CORVALLIS, Ore. - In the next century, the perils and challenges facing the Earth's environment should assume a status of importance once reserved for global wars or human health epidemics, a prominent scientist said today in a major report in the journal Science.
It's no longer acceptable to relegate environmental issues to the sidelines while topics such as the economy, health or national security make the headlines, said Jane Lubchenco, a distinguished professor of zoology at Oregon State University and recent president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In fact, Lubchenco said, some of the most pressing economic, health and national security concerns at the moment are actually environmental issues. A new "social contract for science" should be embraced by researchers to address the realities of the future rather than problems of the past.
"We can no longer accord the environment marginal status on our agendas," Lubchenco said. "The environment is not a marginal issue. It is 'the' issue of the future, and the future is here now."
Too many people, from the general public to global political leaders, have not yet realized that the problems facing the Earth's environment are mounting rapidly and greatly transcend those of the past. Altogether, these problems threaten Earth's most important role - and perhaps one most taken for granted - as a life support system, Lubchenco said.
It's not just global warming or ozone depletion, marine pollution or species extinction, or the increasing degradation of our forests, farmlands, fisheries and water supplies, Lubchenco said. It is the cumulative impact of all of those elements and many more - and the sooner we begin to face these problems, the more options we'll have to deal with them, she said. Humans dominate the planet as never before, not only by virtue of numbers but also the way we use energy, resources and generate waste.
As illustration of the severity of the problems, Lubchenco pointed to several facts:
- Between one-third and one-half of the land surface has been transformed by human action.
- The carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere has increased nearly 30 percent since the start of the industrial revolution.
- More than half of all accessible surface fresh water is put to use by humanity.
- About one-quarter of the bird species on Earth have been driven to extinction.
These changes in turn cause problems for humans, ranging from global warming to new diseases and loss or erosion of the ecological systems that provide human food, water, shelter, or fuel.
Lubchenco said in the report that it's time to redefine what constitutes an environmental issue. Global climate change will have direct and indirect effects on human health. The economy is more interlinked with the environment than is often appreciated. And environmental degradation has been clearly linked to ethnic strife, civil war, migration and insurgency around the world.
"A compelling example of the links between environmental degradation, human health and economics is provided by the provision of drinking water for New York City," Lubchenco said. "Water filtration and purification services once were provided for free by the Catskill Mountain watershed. A study shows it may now cost $1 billion to restore that watershed, or up to $8 billion in capital costs plus $300 million a year to perform the same function artificially.
"And that calculation only considers the cost of replacing a single function of this single watershed. It does not include the flood control, air purification, soil generation, timber, recreation, inspiration and education also provided by that forest."
As the public becomes more aware of the value of a healthy environment and the huge cost to replace any of its functions, it will begin to takes those values less for granted and to insist on their protection, Lubchenco said. And scientists must also do their part.
Historically, the United States has been a vigorous promoter of scientific research, dating back to the need to win World War II and subsequent conflicts, and address other health or technological needs at home. But the Cold War and Space Race are over, Lubchenco said, and scientists now must lead the way towards new applications of their skills to address challenges of the future.
"I propose that the scientific community formulate a new social contract for science," Lubchenco said. "It should recognize the human domination of the planet and be predicated upon the assumptions that scientists will address the most urgent needs of society, in proportion to their importance."
More fundamental and applied environmental research, interdisciplinary studies, and communication of the results to decision makers and the general public are all urgently needed, Lubchenco said. In a time of limited resources priorities will have to be set and scientists themselves should be active participants in creating those guidelines, she said.
"Too many of our current environmental policies and much of the street lore about the environment are based on the science of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, not the science of the 1990s," Lubchenco said. "As we enter the century of the environment, that has to change."