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More than 11,000 scientists issue fresh warning: Earth faces a climate emergency

A new study identifies six key areas for critical changes, including addressing the planet’s swelling population.
Farmer Ash Whitney stands in the middle of a dried-up dam in a drought-affected paddock on his property west of Gunnedah in New South Wales, Australia, June 3, 2018.David Gray / Reuters file

An international consortium of more than 11,000 scientists is backing a study with a dire warning: Earth is facing a climate emergency.

The new study of how human activities have impacted the planet over the past four decades declares that harmful greenhouse gas emissions are rapidly rising, that governments are making insufficient progress in tackling the crisis, and that scientists have “a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat.” The findings were published Tuesday in the journal BioScience.

The research, led by ecologists William Ripple and Christopher Wolf at Oregon State University, identifies six key areas in which governments, businesses and members of the public can make critical changes, including addressing the planet’s swelling population, which has been a contentious topic in the climate debate.

The authors say family planning services and other social justice efforts that promote full gender equity should be enacted to help stabilize the world’s population, which is increasing by approximately 80 million people per year.

“Lots of scientists have steered away from talking about population because it’s controversial,” said Steve Easterbrook, director of the University of Toronto’s School of the Environment, who was one of the study’s signatories. “The policy recommendations the study makes about gender equity and making family planning available to bring down the birth rate — these are completely consistent with studies of what we need to do in response to climate change. I’m glad to see it given more prominence than it normally gets.”

The study says countries should replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources while also investing in technologies to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Governments should also end subsidies to fossil fuel companies and wealthier countries should support poorer nations in transitioning to cleaner energy sources.

In addition, nations need to sharply reduce emissions of potent pollutants such as methane, soot and hydrofluorocarbons, which are human-made compounds that are commonly used in air conditioning, refrigeration and aerosols, the study finds. The researchers say that reducing these short-lived pollutants could slow the planet’s short-term warming trend by more than 50 percent over the next few decades.

Climate change mitigation efforts should focus on protecting and restoring ecosystems such as forests, coral reefs, savannas and wetlands, which naturally absorb and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they added.

The study also says people should eat mostly plant-based food, which will improve health and lower greenhouse gas emissions from livestock, and economies should prioritize carbon-free initiatives and sustaining ecosystems, rather than focusing on GDP growth and the pursuit of affluence.

The study is based on 40 years of data that show how human activities have affected the planet, including changes in fossil fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, rates of deforestation and global surface temperatures. The authors warn that climate change is intensifying faster than most scientists predicted and is “threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity.”

Urgent action is needed, the researchers caution, “to avoid untold suffering due to the climate crisis.”

The report’s signatories include scientists from 153 countries, known together as the Alliance of World Scientists.

“I was concerned that we are now making the environment a political issue, and the environment should not be seen as a partisan issue,” Leslie Duram, a professor of geography and environmental resources at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, said of her motivation to endorse the study’s findings. “I want us all to realize that we, as human beings and inhabitants of this planet, need to come together to take action to help preserve the environment.”

The study does highlight some progress that has been made, such as a 373 percent increase in solar and wind energy consumption per decade since 2000. But the authors point out that in 2018, solar and wind energy use was still 28 times smaller than fossil fuel consumption.

The new study reiterates many of the same findings as seminal reports from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but does emphasize the need to address the planet’s swelling population, which has been a contentious topic in the climate debate.

Easterbrook said that part of his motivation to sign the study was to support the recent youth-led movements calling for climate action.

“There have been plenty of people willing to criticize these kids that perhaps they don’t understand the science, but it’s increasingly clear that a lot of the youth leading these protests understand the science much better than any of us,” he said. “It was important for us scientists to say: yes, the situation is that dire.”