Over the last two years, we’ve seen irrefutable evidence  that climate change and the extinction crisis are real and are causing significant social turmoil. There has been both direct disruption, such as the increase in extreme weather events, and indirect, such as the rise in more dramatic events driven by biodiversity loss which increase the likelihood of zoonotic diseases which pass from animals to humans, such as COVID-19. It’s now hard to imagine a day without a headline about the environmental emergency. Especially the pressing rise in global temperatures – with the world on average having already heated by 1.0°C since the pre-industrial era. To put this into context, at a temperature rise of 1.5°C, it is estimated that 14% of the world’s population will be hit by severe heatwaves once every five years. At 2°C, this number jumps to more than a third of the global population.  The biodiversity crisis is often overlooked relative to climate change, but is perhaps even more pressing; one million, or a quarter of all known species , are threatened with extinction by 2050.
Over the last two years the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the interconnected relationship between reduced biodiversity and destruction of forests, and increased likelihood of future pandemics and infectious diseases.
The human cost of these events is huge, COVID-19 has been incredibly destructive with an estimated 4.9 million deaths. To put some context around this it is broadly equivalent to the estimated five million excess deaths  that are already directly related to temperature change each year, which is likely to be a vast underestimate relative to the full impact of climate change. In addition, there is also an interlinked social emergency directly linked to the increase in carbon emissions and the associated habitat and biodiversity loss.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated in 2012 that nearly 13 million people die each year  from environmentally related health risks, a number which is highly likely to have risen since. The WHO currently estimate around 99% of the world’s population  live in places where air quality levels exceed WHO guideline limits; 1 in 5 premature deaths  are linked to air pollution. In 2020, one in four people  lacked access to safe drinking water in their homes, and more than two billion do not have access to enough safe and nutritious food  or essential medicines . Equally as alarming is the prevalence of micro plastics. For those people fortunate enough to have access to adequate food and water, it is estimated the average person is consuming five grams of plastic each week , roughly equivalent to a credit card.
Western thinking often separates human health from the health of our environment. However, in the absence of healthy ecosystems, we no longer have access to critical resources for a healthy functioning society, such as breathable air, drinkable water and hospitable weather. The environmental crisis is also a social crisis, a fact that is often overlooked. Any solutions which benefit the environment should also be designed to have a positive impact on the people who live in it.
Are we thinking about the problem in the right way?
Around the 2008 global financial crisis, the term “Black Swan” was popularised in Nassim Taleb’s book of the same name. A Black Swan is a rare and unpredictable outlier event that is high impact, with the pro-active action typically focusing on building resilience. In the mid-2010s, this thinking evolved to speaking about Black Elephants, which was developed by Vinay Gupta and Dougald Hine . These are a cross between a Black Swan event and the proverbial “elephant in the room”. A Black Elephant is a problem which is well known and understood and yet no-one wants to address. This is despite the awareness that one day it will have devastating Black Swan-like consequences. This can lead to claims of a Black Swan event when, in fact, it is a Black Elephant that has been ignored. More recently, the Black Jellyfish has become another favoured term. A Black Jellyfish event is also a high impact phenomenon, which becomes more prevalent by positive feedback and has the potential to escalate rapidly. For example, the continuing rise in ocean temperatures, and corresponding acidity levels, are creating conditions for jellyfish blooms to become more and more common. These blooms have forced shut downs at coastal power plants around the world, including Oskarshamn  plant in Sweden (the site of one of the world’s largest nuclear reactors, in 2013).
A jellyfish is a particularly apt animal to represent climate change in this context, given the painful sting caused by their long tentacles, alongside their dramatic effect on the world’s water systems. The Black Jellyfish analogy is also particularly suitable to describe the accelerating negative social impact of climate change and biodiversity loss in terms of the global pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic itself was an event that many have attempted to pass off as a Black Swan. Such events have, though, become more likely due to environmental changes. In fact some sort of pandemic event was widely predicted prior to COVID-19, but it wasn’t addressed. Indeed pandemics have occurred on a regular basis throughout history, but the possibility increases with deforestation and biodiversity loss. Deforestation leads to increased interactions between humans and wildlife. A loss in biodiversity usually results in a few species replacing many — and these species tend to be the ones hosting pathogens that can spread to humans.There are clear parallels here with climate change, in the sense that it was a risk that was known about, but not addressed. The heat-trapping properties of carbon dioxide have been known since as far back as 1856, when Eunice Foote  presented her short paper on how carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would cause global warming. President Lyndon B. Johnson had detailed reports written on climate change in 1965, when climate scientists’ summarised the risks associated with rising carbon pollution.
So how do we solve the problem?
Against the enormity of the problem described above, taking action can often feel meaningless and futile. The IMF’s recent report showed that the fossil fuel industry benefited from $5.9 trillion of government subsidies of in 2020 . That is $11 million every minute. However, there’s a popular Chinese proverb that says: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today”. And this seems particularly apt here.