In a year marked by unprecedented flooding, deadly avalanches, and scorching heat waves and wildfires, the climate emergency's enormous cost—whether measured in lost resources or human lives—is all too apparent.
Writing in BioScience (https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article-lookup/doi/10.1093/biosci/biab079), a group led by William J. Ripple and Christopher Wolf, both with Oregon State University, update their striking 2019 "World Scientists' Warning of a Climate Emergency" (https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biz088) with new data on the climate's health. The news is not good.
Although fossil fuel use dipped slightly in 2020, a widely predicted result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the authors report that carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide "have all set new year-to-date records for atmospheric concentrations in both 2020 and 2021." Furthermore, many tracked planetary vital signs, reflecting metrics such as sea level rise, ocean heat content, and ice mass, have also set disquieting records. However, there were a few bright spots, including fossil fuel subsidies reaching a record low and fossil fuel divestment reaching a record high.
"The updated planetary vital signs we present largely reflect the consequences of unrelenting business as usual," say Ripple, Wolf, and colleagues, adding that "a major lesson from COVID-19 is that even colossally decreased transportation and consumption are not nearly enough and that, instead, transformational system changes are required."
The authors suggest that only profound changes in human behavior can meet the challenges of the extant climate emergency. Among their other recommendations, the authors highlight the need for a significant global carbon price, the phase-out and eventual ban of fossil fuels, and the development of global strategic climate reserves to protect and restore natural carbon sinks and biodiversity. They also call for climate education to be included in school curricula, with the aim of bolstering climate awareness and encouraging learners to take urgently needed climate action.
Ripple, Wolf, and colleagues close with a reinvigorated call for global collaboration to drive fundamental change: "Policies to alleviate the climate crisis or any of the other threatened planetary boundary transgressions should not be focused on symptom relief but on addressing their root cause: the overexploitation of the Earth." Only by tackling this root cause, the authors suggest, will we be able to "ensure the long-term sustainability of human civilization and give future generations the opportunity to thrive."
Ripple, W.J., et al. (2021) World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency 2021. BioScience. doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biab079.