Laos in 2019, with the Mekong in flood. Image: By Basile Morin, via Wikimedia Commons
Climate physicians who have re-checked global heating say the Earth’s condition is critical, worsening as human demands soar.
Just 20 months after warning the world that climate change threatens “untold suffering” for millions, a team of scientists has checked the data and issued an even more urgent warning: all the evidence is that the climate emergency will get worse as human demands soar.
In 2019, more than 11,000 scientists from 153 countries examined what they called the planet’s “vital signs” and warned that, without action, disaster threatened.
Since then, another 2,800 researchers have signed their declaration and authorities in 34 nations have declared or recognised a climate emergency. And since then, 11 of those signatories have identified an “unprecedented surge in climate-related disasters”.
Among these have been devastating floods in South America and south-east Asia, record-shattering heat waves and wildfires in Australia and the western United States, an extraordinary Atlantic hurricane season, and devastating cyclones in Africa, South Asia and the western Pacific.
“Policies to combat the climate crisis should address the root cause: human over-exploitation of the planet”
“There is also mounting evidence that we are nearing or have already crossed tipping points associated with critical parts of the Earth system, including the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, warm-water coral reefs, and the Amazon rainforest,” they warn in the journal Bioscience.
The year 2020 was the second hottest in history. The five hottest years on record have all happened since 2015. Three greenhouse gases − carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide − set records for atmospheric concentration in 2020 and again in 2021: in April of this year carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a ratio of 416 parts per million. This is the highest monthly global average ever recorded. Governments need to act urgently to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“We also need to stop treating the climate emergency as a stand-alone issue − global heating is not the sole symptom of our stressed Earth system”, said William Ripple, an ecologist at Oregon State University in the US, who led the 2019 initiative and the latest study.
“Policies to combat the climate crisis or any other symptoms should address their root cause: human over-exploitation of the planet.”
The researchers tracked 31 variable measures to find new record highs and lows in 18 of them. These included:
- Forest loss rates in the Brazilian Amazon. These have increased in the last two years, reaching a 12-year high in 2020 with the loss of 1.11 million hectares of tree cover.
- The global count of ruminant livestock. This has now gone past 4 billion: on the scales, the mass of sheep, cattle and so on would outweigh all humans and all wild mammals combined.
- Global gross domestic product: this dropped by 3.6% in 2020, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but is heading again to an all-time high.
- Fossil fuel energy consumption fell during the pandemic months, along with carbon dioxide emissions: on present signs, these will rise and go on rising.
- Solar and wind power consumption rose by 57% between 2018 and 2021 but is still 19 times lower than fossil fuel consumption.
- Greenland and Antarctica: these went on losing record quantities of ice, while Arctic sea ice continues to fall to near all-time low levels each summer.
- Glaciers are now losing 31% more snow and ice per year than they did 15 years ago.
- The oceans: these continued to become ever more acid. Combined with higher sea temperatures, this threatens coral reefs upon which more than 500 million people depend for fisheries, tourism and storm surge protection.
The Bioscence study is only the latest in a series of increasingly urgent warnings from scientists, and from groups of scientists, who have looked at climate trends, the degradation of the planet’s ecosystems and the transformation of the Earth’s surface by human numbers and human demand.
Priority for basics
Separate studies have examined the so-called “tipping points” that could precipitate catastrophic climate change; have assessed the likelihood of an irreversible trend towards a “hothouse” Earth; and have identified a “ghastly” future for humanity in a world of ever-greater heat extremes, more violent storms and ever-rising sea levels.
And these too have all called for concerted international action to contain demand, alter economies and share resources more fairly. The latest study warns that the analysis reflects “the consequences of unrelenting business as usual”, and calls for profound changes in human behaviour, including a switch away from fossil fuels and the protection of the planet’s biodiversity − and of the wildernesses that absorb atmospheric carbon.
“All climate actions should focus on social justice by reducing inequality and prioritising basic human needs,” Professor Ripple said. “And climate change education should be included in school core curriculums around the world − that would result in greater awareness of the climate emergency and empower learners to take action.” − Climate News Network