Governments are failing to address the climate crisis, says a new study, which is based on 40 years of data on a range of measures. Another team said: Paris carbon-cutting pledges are “too little, too late”.
The alarming assessments came a day after U.S. President Donald Trump formally notified the UN of the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, triggering concerns of how other nations might react.
The new study warns: Without deep and lasting changes, the world is facing “untold human suffering”.
The scientists say they have a moral obligation to warn of the scale of the threat.
“We declare clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency,” it states. “To secure a sustainable future, we must change how we live. [This] entails major transformations in the ways our global society functions and interacts with natural ecosystems.”
There is no time to lose, the scientists say: “The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected. It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity.”
The statement is published in the journal BioScience (William J Ripple, Christopher Wolf, Thomas M Newsome, Phoebe Barnard, William R Moomaw, World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency, BioScience, biz088, https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biz088, published: November 5, 2019) on the 40th anniversary of the first world climate conference, which was held in Geneva in 1979. The statement is a collaboration of dozens of scientists and endorsed by further 11,000 from 153 nations.
The scientists say the urgent changes needed include ending population growth, leaving fossil fuels in the ground, halting forest destruction and slashing meat eating.
The new study, released on the day that satellite data shows that last month was the warmest October on record, said: simply measuring global surface temperatures is an inadequate way of capturing the real dangers of an overheating world.
So the scientists include a range of data, which they claim represents a “suite of graphical vital signs of climate change over the past 40 years”.
These indicators include the growth of human and animal populations, per capita meat production, global tree cover loss, as well as fossil fuel consumption.
Prof William Ripple, of Oregon State University and the lead author of the statement, said he was driven to initiate it by the increase in extreme weather he was seeing. A key aim of the warning is to set out a full range of “vital sign” indicators of the causes and effects of climate breakdown, rather than only carbon emissions and surface temperature rise.
“A broader set of indicators should be monitored, including human population growth, meat consumption, tree-cover loss, energy consumption, fossil-fuel subsidies and annual economic losses to extreme weather events,” said co-author Thomas Newsome, of the University of Sydney.
Other “profoundly troubling signs from human activities” selected by the scientists include booming air passenger numbers and world GDP growth. “The climate crisis is closely linked to excessive consumption of the wealthy lifestyle,” they said.
As a result of these human activities, there are “especially disturbing” trends of increasing land and ocean temperatures, rising sea levels and extreme weather events, the scientists said: “Despite 40 years of global climate negotiations, with few exceptions, we have largely failed to address this predicament. Especially worrisome are potential irreversible climate tipping points. These climate chain reactions could cause significant disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies, potentially making large areas of Earth uninhabitable.”
“We urge widespread use of the vital signs [to] allow policymakers and the public to understand the magnitude of the crisis, realign priorities and track progress,” the scientists said.
“You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to look at the graphs and know things are going wrong,” said Newsome. “But it is not too late.” The scientists identify some encouraging signs, including decreasing global birth rates, increasing solar and wind power and fossil fuel divestment. Rates of forest destruction in the Amazon had also been falling until a recent increase under new president Jair Bolsonaro.
Warmest ever October
The European Union (EU) has confirmed that last month was the warmest October ever registered, fast on heels of a record September and the hottest month ever in July.
Three-quarters of national commitments under the Paris climate accord to curb greenhouse gases will not even slow the accelerating pace of global warming, according to a report from five senior scientists.
“With few exceptions, the pledges of rich, middle-income and poor nations are insufficient to address climate change,” said Robert Watson, who chaired both the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the UN’s science body for biodiversity.
Robert Watson said: “As they stand, the pledges are far too little, too late.”
The scientists sounded a five-bell alarm in the peer-reviewed BioScience, noting that the world had failed to act on global warming despite the accumulation of evidence over 30 years.
“We declare, clearly and unequivocally, that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency,” the statement said.
“Failing to reduce emissions drastically and rapidly will result in an environmental and economic disaster,” said James McCarty, a professor of oceanography at Harvard University, and co-author of the analysis of voluntary Paris pledges to reduce carbon pollution.
Emissions of the gases warming Earth’s surface must drop 50 percent by 2030 and to “net zero” – with no additional carbon entering the atmosphere by mid-century – if the Paris treaty’s goal of capping warming at 1.5 to 2.0 degrees Celsius is to be met, the IPCC concluded last year.
But 2018 saw unprecedented global carbon pollution of more than 41 billion tonnes, two percent higher than 2017, also a record year.
Global temperatures have increased 1 C above pre-industrial levels – enough to boost the impact of deadly heatwaves, floods and superstorms – and are on track to rise another two or three degrees by the end of the century.
Just over half of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from power, industry, agriculture and deforestation – the main drivers of global warming – came from four countries last year: China, the U.S., India and Russia.
Accounting for 13.1 percent of the total, the U.S. has turned its back on the Paris deal.
“China and India could say ‘damn it, we’re going to demonstrate to the world that we are climate leaders’,” Watson told AFP.
“Or they could say ‘if the U.S. is not going to do it, we’re not going to either’. It could go either way.”
China has said it will lower carbon intensity and peak emissions by about 2030.
But the size and staggering growth of its economy will likely overwhelm such marginal improvements, the scientists said.
At 29 percent of the global total, China alone pumps out more CO2 than the next three nations combined, though about 13 percent of those emissions are generated by exports destined for rich nations, recent research has shown.
India, which is ramping up both renewable energy and carbon-intensive coal-fired power, accounted for seven percent in 2018, and Russia – which has made no pledge at all – added 4.6 percent.
The efforts of the world’s top four emitters were deemed “insufficient”, according to the report.
All told, nearly three-quarters of 184 registered pledges were judged inadequate to stop climate change from continuing to accelerate in the next decade.
All but a handful are unchanged since being submitted in 2015 and 2016.
Among major economic blocs, only the EU, with its 28 member states, got a passing mark.
“The EU is clearly in the lead in trying to address the climate crisis,” Watson said.
The emissions of the world’s poorest nations have been and continue to be negligible, but steps must be taken today to shape their energy futures.
“Sooner or later, they will start to grow, and we don’t want them to become dependent on cheap fossil fuel energy,” Watson noted. “They need financial and technical assistance.”
Under the Paris treaty, developing nations are to receive $100 billion annually from next year to help curb climate change and cope with its impacts.
Actions urgently needed
The scientists have set out a series of urgently needed actions, which include:
Use energy far more efficiently and apply strong carbon taxes to cut fossil fuel use.
Stabilize global population – currently growing by 200,000 people a day – using ethical approaches such as longer education for girls.
End the destruction of nature and restore forests and mangroves to absorb CO2.
Eat mostly plants and less meat, and reduce food waste.
Shift economic goals away from GDP growth.
The good news
“The good news is that such transformative change, with social and economic justice for all, promises far greater human well-being than does business as usual,” the scientists said.
The recent surge of concern was encouraging, they added, from the global school strikes to lawsuits against polluters and some nations and businesses starting to respond.
The scientists said:
“As the Alliance of World Scientists, we stand ready to assist decision-makers in a just transition to a sustainable and equitable future. We urge widespread use of vital signs, which will better allow policymakers, the private sector, and the public to understand the magnitude of this crisis, track progress, and realign priorities for alleviating climate change. The good news is that such transformative change, with social and economic justice for all, promises far greater human well-being than does business as usual. We believe that the prospects will be greatest if decision-makers and all of humanity promptly respond to this warning and declaration of a climate emergency and act to sustain life on planet Earth, our only home.”