Yale Dean Addresses Biggest Environmental Threats in New Book

Ten global environmental threats and how they can be addressed through treaties, new forms of government and international cooperation are examined in a new book, Global Environmental Governance.

Photo Credit: Island Press

The book,written by Yale Dean Gus Speth and political scientist Peter Haas outlines shortcomings of current efforts to address climate disruption, loss of biodiversity, acid rain, ozone depletion, deforestation, desertification, degradation and shortages of freshwater, decline of marine fisheries, toxic pollutants and excess nitrogen — all of which contribute to creating dead zones in the world’s oceans.

The book also tells how in recent decades nations, non-governmental organizations, scientists and multinational corporations have created an unprecedented set of laws and institutions intended to help solve large-scale environmental problems. Global Environmental Governance is the first in the Foundations of Contemporary Environmental Studies series produced by Island Press in collaboration with the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

“The sheer size of the growing human population, coupled with exponential growth in the world economy and its integration internationally has given environmental challenges not only a distinctly global cast but also a new urgency,” say the authors. “Whether we like it or not, we are now at the planetary controls and must make the hard choices necessary to address global environmental challenges.”

Accompanying the 20th century’s vast economic expansion were two categories of change of enormous consequence for the natural environment. First is the dramatic increase in consumption of the earth’s natural resources, the so-called “renewable resources” of forests, air, soils, fish, animal life and fresh water. The second change has been the exponential growth of pollution.

“It is the combination of high demands on renewable resources and large-scale pollution that has given rise to the major global threats we now face,” the authors say. Some of the points made in the book are:

  • The authors contend that despite three decades of efforts to reduce sulfur and nitrogen oxide pollution that produces acid rain, data from the United States indicate “little actual recovery of lakes and soils. It has become clear to many that further cuts in pollutants will be needed for full ecological recovery of these ecosystems.”
  • Scientists estimate that the ozone layer could recover by mid-century by observing bans on chlorofluorocarbons and other industrial and agricultural chemicals, but the “recovery process has hardly begun today.”
  • The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has increased by one third over the pre-industrial level due principally to the use of fossil fuels and to large-scale deforestation; it is now at its highest level in over 420,000 years. The result is global climate change, which the authors assert will result in a warmer and wetter planet, more floods and droughts, more severe hurricanes and cyclones, significant sea level rise. They say that by the end of this century, possibly half the American landscape will become unable to sustain their current plant and animal communities.
  • Deforestation, especially in the tropics where about two-thirds of our planet’s plant and animal species live, contributes to climate change by releasing carbon dioxide, desertification and other ecological stresses.
  • Among the many consequences of desertification are huge losses in food production, greater vulnerability to drought and famine, ecological refugees, loss of biodiversity and social unrest. 
  • About a billion people, one fifth of the world’s population, lack clean drinking water.
  • In 1960,  five percent of marine fisheries had been fished to capacity or over-fished; today that number is 75 percent.
  • Threats to human health from persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals are pervasive. The EPA recently reviewed data on 3,000 synthetic chemicals in commercial use. Over 40 percent had a complete absence of toxicity data.
  • Species loss today is estimated at as much as 1,000 times the natural or normal rate that species go extinct.
  • Excessive nitrogen production and over-fertilization has contributed to over 150 dead zones in the oceans.
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Dave DeFusco: david.defusco@yale.edu, 203-436-4842