Are we reaching the tipping point?

Brussels – July 2021

While pursuing master studies in tropical ecosystems and biodiversity at the Free University of Brussels (VUB/ULB), I engaged as an intern at the LICCI project because of my particular interest in sustainable management in coastal and marine socio-ecological systems. Specifically, regarding the local perspectives —which is the core research focus of the LICCI project— oriented towards climate change. During my intern stay, we experienced many important environmental phenomena caused by climate change, this article is a reflection of these previous events and how research projects, such as LICCI, can contribute to assessing the impacts of a changing world.

As Belgium is celebrating its national day on the 21st of July —commemorating the independence of the modern kingdom of Belgium— the ambience is loaded with an air of sadness since at least 30 persons have lost their lives in the last few days, and many more have lost their houses and belongings due to massive flooding in the east and southern regions of the country. King Philippe asked for a minute of silence for the loss and damage caused by such disasters, this minute that felt eternal, where we are confronted with the magnitude of extreme weather conditions. Belgium was not the only country to be affected by this massive flooding —with estimations of 150 litres of rainfall in 48 hours— the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany were also damaged, being the latter the most affected. The increase in flood risks for the northern hemisphere has been predicted and warned by scientists to policymakers since “dozens of years, stressing the need to adapt and prevent future emergencies.

Liege, Belgium; Photo Credit: Bernard Gillet, BELGA

These extreme weather conditions are not the first to occur in the present year 2021. Worldwide several environmental catastrophes have happened remembering us that we are facing a climate crisis. As the IPCC predicted, an increase in anthropogenic GHG emissions, provoking global warming, can derive from extreme weather conditions; just to remember the intense ongoing wildfires across the United States of America, or the floods happening in Uganda and China, the list can be fully extended.

Our impact on the environment is clear.
On one hand, while we are still trying to solve the world health conditions in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s relevant to remember that the origin of this virus can be tracked to habitat loss —enforced by land-use change— reducing the natural distribution of species, which increases the risk of pests and diseases transmitted to humans. Adding that climate change is also influencing the distribution of species reinforcing this effect. On the other hand, we are facing rapid environmental changes like massive flooding and extreme heat waves.

I can’t help to ask, are we reaching a tipping point? Are we reaching the end of a threshold? Where the world as we know is already changing right in front of our eyes, on which there is no turning back.
Yet, during this minute of silence to commemorate the loss, all united in a brief moment to feel sorry and the pain of others, we become reciprocal with each other. At that moment, I also have a sense of hope. This could be an opportunity to unite and take more than one minute to think of the impacts we, as a society, are causing to the environment. Already in western societies, social-environmental movements are becoming stronger — like Fridays for future or Extinction rebellion— and the awareness of a major policy involvement in developing an environmental agenda is more socially demanded. Though, is it enough to face the impacts of climate change?

Albeit, after the flooding, the risks of climate change became tangible and a wake-up call for many. In this critical moment, many volunteers showed up to help and participate in the rebuilding of the cities affected, revealing a growing willingness to help each other, to react and adapt to the challenges that we are facing. Still, my question remains: Why don’t go further? Why don’t take this as an opportunity to reshape the world and restore the environmental imbalance?
We are all, as humanity, sharing the same Earth. Thus, the impacts on the environment are affecting us all. But it’s the truth that some are more affected due to their close relationship and dependence on natural resources, such as Indigenous and local communities that are said to be the first affected by the unpredictability of climate change. In the sense of preventing these risks, not only a major reduction of greenhouse gases is needed, but to work together in cooperation to understand the impacts to different societies and their adaptations, to understand better how to face this major challenge for humanity. Projects such as LICCI are relevant in reducing this gap of knowledge on how indigenous and local communities face these impacts and adapt to them. Where this knowledge can be implemented in the development of management strategies that integrate local perceptions and needs. Thus, reaching the building of a more resilient and fairer world.

Now that we are all facing the consequences of climate change, we can all work together to help each other, like the volunteers in the flooding, let’s take this impulse and broaden our willingness to create a better world where all the worlds fit.
In the end, if we think of our existence since the formation of the earth, we are on the very last minute of the natural history of life, are we reaching the end of this minute? If we have the capacity of changing the environment to the point we are now, why not think of the possibility of changing the environment to a new equilibrium? And maybe we can make this minute last for hours, to days, to months, to years, to life.

Huran T. Drouet – LICCI Intern