the myriad problems of an industrialized society.

The $24 million United Nations-backed study was released last week. The aim of the study is to help decision-makers sort out environmental issues while working on other problems, such as poverty, hunger and economic development.

All told, 1,360 scientists from 95 countries participated in the study.

Carpenter's group surveyed 100 government, business and scientific leaders from around the world on what they think the future holds. He was aided by Elena Bennett, a postdoctoral fellow at the university of Wisconsin.

Using those interviews, the team drew portraits of ways to solve problems in 2050. The scenarios range from pictures of a highly fragmented world obsessed with security issues - but little interest in the environment - to a world where environmental issues are top priorities.

Carpenter, an expert on human ecology interactions, has used the same kind of research to draw scenarios about northern Wisconsin's future.

As for his work with the millennium project, Carpenter said, "We didn't want this just to be another gloom-and-doom study, so what we tried to do was spend some time thinking about what we could do about it."

Despite the report's gloomy assessment, Carpenter describes himself as an optimist, and he believes that countries will do a better job of attacking global environmental problems in the future.

"Over the next 50 years, I see a mixture of stumbling (by world leaders) and successes," he said.

Said Bennett: "I think what we see is that it's way more complicated than I had thought - it's not simply a black-and-white issue."

But first the troubles:

The study found that more land has been converted to agriculture since 1945 than during all of the 18th and 19th centuries. More than half of all manufactured fertilizers, which were invented in 1913, have been used since 1985. The flow of nitrogen to oceans has doubled since 1860.

At least 25 percent of marine fish stocks have been overharvested. Water use from rivers and lakes has doubled in the last 40 years. Between 1960 and 2000, reservoir storage capacity has grown fourfold, meaning that the amount of water held in a natural state has declined.

Invasive species are increasingly upending local ecosystems. Great Lakes states have worried about invasive species for years, but the problem goes both ways. The Baltic Sea is the home of 100 invasive species - one-third of which come from the Great Lakes.

Global climate change has worsened because of the dominance of the use of coal, oil and natural gas. Since 1980, 20 percent of the world's coral reefs have been destroyed and another 20 percent are badly degraded, in part because of modest increases in sea temperatures.

Amid this backdrop, Carpenter and his colleagues determined that the world will respond to these problems in different ways. In reality, he said leaders are likely to pick and choose among the following:

Global orchestration

World powers embrace global trade and liberal trade practices, leading to a more equitable distribution of wealth. The middle class grows, and many people are lifted out of poverty. World powers are in a better position to deal with global issues such as climate change and dwindling fisheries.

However, environmental issues could be overshadowed as economic issues trump the environment. A stronger global economy boosts demand for goods and other services. That could harm forests and move more land to agricultural production, and potentially, intensive farming practices could lead to greater pollution. Other basics such as potable water could suffer as well, especially among the poor.

Carpenter is not pooh-poohing globalization. "You really need it to advance economic growth on a worldwide basis, and without economic growth you can't attack fundamental problems," he said.

Order from strength

The world becomes more fragmented, and concerns about security and protection increase. Nations look after their own interests as the best defense against economic uncertainty. The role of government expands as oil companies, water systems and other strategic businesses are either nationalized or are subject to more oversight by government.

The result is that global cooperation suffers. Agreements on global climate change, international fisheries and trade in endangered species are only weakly enforced. Industries that market natural resources - coal, timber and mining, for example - move to wealthier countries. Ecosystems become vulnerable. There are growing shortages of food and water in poorer countries.

Carpenter says this model is clearly the least optimistic. Some observers have concluded that it's meant to criticize the United States under the Bush administration. But Carpenter said: "It's really not the case. I think this scenario is an extreme example."

Bennett agreed. "There is a surprising variety of opinion about which world we are in today," she said.

Adapting Mosaic

Power and managing environmental issues move downward to local units of government. Society invests in new ways to improve ecosystems. Barriers to information virtually disappear. There is better understanding of the resilience, fragility and flexibility of ecosystems, and leaders understand that mistakes will be made. There is great variation among regions about how to solve problems. Some areas thrive, while others falter and continue to see their environments degrade.

With so much attention on local governance, there are some failures in managing global problems such as climate change and pollution. Communities slowly realize they can't manage everything at the local level. Gradually, they begin to develop networks of communities, regions, even nations, to work on global problems. This works especially well in regions where there are shared assets, such as a river valley. Eventually, people figure out what works and what doesn't.


This is perhaps the most optimistic of outcomes, where a globally interconnected world leans heavily on technology and the marketplace to reward environmental innovation. Solutions are designed to benefit both the economy and the environment. People are required to pay for the pollution they create, and conversely, others are paid to clean and maintain watersheds or create energy from non-polluting sources. The innovation quickly expands to developing countries, and incomes there rise.

But many solutions depend on big, engineered systems that depend on business markets, which are inherently risky. Technical innovation can't solve all problems. Problems keep cropping up, and the challenge is trying to adapt to them more quickly.

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