Report warns Earth may be approaching an environmental tipping point

Aleli Balaguer/Staff

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A group of 22 researchers from around the world are warning of imminent and irreversible changes to the Earth’s biosphere resulting from a combination of human population growth, mass consumption and extensive environmental destruction.

The researchers’ report, published Thursday in “Nature” magazine, was headed by Anthony Barnosky, professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley. As a collaboration among researchers from a multitude of disciplines, the report emphasizes the possibility of a biological state shift.

Although today’s conditions are caused largely by human activities, episodes of widespread ecological change may occur similar to changes that took place during the transition from the Ice Age 20,000 years ago, according to the report.

“It really will be a new world, biologically, at that point,” Barnosky said in a statement published on the UC Berkeley NewsCenter. “The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including, for example, fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations.”

Campus environmental science, policy and management professor John Harte, another author of the report, has been doing research in Colorado, where he has seen the concept of tipping points in action. In a field experiment that has been running for the last 22 years, Harte has documented how the plant diversity of alpine meadows can be rapidly altered if exposed to constant warmth.

“The evidence in the paper comes from looking around at the world where people have come to see patterns and changes that are disrupting the natural order,” Harte said. “However, the paper is focused not just on individual ecosystems but on the whole planet. We’re looking at a global state shift.”

The report suggests a number of critical areas in which research should be focused to improve policy and guide legislation.

Campus Vice Chancellor for Research Graham Fleming said a development that has subsequently sprouted from the report is The Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology.

The focus of the initiative will be to forecast possible ecological and biological changes and understand how species have evolved, how fast they have evolved and where they have lived, according to Fleming.

“With funding from the Moore and Keck foundations, we’ll have over 100 scientists from a range of departments, including integrative biology, environmental science, policy and management and molecular cell biology as well as the College of Engineering working on this initiative,” Fleming said.

“We call for developing as fast as we can the capacity to predict what these changes will look like,” Harte, who will be leading one of five teams working under the initiative, said. “We can then develop policy recommendations that can contribute to the formation of legislation.”

Neo Martinez, another researcher who worked on the report, is head of the PEaCE Lab based in Berkeley and also emphasizes the importance of finding “root causes,” such as the reasons why humans make decisions like buying Hummer vehicles or giant houses.

“We can emphasize research solutions, but we also need social change,” Martinez said. “We need scientific change to bring attention to the public and individuals to realize and make better choices.”