Living in a Global Environmental Emergency Ward: The Need to Address Problems with Science, Action, and Speed

As the 2023 summer came to an end eastern Canada was in the midst of another hurricane season. By then, three storms had barreled up the Atlantic coast, with post-tropical storm Lee hitting the region directly. These storms followed several months of unsettled weather, resulting in Nova Scotia being marred by wildfires, excessive rain, unusual and tragic flooding, and a slow recovery from the massive subtropical storm Fiona in 2022. Wildfires were continuing in Quebec and in western Canada (Alberta, British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories), causing people to evacuate and resulting in enormous loss of forests, homes, and other community infrastructure. These conditions made Canadians across the country, especially residents of Nova Scotia, much more aware of extreme weather events and the changing climate and wondering what the future holds for succeeding generations.

In times of reflection about such issues, the environment in general, and with my head in an excellent autobiography penned by a distinguished environmental biologist (Ehrlich, 2023), it appeared as though we are currently living in an environmental emergency ward. The patients (forests, fresh waters, coastal and ocean ecosystems, wildlife, our homes and communities) are coming in faster than they can be diagnosed, stabilized, and treated. Although the gravity of these events may be accentuated by the 24-hour news cycle, and then diminished by society’s short attention span, it is clear that the problems we face are real, serious, and a bit overwhelming upon serious reflection.

Throughout much of my career as a marine environmental scientist, I have felt that, based on the facts, humanity is in a dire environmental situation. This state was predicted by some but until recently (e.g., the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2023), it was not generally recognized. My first wake-up call to the challenges occurred as a young zoology graduate student involved in a global population conference in the Fall of 1968 (Regier & Falls, 1969). That conference alerted me to the population explosion happening throughout the twentieth century (3.45 billion in 1968, now 8 billion as of 2022) with many implications for society. Soon afterwards, I read some of the literature on global issues of concern (e.g., Ehrlich, 1968; Meadows et al., 1972; Walsh, 1967; Ward & Dubos, 1972), spurred on by Silent Spring (Carson, 1962) and earlier undergraduate lectures on potential climate change. Then, in my first job conducting fisheries research at sea, I saw firsthand the pollution, over fishing, and habitat damage in our Atlantic coastal waters. I continued studying and the rest is personal history with a career in the nascent federal department, Environment Canada, and in academia. It has been clear throughout this period of 50+ years that the list of environmental stressors is endless and set against a back drop of a greater number of people and accelerating global climate change.

On top of such problems, the demand for resources (minerals, oil and gas, lumber, food, chemicals) continues to grow. We are clearly placing the planet under huge stress; some are saying that we have overshot sustainability. What is our future with eight billion people all requiring a place to live, food, health care, security, and other essentials? As Paul Ehrlich and others have asked: are we at the point of continuing to extract more resources from the earth each year faster than we are returning to it? Will food famines, mass migrations, and wars eventually overwhelm us, in addition to the current major environmental concerns of climate change, loss of biodiversity, over fishing, environmental contamination, etc.? Are we at a critical tipping point for a livable planet? These crucial questions should engage us as citizens and scientists, be rigorously researched and discussed, and foster an interdisciplinary approach to solutions with all haste. Clearly, “time is short and the water rises” (Walsh, 1967).

I try to be optimistic. The good news is that many core problems are now recognized, are being well studied, and considerable efforts are being pursued to address them. Much effort is being directed at optimizing the science-information-policy-management interface. We should be especially thankful for the continued work of the United Nations and its many agencies and advisory groups. The UN is truly our Florence Nightingale in international efforts to care for people and the environment, and respond to ongoing crises (wars, famines, earthquakes, floods, mass migration). Great strides have been made globally to increase food production and distribution. Advances in medicine continue, at times seemingly miraculous as shown by the rapid production of novel and effective vaccines in the recent (and still ongoing) Covid pandemic. In addition, diplomacy continues on many fronts to diffuse confrontations and increase understanding and cooperation in this rapidly changing world. One should applaud the many people involved in this work so crucial for human welfare.

