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What are the long-term impacts of environmental problems and possible solutions?

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There are many long-term effects of environmental degradation, many of which have serious global consequences.

The most worrisome long term issue at the moment is global climate change. A rise in average global temperature of over 2 degrees centigrade is considered by most experts a tipping point. The effects of global warming include melting of polar ice caps and an accompanying rise in sea levels which will put at risk many coastal cities such as New York and Miami and possibly submerge some island nations. Changing global climate will also cause massive species migrations and extinctions, and change the latitudes at which many food crops are viable, leading to problems in many agricultural areas. Increased temperatures are also correlated with more frequent extreme weather events. The main way to solve this is to reduce carbon footprints to slow global warming.

Another major issue is the degradation of water supplies and depletion of aquifers. Many countries and regions are polluting and depleting aquifers by intensive farming. Two possible solutions are organic farming which does not pollute water as much and fair market pricing of water.

Finally, deforestation is a major issue contributing to climate change and soil erosion. This can be countered by providing economic incentives to preserve forests.

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The long-term impact of environmental problems are already evident. As average global temperatures have inched up as a result of natural phenomena and human activities alike, the ramifications of these changes in global temperatures – and it is always important to draw that crucial distinction between daily weather and long-term climatological patterns – are felt in the severity of natural phenomena such as hurricanes and tornadoes, as well as in the threat to habitats caused by rising sea levels. While this less of a consensus on many key issues involving the environment and climate change than many acknowledge, there is no question that changes are occurring, and that these changes do not bode well for mankind. For example, Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, stated the following in a 2013 interview with National Geographic regarding the connection between climate change, even at seemingly miniscule levels, and the severity of natural phenomena like hurricanes and tornadoes:

"The main climate change connection is via the basic instability of the low-level air that creates the convection and thunderstorms in the first place. Warmer and moister conditions are the key for unstable air. The oceans are warmer because of climate change.

"The climate change effect is probably only a 5 to 10 percent effect in terms of the instability and subsequent rainfall, but it translates into up to a 33 percent effect in terms of damage."

Similarly, the rising sea levels that are resulting from climate change pose an increasing long-term threat to the hundreds of millions of people around the world. It is estimated that around 44 percent of the world’s population lives within 100 miles of the ocean. With such a large concentration of population living along coastlines, the impact over the long term of rising sea levels, even when changes occur at seemingly inconsequential levels measured in millimeters, will be enormous [see on this issue “U.N. Atlas: 44 Percent of Us Live in Coastal Areas” and “Rising Waters: How Far and How Fast Will Sea Levels Rise?”]. It is already estimated that certain island chains will disappear, including the Marshall Islands, the population of which is around 72,000, and that perennial international donor basket-case Bangladesh is expected to see enormous devastation wrought by rising sea levels. In the case of the latter, one recent article includes the following estimate of the long-term consequences for that country of rising sea levels. Quoting scientist and climate change expert Dr. Atiq Rahman, the article states:

 “The country’s climate scientists and politicians have come to agree that by 2050, rising sea levels will inundate some 17 percent of the land and displace about 18 million people, Dr. Rahman said” [see: “Borrowed Time on Disappearing Land: Facing Rising Seas, Bangladesh Confronts the Consequences of Climate Change,” New York Times, March 28, 2014].

So, the long-term impact of environmental changes will be enormous and costly. The human toll in terms of uprooted populations that will be forced to migrate to other areas where resources are already stretched thin will be incalculable, and this doesn’t even address the health effects directly associated with industrial and vehicular emissions, such as incidences of respiratory and circulatory diseases.

The question, then, becomes one of potential changes to mitigate such problems. Unfortunately, the answers are too complex, because the causes of environmental change are many, and because two countries with the world’s largest populations, India and China, each of which has a population well-over one billion, are struggling to develop economically in order to support those enormous populations while emerging as global powers on the scale of the United States, Germany, and even Russia. Such developing nations tend to resent suggestions by other, more-developed nations that have already attained high standards of living at the expense of the environment, that they, the less-developed nations, refrain from the types of activities, such as use of coal-fired plants, that the others had already exploited for economic growth. In order words, what’s good for the goose, they argue, is good for the gander.

The recently-concluded United Nations Conference on Climate Change, held in Paris, France, in late-November/early-December 2015, did represent some measure of progress in attaining an international consensus on the need to address climate change, including calling for the elimination of so-called “greenhouse” gas emissions, those chemical pollutants that result from industrial activities and vehicle emissions, that are believed responsible for the climate change scientists are observing. 

With a global population estimated to rise from its current 7.2 billion to 9.6 billion by 2050, the challenge of reducing emissions is virtually astronomical.  Hopes that reliance on fossil fuels (e.g., the oil that lubricates machinery and, when refined, powers internal combustion engines) will diminish rapidly and globally will continue to clash with the imperatives many governments around the world feel to develop economically as soon as they can, and automobile usage shows no sign of decreasing to any appreciable degree, although cars are certainly more fuel efficient and operate more cleanly than in the past (Volkswagon’s thoroughly corrupt business practices notwithstanding; see, “Volkswagon: The Scandal Explained”).

If climate change is to be confronted in a meaningful way, then carbon and other emissions have to be curtailed. Additionally, deforestation, the mass destruction of dense forests that are essential for the production of the air we breathe, has to be stopped – another difficult challenge given the rate at which the world’s forests are being destroyed through slash-and-burn farming techniques and commercially-driven destruction of other forested regions for development and wood-exploitation purposes [see on this point, for example, “Ikea Under Fire for Ancient Tree Logging” and “The True Cost of Ikea: Logging Old-Growth Forests”]. Basically, consumers in wealthy countries have to be willing to forgo certain goods, while governments in less-developed nations have to be willing to eliminate the corruption that skews policies and actions and results in even more environmental destruction than is already occurring. People, on a grand scale, have to change the way they live, and the prospects of that happening are slim.

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