Humans Are Now More Vulnerable To Changes of Environment than Ever Before
In the last century, the human population has grown from 1.6 billion to approximately 6 billion (UN). As a result, there will be an enormous expansion in economic activities, human settlement, infrastructure development, industrial grown, as well as technological development. Today, human activities continue to increase pressure on earth resources in other developmental areas. However, this unprecedented growth has led to increased societal vulnerability to impulses of environmental change. Over the years, humanity has experienced the consequences of overusing and misusing earth resources; this includes natural disasters, biological outbreaks, technological accidents, and degradation of the life support system. In recent years, the consequences of such events have been increasing dramatically. Thus, today, the human being is more vulnerable than ever before due to environmental changes. As such, appropriate assessment of vulnerability is required to provide a guideline to combat current environmental change to help raise public awareness of the risk the human face.
Climate and Environmental Change Overview
The collective environmental impact of human beings has already changed some of the world’s biological and physical system. Concern for a possible implication of the major shift of earth biosphere has been recorded in many pieces of literature. According to Pyhälä, the world is living in a geological era where the earth does not dominate human beings any longer; instead, human action dominates the earth system (24). Climate and environmental change have been used interchangeably in numerous literature. Climate change refers to the change of weather pattern in a region for a period (Fletcher 153). Therefore, weather fluctuation over a short period, such as El Nino, does not represent climate change. Climate also refers to changes caused by human activities; as such, the term has also become synonymous with global warming (Nwankwoala et al. 225). On the other hand, environmental change is the cause of the change by the occurrence of climatic factors such as light wind, temperature, rainfall, soil mechanism and edaphic factor that occurs as a result of human action of other natural phenomena.
Notably, change is the norm and necessary. However, some environmental systems maintain themselves’ in a ‘dynamic equilibrium,’ such that the system can only withstand a set disturbance by the limited amplitude of change (Lu et al. 2). If this disturbance is exceeded by extreme events, through human activity or natural events, the system is either reset or changed. Markedly, natural phenomena such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods only occur in a particular location, which is inherently unstable and therefore cannot be controlled. However, humans’ ability to modify, control, and manipulate the natural processes has increased, and it is now believed that human being can control nature (Nijhuis). As such, humans have developed an attitude of overlooking natural dynamics, thereby inhibiting the natural processes. Collectively, the changes brought by natural occurrence and human activities has made humanity more vulnerable to desertification, natural disasters, increased soil erosion, poor water quality, increased draught rates, and many other disasters. With an increased level of population in the last few decades, lethal health conditions will be widespread, food insecurity will increase, more disasters and epidemic will occur, and land degradation will intensify.
Vulnerability Definition and Measures
Vulnerability to environmental change is a sophisticated and vibrant phenomenon that involves physical and social aspects. According to Dinda, vulnerability is the extent to which environmental change can harm the ecosystem (106). However, according to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it is a predisposition through which one is affected adversely; therefore, it includes not only the extent of exposure to climatic conditions but also the sensitivity and adaptive capabilities (Stocker et al. 159). In essence, exposure to changes in the environment includes the rise of temperature, drought, sea level rise, drought, and other factor associated with global warming. Sensitivity is the degree of sensitivity to environmental changes on geographic conditions as well as socio-economic factors such as population and infrastructure. Adaptive capability is the ability to cope with changes in environmental extremes. In essence, the adaptive capability depends on the access to physical resources, technology, institutional capabilities, and distribution of resources. These are the key factors in determining the vulnerability of climate and environmental change and can all be used to assess and reduce the existing threats.
Vulnerability is often expressed through indicators and indexes, which are the signals that measure the simplicity or a complex reality of a particular event. In scientific literature, vulnerability indexes have been useful in setting the targets and standards, which allow pundits to monitor changes of the environment while allowing comparison on the region or other entities (Enríquez-de-Salamanca 88). Thus, the indices help recognize the alternative dimension while conveying the issues that are at a higher risk. However, studies of the vulnerability of environment are rare, and the current focus has been to develop indexes on environmental quality, national wellbeing, and sustainable development (Ludena et al. 2). Most recent literature share an explicit concern for vulnerability related to human welfare. Notably, evolving insights on environmental quality and sustainable development are essential. Nonetheless, given current global changes, and the commonality of disasters, the vulnerability of environment changes is now more prevalent than ever. Thus, the current vulnerability indices are not suitable to guide international climate policies because of the mentioned deficiencies.