Nonetheless, the climate crisis is ongoing, which is recognized now by most governments and influential groups. Without any question, climate change is occurring. The world has finally awakened to this, as clearly shown by the recent COP 28 meetings in Dubai, another follow-up to the Paris Conference of 2015. The globe is warming at an unprecedented rate and will be a primary concern for the rest of the century (see Cassleman, 2023; Dahl, 2023; Gifford, 2015; Ripple et al., 2020; Rockstrom et al., 2023; Tortell, 2020; Vaillant, 2023; and the reports of the IPCC, e.g., IPCC, 2023). As well, pandemics will likely recur as history repeats itself.

Solutions for the above-mentioned problems have scientific, technological, and social underpinnings. Reliable, salient, and timely information is always required, hence the continued role of all the sciences and the communications work of research groups such as the EIUI, and local associations, e.g., the Nova Scotian Institute of Science. The problems that we face require discussion, collaboration, scientific and social understanding, and above all, timely decision making and action. In support of these efforts, it is crucial to engage citizens, working together, sharing reliable information, promoting science literacy, encouraging the engagement of young people, discussing key issues, and looking for solutions that work. Wherever we can, we must also engage the help, support, and action of governments at all levels. Collaboration is the only way to look after our environment, ourselves, and the future of the planet. Finally, perhaps you the reader can comment on this polemic, penned by a “despairing optimist” (Dubos, 1970) in a time of much change and concern for our future.



Carson, R. (1962). Silent spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Casselman, A. S. (2023, September). Canada in the year 2060. Maclean’s 136(7), 28-39.

Dahl, K. (2023, Winter). “Danger season” teaches lessons in climate resilience. Catalyst, 23, 22.

Dubos, R. J. (1970). Reason awake. Science for man. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ehrlich, P. R. (1968). The population bomb. New York: Ballantine Books.

Ehrlich, P. R. (2023). Life. A journey through science and politics. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Gifford, R. (2015, July 11). The road to climate hell. New Scientist, 227(3039), 28-33.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC]. (2023). Climate change 2023: Synthesis report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II, and III to the sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change [Core writing team, H. Lee and J. Romero (Eds.)]. Geneva: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. L., Randers, J., & Behrens, W. W. III. (1972). The limits to growth: A report for the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind. New York: Universe Books.

Regier, H., & Falls, J. B. (Eds.). (1969). Exploding humanity. The crisis of numbers. Toronto: Anansi.

Ripple, W. J., Wolf, C., Newsome, T. M., Barnard, P., & Moomaw, W. R. (2020, January). Viewpoint. World scientists’ warning of a climate emergency. Bioscience 70(1), 8-12., A correction was published: BioScience, 70(1), 100.

Rockstrom, J., Gupta, J., Oin, D., Lade, S. J., Abrams, J. F., Andersen, L. S., Armstrong McKay, D. I., Bai, X., Bala, G., Bunn, S. E., Ciobanu, D., DeClerck, F., Ebi, K., Gifford, L., Gordon, C., Hasan, S., Manie, N., Lenton, T. M., Loriani, S.,…Zhang, X. (2023, July 6). Safe and just earth system boundaries. Nature, 619, 102-111.

Tortell, P. D. (Ed.). (2020). Earth 2020. An insider’s guide to a rapidly changing planet. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers.

Vaillant, J. (2023). Fire weather: A true story from a hotter world. New York: Knopf.

Walsh, J. (1967). Time is short and the water rises. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., and Tower Publications Inc.

Ward, B., & Dubos, R. (1972). Only one earth. The care and maintenance of a small planet. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.


Acknowledgement: An earlier version of this post was published as Wells, P. G. (2023). Living in a global environmental emergency ward – the need to address problems with science, action, and speed [Editorial]. Proceedings of the Nova Scotian Institute of Science, 53(1), 1-4. A modified version with the same title was also published in The Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists Bulletin, 80(4), 16-17. (Winter 2023).


Author: Peter G. Wells

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