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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Assessing the Planet’s Future

Air Date: Week of

More than a thousand scientists from around the globe worked together to examine the state of the world's natural resources and human health. They also made predictions for drastic increases in population and building construction. Host Steve Curwood speaks to Professor Steven Carpenter who authored the Assessment.


CURWOOD: The United Nations is expected to evaluate the East African drought in February, but much of the long-term forecast has already been compiled by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. For the past five years a team of 1,300 scientists around the Earth has taken a look at how the world’s ecosystems will do between now and the year 2050 as global population swells to nine billion. We spoke with University of Wisconsin Professor Stephen Carpenter, who is a fresh water expert and lead author of the assessment.

CARPENTER: When we looked at the ecosystem services, the things that people get from nature for free to sustain their lives, we found that many of those are deteriorating and the drivers are getting worse.

CURWOOD: So what do we get free from nature?

CARPENTER: Things like food, forest products, air purification, fresh water.

CURWOOD: The important things in life.

CARPENTER: Things that sustain life, that’s right.

CURWOOD: Talk to me about food. What’s the outlook for food over the next, well, until the year 2050?

CARPENTER: Well it’s mixed. But, for example, the dry lands of Earth, the vast prairies of Central Asia, the Americas, and Sub-Saharan Africa, are very fragile. Two billion people live in those regions. Most of those two billion people depend on the local land, local farms, for food, and those regions are extremely vulnerable to climate change and land degradation.

CURWOOD: And your specialty, water, looking ahead to 2050, what does that look like?

CARPENTER: Well, the demand for water is going to be larger than the supply. And water is an area where we have a lot of opportunity to use innovative technologies and innovative institutions to do better. And, in fact, the rosy message of the assessment is that we now have access to policies and practices that could significantly improve many ecosystem services by 2050.

CURWOOD: As scientists, you’ve come up with some policy solutions. For example, in your report you suggest that we stop giving rich farmers subsidies. How would that work?

CARPENTER: The magnitude of agricultural subsidies globally is enormous, many billions of dollars, and it occurs in poor countries as well as in rich countries. The agricultural subsidies create market distortions by essentially propping up wasteful practices. For example, here in the United States we spend a lot of money on agricultural subsidies, and a side effect of that spending is enormous damage to water quality, land condition, and in some cases air quality. And since we’re paying the agricultural sector anyway, why not turn those subsidies to good environmental outcomes for society?

CURWOOD: How will governments be convinced to make these changes? I mean, how do you change human behavior?

CARPENTER: Well, I think that that’s essentially a question about politics, and all politics is local, and the Millennium Assessment is playing out in different ways in different countries. There has certainly been a lot of interest in the United States from NGOs, from corporations, and from Congress in the report. I know from colleagues in Europe and in Asia that there’s enormous interest there.

I was just in China in December, and China is investing in a nationwide assessment of its ecosystems services that’s modeled on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment but focused particularly on China, just as one example. And China’s an enormous country; more than 20 percent of Earth’s population and an enormous consumer, so their interest, I think, is a very good sign.

CURWOOD: Stephen Carpenter is professor at the University of Wisconsin and was lead author of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Thank you, sir.

CARPENTER: Thank you very much.



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