The impact of the environment on humanity depends on the shock on the environmental systems, where life interacts with different abiotic components found on the atmosphere (Gitz and Alexandre 19). Systems can be embedded in one another; therefore, one system can be a subset of another major system. For instance, food is an environmental system, but it can be classified as a food production system, food security system, or biophysical system. From a socio-economic perspective, the sensitivity of the system to environmental hazard determines how people will be affected. Therefore, the ultimate vulnerability of a particular population can be modulated by the constitutional characteristics of the capacity of the population to adapt (Menezes 4). Thus, some population and geographical regions may be more vulnerable to the impact of environmental change than other populations. In other words, the elaborate make-up of the society and its susceptibility to future loss determine its level of vulnerability. In this paper, vulnerability is examined on the elementary systems and other factors that affect the entire global population; including food, water supply, human health, and land degradation.
Vulnerability to Water Supply and Quality
Sufficient water quality and quantity for consumption, agriculture, transportation, energy, and other uses is a critical need for any society. The World Health organization highlights that poor water quality leads to increased mortality. Primarily, contaminated water leads to the transmission of infectious diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, typhoid, and dysentery, and could also lead to severe effects on malnutrition. Increased access to water resources has been improved, rising from 76 percent in the 1990s to more than 91 percent in 2015 (Ritchie and Max 3). As such, in 2015, many nations had enhanced water access by more than 90 percent in all households. However, areas such as sub-Saharan African, Latin American, and East and South Asia recorded access below 80 percent. A recent report from the United Nations indicates that global water needs are yet to be met to more than 1.2 billion people. Another 1.6 billion people face complete water shortage, and in some countries, they lack the necessary resources to access water. The report states that by 2025, more than 1.8 billion people will have absolute water scarcity. Also, two third of the world’s population will be under stress due to lack of clean water (The United Nations). While this shortage is associated to a corresponding increasing population rate in the last century, the water resources in various part of the world are more vulnerable to changes of the environment experienced in the last few decades.
Availability of water resources continues to decreases significantly today more than ever, thereby aggravating rivalry for water between ecosystem, agriculture, and settlement. The Fifth Assessment by IPCC notes that more than 93 percent of the impact associated with climate and environmental change is more felt in the water sector (Field 1142). Current climate changes will continue to lower raw drinking water quality because of numerous interacting factors (MacAlister, and Nidhi 134). Notably, the availability is often associated with precipitation and runoff; this means that an increase in global average temperature means an increase in high latitude and a significant decrease in dry areas. As the temperature rise, snowpack declines in many regions, and glacier melts at unprecedented rates, which makes water less available in areas that depend on melting snow and glacier. Other areas are also likely to be affected because when rain falls, more precipitation is expected. However, in extreme precipitation events, flooding increases, and more damage is seen rather than an increase in the water supply. According to Sturm et al., more than one billion people in developing countries depend on snowmelt for water resources and the distribution of snow (3534). Glacier melting results in rising sea levels, leading to increased ocean temperature, thus threatening people living in coastal regions across the globe.
Furthermore, developing countries, such as the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America are more vulnerable to the impact of climate change on water availability because of their limited adaptive capacity and their lack of ability to recover from loss (Satterthwaite and Diana 145). The impact of environmental change in these regions is exacerbated by rapid urbanization and chaotic development in cities, especially in areas where water demands exceed the supplies. Primarily, the interaction between climates, urbanization, development, and the population is making humanity more vulnerable to environmental change. However, discussion of vulnerability seems to underestimate the importance of the drivers of environmental change and assessment has concentrated on water-related disasters such as droughts and flooding. However, most of the discourses have failed to account present and future scenarios. Thus, understanding the vulnerability must be compounded under all scenarios to determine the most suitable way to reduce current risks brought by environmental change.
Vulnerability to Food insecurities
Food is central to human life, and its system is intertwined with societies, economies, culture, and the ecosystem. Notably, for the last few decades, tremendous gains in food production and efficiency of the food system have reduced the food insecurities and as a result, contributed to economic growth globally. According to the World Food Program, more than 200 million people across the globe have been lifted out of hunger in the last two decades. Additionally, the prevalence of malnutrition has been reduced from 40 percent to 20 percent. Despite this progress, according to the World Bank, more than 720 million people are still experiencing hunger, and more than 793 million are undernourished (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations –FAO). Africa has the highest prevalence for undernourishment, affecting more than 21 percent of the population (FAO). The situation is also affecting South America, where the prevalence of undernourishment increased from 4.7 percent to more than 5 percent in 2017 (FAO). One of the most significant impacts directly implicated on the current food insecurity is the changes in the environment.
