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In 2009, the world’s top earth scientists, led by Johan Rockström and Will Steffen, collaborated to establish a planetary boundaries framework, assessing nine key categories of planetary sustainability, in the landmark paper “A safe operating space for humanity.” They found that three boundaries were already crossed by human activities: biodiversity loss (later “biosphere integrity”), climate change and the nitrogen cycle.
In their 2015 update, they found land-system change (essentially, the destruction of forests, wetlands, and other habitats for agricultural and other use) had also crossed into unsustainable levels, as had the phosphorus cycle. They had not yet come to a consensus on how to define and measure safe boundaries for “novel entitities”—man-made chemicals and plastics—or atmospheric aerosol loading (pollution from particulates like soot).
In an update published yesterday in Science,1 the scientists found everything was worse, with “novel entitities”—man-made chemicals and plastics—and “freshwater change”—the disruption of water in lakes, rivers, and on land—crossing into unsustainability. There are now concrete scientific metrics for all nine categories, and six are now recognized to be well past the safe zone.2
The 28 co-authors have this message for humanity:
This update of the planetary boundaries framework may serve as a renewed wake-up call to humankind that Earth is in danger of leaving its Holocene-like state. It may also contribute to guiding the substantial human opportunities for sustainable development on our planet. Scientific insight into planetary boundaries does not limit, but stimulates, humankind to innovation toward a future in which Earth system stability is fundamentally preserved and safeguarded.
If this immense scientific effort is too hard on your feelings, however, check out this 1,700 word piece on competitive boat docking in the New York Times or this 8,000 word piece on monster trucks in the New Yorker and lose yourself in the glory of the Anthropocene. But don’t, if you value your sanity, read this 6,000 word piece on how AI is really all we should worry about in Vanity Fair.
“It has probably never been realistic to expect the fossil fuel industry to play a genuinely meaningful role in helping us decarbonize society,” Al Gore said in an interview with Andrew Freedman, criticizing the selection of UAE oil chief Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber as the president-designate of the upcoming climate summit in Dubai.3
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At 9 AM, the House Ways and Means Committee, which hands out earmarks, began its Member Day. It will be interesting to find out what, if any, climate resilience initiatives are supported.
And then at 10 AM the House Natural Resources oversight subcommittee, run by wingnut Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) began its hearing on the White House Council on Environmental Quality, chaired Brenda Mallory. Mallory was invited but did not attend; the witnesses include CEI’s notorious climate denier Marlo Lewis and former Trump CEQ official Mario Loyola, who is now at CEI. The Democratic witness is EarthJustice attorney Jill Witkowski Heaps.
Hearings on the Hill:
9 AM: House Ways and Means
10 AM: House Natural Resources
Oversight and Investigations
Oversight of the Council on Environmental Quality
Unfortunately, lead author Will Steffen died of pancreatic cancer early this year, before this update was published.
It’s understandable, then, if you personally identify with Douglas Adams’ parodically narcissistic twit Zaphod Beeblebrox, why your only response would be to plan to go to Mars.