Andrew Muir: Environmental tipping point near – at last world is listening

Wilderness Foundation head Andrew Muir is one of those low profile South Africans who quietly go about changing the world. He is a regular on global platforms, providing compelling evidence of the environmental challenges being wrought by man’s ignorance of how his actions are affecting Mother Nature. Andrew is also a regular invitee to the World Economic Forum in Davos, where we first met. He is always full of fascinating, if scary factoids about the biggest challenge facing mankind. We caught up at the WEF Africa summit in Cape Town. – Alec Hogg

Andrew Muir – from the Wilderness Foundation. How’s your WEF Africa been?

It’s been good. It’s a reality check for where we are as a community. There are issues that are being raised – particularly from a biodiversity and conservation perspective – which is important because these are big issues of our time.

What we were talking about earlier, is that nature is suddenly mainstream.

What has woken leaders and citizens up from around the world is the latest United Nations report on climate change. It demonstrated quite clearly how a million species are in danger of extinction in the next 50 to 80 years. That has huge impact on all our natural systems which we depend on for livelihood – as a society and as human beings.

The world is a complex place and species I would have thought – as a layman – are interdependent i.e. if a predator becomes extinct, you will have an explosion in the population of what it hunts. If you’re saying that many species might be disappearing, what is the impact going to be on the world?

There’s roughly 13 million species that make up for life on Earth – in every part of the living Earth – of which we humankind are just one. The challenge we have with warming is a million of those species are at risk of extinction. That’s nearly 15% of life on Earth. We are very dependent on biodiversity for life. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the soils – everything that allows us to eat and live. And so when 12 to 15% of biodiversity is threatened, that’s our life support system. That’s what’s so alarming. Whole eco-regions and ecosystems could crash and when they do, they have huge impact on communities. For example, glaciers. Over 500 million people in the world are dependent on glacier melt as the only source of water. In the next 20 to 30 years most of those glaciers are gone. So that’s just one example and there are unfortunately hundreds and hundreds. What’s happening now is the tipping point. We no longer talk about it. The world is concerned about the fires in the Amazon. But what about the fires in Siberia that have been raging for five months. What about the fires in Alaska that have been raging for three months, the fires in Vietnam.

Where do they come from? Is it an outbreak of arson?

I don’t think it’s arson. It’s because of the extended heat waves – if you recall there was that massive heat wave that we had this year. It’s accumulative. The five most hottest years on record have been in the last six years. So that buildup of fuel in terms of vegetation, is what is causing it. That’s why we see more and more of this kind of thing each year. But at the same time that the fires are raging, we have massive melting of the biggest glacier in the world – natural water off Greenland – which is pouring into our seas.

Donald Trump says this is all fake news.

Yeah well the good news is that he really is in the minority. The climatic experts and scientists as a whole – and over 99 percent of the community now is in agreement. The evidence is overwhelming. World leaders generally are also in agreement. We saw at the G7, the moment the fires in the Amazon became apparent, there was an outreaching of support because the world understands that climate change is primarily a problem of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We need to keep warming levels down to less than 2% which looks unlikely.

This is a very scary scenario that you’ve painted. But human beings can change direction. We can change the course of history. What’s being done if anything to do that?

A lot has been done and what’s very exciting for us is we need to think on scale, the likes of that we haven’t thought of before. If we can save and protect 30-50% of what we have left on Earth, if we can plant a billion trees a year – Ethiopia planted I think 300 million trees in a few days – if we protect 30-50% of what we have have have left, we can avert the extreme impacts of a warming world. For Africa and South Africans, the impact is on our coastal communities. We are going to require planning. Developed countries are already raising sea walls as sea levels arise. We’re not really doing that in South Africa. We need to be.

To close off with, something that many South Africans know about, is the great white sharks who used to love False Bay. They have moved away – partly because of the Orcas which are hunting them – but is something else at play here? Are you seeing migrations of fish in particular as a consequence of the changing world?

The oceans are obviously critical to our climatic systems around the world and they are warming. So when you have a warming cycle, species that can migrate and move to cooler air will do that. That happens amongst all species – particularly those that can’t adapt to the change. We’ve seen it with our bee populations and with many species over the last few years. That’s going to increase. Look at the hurricane off Florida and that coastline. The intensity of these environmental events – which are naturally occurring – increase with warming. Because there’s more water, the moisture makes them much larger and slower. The impact is more flooding and it causes a surge, really damages the coastline. When there is up to five millimetres more water in our sea every year, the surge damages more year on year. By 2100 we will have roughly a meter more water in our oceans than we have now. There are going to be areas that we’re going to have to let go, in Cape Town that kind of planning is already taking place, Durban and Port Elizabeth and other costal towns are going to need to do that too. Obviously we can’t develop in low lying areas. We need to look at these environmental events which are only going to be on the increase. South Africa water’s scarcity and storm surge is what we have to look out for now.

(Visited 30 times, 5 visits today)