Food insecurity is difficult to quantify, but it can be conventionally defined in terms of access, availability, and use of the food and the stability of these elements over a long period. Environmental change is a menace to attaining food security, especially in the most insecure areas. According to Richardson et al., the vulnerability of food insecurity increases in all emission scenarios, and the distribution of the vulnerability today is more severe than ever experienced before (327). The author presents a method that assesses the relationship between environment change and food security in developing countries. The index demonstrates that the current direction of environment change is worrying. Current climate drivers are significantly exacerbating food security, and without any viable mitigation efforts, the worldwide population may lack enough food in the next few decades (Nelson et al. 300). In particular, agriculture has a complex vulnerability to environment change. Today, farmers all over the world are struggling to adapt to the changing season and a significant drop in rainfall level because of climate and environmental changes, which increases the frequency of natural processes. Today, production of staple crops has been severely threatened, and future changes are likely to exacerbate this vulnerability.
Vulnerability to Human Health
Environment changes pose a serious threat to the vulnerable population. As noted, the rising greenhouse emission driven by human activities has led to increased temperature, extreme weather events, changes in precipitation, and rising sea levels. Collectively, these changes affect human health because they impact the food, water source, quality of air, and overall interaction of with the natural environment. As the environment continues to change, the risk of developing infectious diseases continues to increase. According to Kim, every person regardless of where they are located is vulnerable to health impacts from the changes in the environment (418). In particular, the effects of environmental change on the food supplies lead to civil conflict over declining resources. Equally, agriculture in international level undergoes changes in harvest, which alters the production of staple food crops. Changes in food supplies lead to reappearance of famine in less developed countries and increase vulnerability to developed countries.
The degradation of the environment combined with lifestyle changes in developed countries is contributing to increased rates of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and other public health problems (Berry et al. 2626). Air pollution from industrial emission, burning of fuels, and car exhaust are other pollution sources killing millions of people yearly; most of them dying from cardiovascular diseases, respiratory damage, and cancer. The emergence and resurgence of some of the most infectious diseases in recent years is also linked to environmental change. For instance, West Nile virus and Lyme diseases are caused by environmental change. Additionally, recent assessments from the World Health Organization found out that vector-borne pathogens experienced in various part of the world are re-emerging due to the interaction of different environmental factors. The primary driver for this increase is the increased change in land used patterns as well as human population density. In addition, an increase in other infectious diseases such as Malaria and diarrhea are related to contaminated food and water sources. The impact of environmental change in the past was not as prevalent as it is today. Even with current effort to reduce environmental impact, the stressors of environmental changes continue to impact individuals, community as well as, the entire health system.
Vulnerability to Land degradation
The land is a critical resource for producing food and conserving biodiversity and storing carbon. Notably, the land is one of the most significant natural capital assets. Some communities in the world cannot exist if not for their land, especially in poor rural livelihood. Thus, land vulnerability from the effect of the environment is as important as other aspect discussed above. According to Sterling and Agnes, between 1985 and 2005, the human being has cleared and converted more than 70 percent of the grassland, 50 percent of the Savannah, 27 percent of the tropical forests, and more than 45 percent of the deciduous forest for agriculture. The recent advent of technology has increased this expansion, but as a result, significant land degradation has been experienced. While human activities play a significant part in land degradation, current changes in environment exacerbate this degradation. As a result, a significant reduction of socio-ecological resilience has been experienced. Today, world dryland are the most vulnerable. Each year, it is estimated that more than 24 billion tons of good soil are lost because of climate change (Watts). In both rural and urban areas, land degradation poses an enormous risk especially to food security and increases the vulnerability of other agro-ecological systems
Resource scarcity and environmental degradation jeopardized humanity existence today more than ever before. However, the vulnerability can be reduced if the public is empowered, and awareness is created about the impact of the environment on human existence. Vulnerability depends not just on the exposure but also the coping capacity of the population exposed. Therefore, when developing international policies to help reduce the vulnerability of environmental change, it is important to consider not just the intricate source of vulnerability but also the ability to cope. The paper has demonstrated that current vulnerability indices are not appropriate to guide international environmental policies because of the numerous deficiencies. Globally, humanity faces extreme vulnerability to water sources, food security, human health, and land degradation. The effects of these aspects are more prevalent than has been ever experienced in human history. The vulnerability to humanity makes it more important to slow current environmental change processes while shoring up the adaptive capabilities to all population.
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