SUSTAINABILITY
06/11/2019 8:33 AM AEDT

Scientists Declare A Climate Emergency, Warn Of ‘Untold Human Suffering’

“Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to ‘tell it like it is,’” says a new report signed by over 11,000 academics.

More than 11,000 scientists from 153 countries have declared a climate emergency, warning in a new report that “untold human suffering” is “unavoidable” without drastic action.

The climate crisis reaches an “emergency” level, according to the study, when “business as usual” — the current action being taken (or not) by society, corporations and governments — is not enough to match the scale of what’s needed to address the situation. 

In order to avoid a “hothouse Earth” where runaway temperature increases beget further warming, the scientists call for immediate action to overhaul the way we live ― from agriculture to education.

“Rather than piecemeal solutions, we need transformative change in the way society functions and interacts with nature,” William Ripple, a professor at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, told HuffPost in an email. Ripple, one of the study’s authors, called for a holistic solution that also addresses social justice issues and honors “the diversity of humans around the world.”

The scientists’ warning comes one day after the third anniversary of the Paris climate agreement officially going into effect on November 4, 2016, and one day after President Donald Trump officially began the process to withdraw the U.S. from the accord. 

The study, which is published in the journal BioScience by researchers from the University of Sydney, Oregon State University, the University of Cape Town and Tufts University and supported by thousands of other scientist signatories, does not mince words. 

It opens by stating, “Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to ‘tell it like it is.’”

“We declare,” it continues, “... clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.”

The scientists’ warning echoes the landmark 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which said urgent and unprecedented action is needed to avert catastrophic impacts. The report made headlines around the world for its warning that there were only 12 years left — now roughly a decade — to act before the world crosses the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming target set out as an aspirational goal under the Paris climate agreement.

Since the release of the IPCC report, climate change action has been propelled into the spotlight. Millions of young people around the world have taken to the streets on multiple occasions to strike for the climate. Governments in 23 countries including the U.K., Portugal, Canada, and Argentina have declared climate emergencies — meaning decision makers recognize that climate impacts are already occurring and acknowledge they need to take action to address it. Lawsuits against fossil fuel companies are ramping up. Some news outlets are calling it a “crisis.” And presidential candidates vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination have released comprehensive plans for how they’d tackle climate change.

Guillermo Guterrez Carrascal/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
A young girl taking part in the climate strike in Madrid, Spain – one of the many climate strikes that took place all around the world in September 2019. 

“I think we are entering into a social tipping point in our fight against climate change,” said Ripple, who is hopeful that the world will take the necessary action to tackle this issue. “The urgency of the conversation seems to be ramping up for governments, businesses, and individuals.”

Tuesday’s report builds on this single year of sustained attention; several years of mounting impacts including heat waves, flooding, wildfires, and hurricanes; and decades of science sounding the same alarm bell. “Climate change is accelerating faster and is more severe than expected,” said Ripple. “It is threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity. Time is running out for us to act.”

Because of this reality, the scientists argue that factors beyond just global emissions and temperature need to be addressed if society is to properly tackle the climate crisis.

Simply focusing on rising temperatures fails to “capture the breadth of human activities and the real dangers stemming from a warming planet,” the study states.

After analyzing more than 40 years worth of public data on everything from energy consumption, emissions, and the Earth’s surface temperature to land use, fertility rates, and GDP, the researchers laid out six areas where “humanity should take immediate steps” in order to slow down the impacts of a warming world: energy, short-lived pollutants, nature, food, the economy and population.

In order to swiftly replace fossil fuel resources with low-carbon renewables and other cleaner sources of energy, the world needs to leave all remaining oil, coal and gas reserves in the ground, the report states. Fossil fuel subsidies — estimated to be worth $4.7 billion globally — should be eliminated and carbon prices should be escalated, it says.

Reducing the amount of short-lived pollutants ― such as methane, black carbon (also known as soot), and hydrofluorocarbons (commonly found in air conditioning) ― can quickly have an impact on rising temperatures, according to the report. Unlike carbon dioxide, these types of greenhouse gases pack a powerful, but fast, climate punch. Methane, for example, is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, though carbon dioxide — and its ability to trap heat — lingers in the atmosphere a lot longer. The scientists estimate that cutting down on these emissions could potentially reduce the short-term warming trend by more than 50% over the next few decades.

The report also recommends that we “carefully pursue” negative emissions, both by using carbon capture and storage technology, and by enhancing natural systems to support carbon sequestration. Those efforts include protecting everything from phytoplankton and coral reefs to sea grasses, soils and savannas.

In addition, protecting forests as well as encouraging reforestation and aforestation (creating a forest where there previously wasn’t one) could achieve up to a third of the emissions reductions needed by 2030 under the Paris Agreement, the report states.

The scientists call for eating more plant-based foods and less meat, along with adopting more sustainable agriculture practices like minimal tillage (which helps store more carbon in the soil) and “drastically” reducing food waste.

The overarching theme of these ideas is the need to become carbon-free. “Our economics needs to account for the actual impacts of development and resource extraction on the well-being of humans and the preservation of the environment,” said Ripple. The world needs to move away from valuing GDP growth, the study argues, and instead prioritize “sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being by prioritizing basic needs and reducing inequality.”

Finally, global population must be stabilized and “ideally gradually reduced,” the study says, noting that this must be done “within a framework that ensures social integrity.” This will require initiatives that make family planning available to all, achieving “full gender equity,” and making primary and secondary education a “global norm.”

“Now is the time to have a much broader debate on how we fight climate change,” said Ripple. “The scientists that signed this paper are standing ready to assist policy makers and the public in a science-based transition to a sustainable and equitable future.”

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