Scientists Name Top 25 Environmental Threats of the Future
Image courtesy of Clinton Steeds via flickr
More forecasting and critical evaluation, less dawdling on existing, well studied issues: that, in a nutshell, is the main recommendation made by a broad coalition of 35 scientists, environmentalists, journalists and policymakers, who were asked to put their collective brainpower together to draw up a list of the 25 future environmental threats that might arise in the U.K. up to 2050 (but could just as well apply to most countries around the world). The overriding message of their report, published in the latest issue of the Journal of Applied Ecology (sub. required), is that policymakers and researchers need to rely more on horizon scanning (i.e. forecasting) to identify the gaps in knowledge and policy that could predispose the country's biodiversity to future risks. They criticize the short-sightedness of research administration and funding, which, they claim, often pushes scientists into competing for short-term interests at the cost of exploring new questions and which cripples communication between researchers and policymakers. This report, which helped foster the type of interdisciplinary communication the authors recommend, cites many of the same villains we've come to learn about over the last few years, including nanotechnology, geo-engineering and genetic engineering. Here's a partial list:
1. Nanotechnologies2. Invasive potential and possible ecosystem impacts of artificial life and biomimetic robots3. Unintended consequences of pathogens developed by modern biotechnology methods4. Facilitation of non-native, invasive species through climate change and ‘invasional meltdown’5. Frequency of extreme weather events6. Geo-engineering the planet to mitigate the effects of climate change7. Step change in demand for food and hence pressure on land for agriculture8. Reduction of coldwater continental shelf marine habitats9. Nature conservation policy and practice may not keep pace with environmental change10. Adoption of monetary value as the key criterion in conservation decision-making
As they themselves recognize, many of these "threats" may turn out to be little more than hype (or, at best, minor issues); forecasting, by definition (especially in scientific circles), is a tricky game as there will always be missing pieces and because our scientific understanding will never be fully up to snuff. While many of these threats are likely to come to the fore over the coming decades (if not earlier), they might still constitute only a small fraction of the problems we will likely be dealing with in 2050.