11,000 scientists declare a climate emergency

  Last updated November 15, 2019 at 3:31 pm


Thousands of scientists around the world have issued a stark warning to take serious action to curb climate change – and mapped out what needs to happen.

Why This Matters: Time is running out. It’s time to listen and take action.

More than 11,000 scientists from 153 countries have supported a new paper which declares a climate emergency, and has warned that “untold human suffering” is unavoidable without deep and lasting shifts in human activities that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and other factors related to climate change.

The declaration is based on scientific analysis of more than 40 years of publicly available data covering a broad range of measures, including energy use, surface temperature, population growth, land clearing, deforestation, polar ice mass, fertility rates, gross domestic product and carbon emissions.

“Scientists have a moral obligation to warn humanity of any great threat,” said Dr Newsome from the University of Sydney, who was involved in writing the paper published in BioScience.

“From the data we have, it is clear we are facing a climate emergency.”

The signatory list of all 11,258 scientists can be found in the Supplementary Data.

A case of far too little, too late

In a second paper, released independently of the statement, a panel of climate scientists published by the Universal Ecological Fund (FEU) argue almost three-quarters of the 184 climate pledges made under the Paris Agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions are inadequate to slow climate change, and that some of the world’s largest emitters will continue to increase emissions.

Also: Current global warming is unprecedented in the last 2000 years

“Simply, the pledges are far too little, too late,” says co-author Robert Watson, former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The BioScience paper is the work of scientists from the University of Sydney, Oregon State University (OSU) and Tufts University in the US, and University of Cape Town, South Africa.

They argue that while some indicators related to human activities are broadly positive – such as declining birth rates and increased uptake of renewable fuels – most are not. Rather, they point to “profoundly troubling signs from human activities,” such as growing livestock populations, global tree cover loss, and higher carbon dioxide emissions.

“Despite 40 years of major global negotiations, we have continued to conduct business as usual and have failed to address this crisis,” says ecologist William J Ripple, who led the group with OSU colleague Christopher Wolf. “Climate change has arrived and is accelerating faster than many scientists expected.”

Together, the two papers paint a damning picture of our inability – in some cases unwillingness – to deal with the reality of climate change.

Thomas Newsome in the field with a dingo. Climate Emergency declaration

Dr Thomas Newsome says that scientists have the obligation to warn the general public of threats. Credit: Graeme Finlayson.

Six immediate steps for change

The paper identifies six areas in which immediate steps should be taken to slow down the effects of a warming planet.

Energy: Implement massive conservation practices; replace fossil fuels with low-carbon renewables; leave remaining stocks of fossil fuels in the ground; eliminate subsidies to fossil fuel companies; and impose carbon fees that are high enough to restrain the use of fossil fuels.

Short-lived pollutants: Swiftly cut emissions of methane, soot, hydrofluorocarbons and other short-lived climate pollutants; doing so has the potential to reduce the short-term warming trend by more than 50% over the next few decades.

Nature: Restore and protect ecosystems such as forests, grasslands, peatlands, wetlands and mangroves, and allow a larger share of these ecosystems to reach their ecological potential for sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas.

Food: Eat more plants and consume fewer animal products. The dietary shift would significantly reduce emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases and free up agricultural lands for growing human food rather than livestock feed. Reducing food waste is also critical – the scientists say at least one-third of all food produced ends up as garbage.

Economy: Convert the economy to one that is carbon free to address human dependence on the biosphere and shift goals away from the growth of gross domestic product and the pursuit of affluence. Curb exploitation of ecosystems to maintain long-term biosphere sustainability.

Population: Stabilise a global human population that is increasing by more than 200,000 people a day, using approaches that ensure social and economic justice.

In the ensuing decades, multiple other global assemblies have agreed that urgent action is necessary, but greenhouse gas emissions are still rapidly rising. Other ominous signs from human activities include sustained increases in per-capita meat production, global tree cover loss and number of airline passengers.

Also: Humans are reducing land’s ability to sustain us

There are also some encouraging signs – including decreases in global birth rates and decelerated forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon and increases in wind and solar power – but even those are tinged with worry.

The decline in birth rates has slowed over the last 20 years, for example, and the pace of Amazon forest loss may be starting to increase again.

“Global surface temperature, ocean heat content, extreme weather and its costs, sea level, ocean acidity and land area are all rising,” Professor Ripple said.

“Ice is rapidly disappearing as shown by declining trends in minimum summer Arctic sea ice, Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and glacier thickness. All of these rapid changes highlight the urgent need for action.”

“Governmental bodies are making climate emergency declarations,” they write. “Schoolchildren are striking. Ecocide lawsuits are proceeding in the courts. Grassroots citizen movements are demanding change, and many countries, states and provinces, cities, and businesses are responding.”

The FEU report highlights some of the political realities, however.

“Based on our meticulous analysis of the climate pledges, it is naive to expect current government efforts to substantially slow climate change,” says co-author James McCarthy, from Harvard University in the US.

The report says only 35 countries – 28 of them in the European Union – will reduce emissions by at least 40% by 2030.

China and India, the top emitters, will reduce emissions intensity but their emissions will increase, and the US, the next on the list, has reversed key national policies to combat climate change, the authors say.

Almost 70% of the pledges rely on funding from wealthy nations for their implementation, they add.

Australian scientists have backed the findings.

Professor Caroline A Sullivan is Establishment Director of the National Centre for Flood Research at Southern Cross University

Bioscience has provided the opportunity for the climate crisis to be discussed once again, and 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.

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?

Does the human race really want to get into the state where we have fouled our own nest and can only survive if we flee to hostile and distant alternative planets?

Would it not be better for our future to be one of prosperity and equity, so we can go forward into our galaxy as a strong and powerful species which is a force for good?  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.”

Dr Linden Ashcroft is a Lecturer in climate science at The University of Melbourne

“This article adds to the roar from all fields of science that climate action needs to be taken now.

The succinct summary shows clearly how much has changed in our environment, population, and energy sectors in the last 40 years. While there are some good signs, the majority of the graphs in this article are going up, when they need to be going down.

The impressive signatory list contains at least 350 Australian scientists, with more ecologists and medical researchers than climate researchers. This suggests to me these experts are reacting to the devastating impacts they see in their everyday work.

Breaking down our choices into six areas will be confronting for some, but the reality is that we need to make big changes—and quickly—to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Australia is not immune to this: in the last 40 years we have already seen an increase in heatwaves, a decrease in rainfall across parts of our south, and a lengthening of the bushfire season.”

John Church is a Professor in the Climate Change Research Centre, University of New South Wales

“The data presented here is a cause for great alarm at the pace at which we are trashing our planet. But they also reveal signs of hope for the future. We know what to do, and we have demonstrated we have the tools. If we can only muster the will we can still prevent dangerous climate change.”

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About the Author

Nick Carne
Nick Carne is the Editorial Manager for the Royal Institution of Australia.

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