The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has declared the reality of global warming "unequivocal." Scientists at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies have found that the temperature of the Earth is reaching a level "not seen in thousands of years" and increasing at the "remarkably rapid rate" of about 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade over the past 30 years. If current patterns of human activity continue, planetary biophysical systems could be destabilized to trigger what scientists describe as "abrupt or irreversible environmental changes that would be deleterious or even catastrophic for human well-being."
While human society evolved for thousands of years under one climatic state, a new set of "consistently warmer" climatic conditions are now taking shape. Air temperature over land and the oceans, sea surface temperature, sea level, and ocean heat are rising. Arctic sea ice, glaciers, and snow cover in the Northern hemisphere are declining. Global warming increases the chance of more extreme events like severe drought, torrential rain, floods, and violent storms in the years ahead.
Climate change is already taking a human toll. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in 2012, global warming drove significant erosion and flooding in 86 percent of the 226 Inuit villages in Alaska. Consequently, many are forced to leave their ancestral lands. Several South Pacific islands have already disappeared due to rising sea levels attributed to global warming. Other threatened island nations, such as the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and Tuvalu in the Pacific Ocean, are making plans to relocate their populations. The United Nations International Organization for Migration warns that the number of victims of disasters induced by climate change -- climate refugees -- could rise to as high as one billion people by 2050. Bangladesh, referred to as the "ground zero of climate change," is already experiencing severe flooding, destruction of agricultural land, and massive population displacement.
Heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions are projected to increase 50 percent by 2050 due primarily to a 70 percent growth in energy-related carbon dioxide (carbon dioxide) emissions. Methane, the second most potent greenhouse gas, traps heat more than carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Environmental Outlook estimates the 'global energy mix' in 2050 will not be significantly different from today: 85 percent of energy will come from fossil energy, slightly more than10 percent from renewable energy and 5 percent from nuclear energy.
There is an urgent need to change the patterns of global energy use. In this regard, the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to transport oil sands from Alberta, Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast is of tremendous significance regionally, nationally and globally. Approval of the pipeline would significantly expand oil sands production, which increases the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change and will intensify other threats to environmental sustainability. Approving the pipeline poses a serious threat to human well-being, particularly the health and livelihood of indigenous people in Alberta. In the absence of a plan for ecologically and socially responsible development of oil sands, short term needs of corporate growth and U.S. economic competition with China should not dictate approval of the Keystone pipeline.
If energy use and economic production and consumption are not balanced with regenerative activity, environmental and social conditions will worsen. However, if we respect planetary boundaries with regard to climate change (such as limiting atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million), the environment can be regenerated and humans can continue to flourish on Earth. Sustainable development calls for honoring the needs of the present while ensuring that resources are available for future generations.
The Iroquois indigenous people of North America (Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca) included 'seventh generation sustainability' in their constitution to ensure that every important decision took into account its impact on the well-being of seven generations into the future. The Iroquois lesson offers a clear path on the future of the Keystone pipeline: Ethical, ecological, and social criteria need to be integrated into decision making at the outset -- rather than after environmental and social degradation has already occurred.