We’re getting environmentalism wrong, and it could lead to disaster.
Over the past couple of years, public concern over the oceans — specifically plastic — has been growing. After the BBC’s Blue Planet documentary series was released, people were more aware of the issues that plastics were causing in the ocean environment. We had been swept away by a tidal wave of environmentalism.
This was mainly due to the sixth and final episode of the series, in which emotive images of the interaction between plastic and wildlife were shown. In particular, the footage of a pilot whale, carrying its dead calf, shocked audiences in the UK and the whole of the world. As was explained by David Attenborough, the whale’s milk had been contaminated by microplastic toxins, which killed the calf as it drank the milk.
And, indeed, plastics and the microplastics that they break down into are extremely damaging to oceanic life. It is estimated that over 100 million marine animals die due to plastics and debris every year, with many more seabirds and land animals also suffering. If the issue can’t be solved, and the consumption of plastic continues to rise, we could be faced with an avalanche of extinctions, wreaking havoc in food chains and threatening fish stocks.
As such, the public became obsessed with plastic — understandably so — and began to demand that politicians do something about it. To the credit of the politicians, they have. For example, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Gove, has instigated environmentalist reforms such as banning certain toxic substances from plastic products, and attempting to restrict manufacturers.
However, this obsession with plastic pollution, which has been exacerbated by the new brand of politics, populism, detracts from the debate over climate change.
Let’s be clear — climate change is causing greater damage to the oceans than plastic, and could cause a huge ecological disaster on land and in the sea if nothing is done about it. Therefore, surely we ought to be prioritising the mitigation of global warming over plastic pollution.
In the marine world, rising temperatures are leading to widespread bleaching of coral, destroying coral reefs and the habitats of the 25% of marine life that rely on coral for their survival. That 25% is far, far more than the 100 million animals that die from plastic each year. It is estimated that there are at least 3,500,000,000,000 (3.5 trillion) marine animals in the sea at any given time, and a quarter of these face death if coral bleaching continues.
And that’s just the sea.
Already, climatic change is devastating many land species, such as polar bears, whose numbers are dwindling as the Arctic sea ice melts. If global temperatures rise by just one degree (Celsius), the Arctic ice is likely to completely disappear, potentially causing the extinction of polar bears, along with the millions of species that reside in the Arctic region.
It may only take an increase of two or three degrees to cause one of the largest ecological disasters ever, which could kill half of the planet’s species or even more. Potentially, if we can’t find a way to protect ourselves, humans could become extinct.
Yet, with the media as it is, climate change is seldom reported, while plastic pollution is hyper-focused on. Only after disasters does climate change get anywhere near the reporting it should, but soon after it is forgotten as coverage switches to the process of rebuilding and attaching blame to politicians.
Many people would consider themselves environmentalists. Many of these people, though, have forgotten about climate change because campaigning against plastic pollution is the easy thing to do. How about instead focusing on the greatest and most complex environmental issue of our time? Let’s make politicians finally do something about it, and begin to take the steps necessary to mitigate it.