11,000 scientists declare climate emergency, outline a plan of action
With so many dire climate warnings pouring in, it’s understandable to feel like it’s too late to do anything about it, but a new report by an international team of scientists has a more optimistic tone. Although the report declares a climate emergency and has been signed by thousands of scientists, it also outlines six steps that politicians, businesses and individuals can take to mitigate the worst effects of climate change – provided we act sooner rather than later.
Authored by scientists from the University of Sydney, Oregon State University, the University of Cape Town and Tufts University, the report analyzes over 40 years of data. Along with shifts in surface temperatures, which are a fairly standard measurement for these kinds of reports, the new study also examines other changing factors like carbon emissions, polar ice mass, land clearing, deforestation, energy use, human population growth, fertility rates, and gross domestic product (GDP).
Based on this analysis the team has declared a climate emergency. And it’s not just the authors themselves – over 11,000 scientists from 153 countries have signed their names to the declaration, calling themselves the Alliance of World Scientists.
“Scientists have a moral obligation to warn humanity of any great threat,” says Dr. Thomas Newsome, an author of the study. “From the data we have, it is clear we are facing a climate emergency. While things are bad, all is not hopeless. We can take steps to address the climate emergency.”
The report goes on to outline six critical areas that need to be addressed in order to stave off the worst case scenario of climate change: energy, short-lived pollutants, nature, food, economy and population.
Unsurprisingly, the main point of the energy plan is to switch from fossil fuels to renewable sources as quickly as possible. That means leaving remaining stocks right there in the ground, no matter how tempting they may be. This can be complemented by actively removing more carbon from the atmosphere – through both new technologies and by restoring natural carbon sinks like forests.
The systems that support fossil fuels will also need to be carefully dismantled. That means government subsidies of fossil fuels will need to be eliminated, carbon prices need to be raised to discourage their use, and wealthier countries need to help less-wealthy ones through what may be a difficult transition.
Carbon dioxide isn’t the only dangerous greenhouse gas – others, like methane, soot and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) don’t stick around as long but can do even more damage. By reducing emissions of these short-lived pollutants the team predicts that we could cut the short-term warming trend by as much as 50 percent. At the same time, crop yields should increase with the better air quality.
Protecting nature seems like another no-brainer, but it is something we humans as a species are largely failing to do – in fact, it appears Earth is heading towards a sixth major extinction event, and it’s all our fault. Natural ecosystems like phytoplankton, coral reefs, forests, savannas, grasslands, wetlands, peatlands, soils, mangroves, and sea grasses are all under threat. Preserving and restoring these would not only benefit the organisms who call them home, but help us naturally sequester more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
In particular, existing forests need to be preserved, while reforestation and new forest plantations need to be undertaken at huge scales. The team estimates that these steps alone could help account for up to a third of the emissions reductions set out in the Paris Agreement.
The Western-style diet is environmentally damaging. It’s well known that growing animals like cows for food is a major source of methane emissions. Reducing the global consumption of meat and other animal products is key to cutting those short-lived pollutants, as well as freeing up more land for reforestation or other natural uses. Emerging technologies like lab-grown meats and better plant-based alternatives could help societies with a taste for meat make the adjustment. And of course, food waste needs to be drastically curbed.
Perhaps one of the least obvious points on this list, economic factors can be a huge drain on the environment. Currently economies rely heavily on fossil fuels, which is largely behind the reluctance to move away from these damaging technologies.
The team says that economic goals as a whole will need to be shifted, away from relentless GDP growth and the pursuit of wealth, towards prioritizing basic human needs and reducing inequality.
And finally, the human population needs to be stabilized. The population on Earth grows by over 200,000 people per day or 80 million per year, and the UN estimates that it will peak at 10.9 billion people by the end of the century. This is unsustainable.
The study says that there are policies that have been shown to be effective in reducing birth rates, such as providing easy and global access to family planning services, and improving education access – particularly to girls and women.
According to a large recent study, average birth rates globally have dropped by half since 1950 – down to less than two births per woman. But the population continues to grow, due to momentum gained in previous decades and a declining death rate thanks to better health care.
All up, the study echoes sentiments like those in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which urged that rapid and unprecedented changes will need to be made to all facets of society to limit the worst effects of climate change.
The report has attracted praise from other scientists who aren’t signatories and who aren’t involved with the study.
“The fact that over 11,000 scientists have been a signatory to this warning must surely be seen by all as an indication of the seriousness of this problem,” says Caroline Sullivan, Professor of Environmental Economics and Policy at Southern Cross University. “This is not just some kind of anti-oil propaganda, or a message from greenie tree huggers – these are thousands of scientists from across the world from the whole range of disciplines relevant to this issue.
“The comprehensive analysis provided in this paper leaves no room for doubt, as the evidence is all there. In the face of this, what we need to ask ourselves is, ‘what kind of future do we want?’, and ‘how do we get there?’ If that is our choice, then surely we must take heed of this warning, to act on how we generate and use energy, how we feed ourselves, and how we manage our social and economic trajectory into the future."
The study was published in the journal Bioscience. Co-author of the paper, Dr Thomas Newsome from the University of Sydney, discusses the work in the video below.