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Opinion: Combating the climate crisis is our ethical responsibility to all life on earth

Our actions have ripple effects across all ecosystems
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ELENA MOZHVILO/UNSPLASH
ELENA MOZHVILO/UNSPLASH

All life on Earth is interconnected. Since the beginning of time, evolution has caused our ecosystems to create complex and diverse environments held in a crucial balance. Due to this high degree of connectivity, any disruptions in the natural order can have far-reaching consequences. Because of this, the effects of climate change are never restricted to one issue in any given area. 

We aren’t immune to the consequences of our actions either — we rely on and are supported by nature just as much as any other animal. For instance, bees pollinate nearly 90 per cent of the crops that feed us globally and nearly 80 per cent of plants worldwide. However, due to habitat loss, pollution, pesticides, and climate change — among other factors — bee populations are declining globally.

Therefore, it can be said that by ignoring the climate crisis, we are passively putting both our lives and the lives of future generations — not to mention all other life on earth — in danger. In order to avoid harming ourselves and others, we have an ethical obligation to take action against climate change, and be wise about our actions wherever and whenever possible.

Environmental ethics is a complex and emerging field that deals in part with the ethics of sustainability and climate change, and debates what our environmental responsibilities should look like. The field has come up with several ethical questions, including how much human-induced climate change should be tolerated, whether the lack of scientific certainty about the consequences of this change is reason enough to not take remedial action, and whether developed nations have a heightened responsibility to act before less developed nations.

Effects of the climate crisis on humans

Human health has always been impacted by weather and climate, but the extremes brought on by the climate crisis are particularly threatening. As air temperatures rise, our atmosphere will be able to hold more and more water, increasing the number and severity of extreme rain events. A 2018 article published in the journal Nature concluded that hurricanes are becoming more severe as rainfall increases by as much as 10 per cent and wind speeds by 25 miles per hour. 

Sea levels are also continuing to rise as glaciers melt and add freshwater to the oceans. If all of Greenland’s ice sheets melted, global sea levels would increase by 20 feet. At that point, a significant portion of Florida and New York City would be flooded. At present, 145 million people live at three feet or less above sea level, and 10 per cent live less than 30 feet above current sea levels. 

Not only is flooding in itself destructive, it can also damage wastewater treatment and storm water disposals, heightening the risk of spreading waterborne diseases caused by bacteria and other pathogens. 

On the opposite end of the weather spectrum, heat and drought events are also on the rise and intensifying. In 2018, California experienced a series of deadly wildfires worse than any that preceded it. Not only are such fires exacerbated by climate change, but they release a huge amount of carbon into the atmosphere which adds to the greenhouse effect while contributing to ground level pollution.

Our actions have ripple effects

Systems ecology is a branch of ecology that recognizes and investigates the interconnectedness of all organisms in an environment by relying on mathematical modelling and computer programming to analyze these relationships. An easily conceptualized example of the ripple effects of climate change can be seen when examining food webs, and looking at both the direct and indirect consequences of climate change on a species.

As an example of a direct consequence, rising temperatures contribute to the decline of polar bear populations as sea ice melts, reducing the size of their habitats and restricting their access to hunting grounds. 

On the other hand, indirect consequences can still show significant effects when they cascade down the food chain. With the decrease of sea ice, ice algae populations which live in nutrient-rich pockets of ice also decline. This leads to the decline of zooplankton, who rely on ice algae for food; Arctic cod, who feed off zooplankton; and seal populations, who rely heavily on Arctic cod. This finally comes back to again impact polar bears, who rely on seals as one of their main sources of food.

Risks of ignoring the climate crisis

Rising temperatures and changing ecological conditions can also exacerbate and hasten the impacts of spreading pathogens, parasites, and diseases. This can potentially be very harmful for human health, as well as for the productivity of agriculture and fishery practices. 

The most recent example of such an impact is the ongoing pandemic; scientists have been able to directly link COVID-19 to the effects of climate change. The alteration of environmental conditions such as temperature, carbon dioxide levels, and cloud cover created conditions favourable for a variety of bat species to thrive, providing opportunity for novel coronaviruses — SARS-CoV-2 among them — to emerge. 

Interestingly, COVID-19 is not the first infectious disease known to have been caused by climate change. The World Health Organization has been aware of the link between climate change and epidemics for years, and it is using this knowledge to advocate for the creation of policies aimed at slowing down climate change and repairing climate damage where possible. 

Experts believe that a unified government response to both the current pandemic and climate change would benefit public health, the economy, and help preserve biodiversity. Since both crises lead to environmental degradation and are impacted by human actions, aligning our responses to both is an effective way of bringing about lasting change.

There are numerous ways in which climate change is having, or will imminently have, potentially disastrous effects for both humans and biodiversity, only a few examples of which have been mentioned here. Nevertheless, it is clear that in order to act in our own best interests, we have to approach the climate crisis not only as a threat to ourselves, but as a threat to all life on earth.