A team of scientists called for urgent measures to tackle the climate emergency in a new paper published in Scientific American on Wednesday.
The same group released the “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency” letter from last year, co-signed by 13,784 scientists from 156 countries, that said their peers had a “moral obligation” to warn people about the threat of climate change, rather than sit back and let the data speak for itself. This new missive rings the same general notes, outlining a series of recommendations and policy proposals informed by a year of analyzing climate trends.
“People on planet Earth have never been through anything like this before, this major climate change that we’re facing right now,” William J. Ripple, distinguished professor from Oregon State University, lead author of the paper, and director of the Alliance of World Scientists, told Global Citizen.
“It’s really important that we act now because everything we do will help us later to some degree,” he said. “Even though we’ve missed some great opportunities and, yes, there is going to be significant human suffering as we move into the future, I feel we should do all we can now because it's a gradient. It’s about how much we can do now that will have a direct benefit later.”
The letter focuses on six interlocking areas for action: shifting energy production, curbing short-lived pollutants, investing in nature-based solutions, transforming food production, developing carbon-free economies, and limiting population growth.
Halting climate change depends, first and foremost, on keeping fossil fuels in the ground.
The scientists call on countries to invest in renewable sources of energy, end subsidies for fossil fuels, and prohibit new fossil fuel projects. The only thing standing in the way of this transition is political will — wind and solar power are now more price-competitive than fossil fuels and massive public works campaigns could dramatically scale their availability.
Although greenhouse gas emissions fell over the past year, it was only because countries grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic and economies shut down. Analysts expect emissions to rebound next year and continue rising until 2030 because of the global dominance of the fossil fuel industry. The letter warns that no country is on track to achieve the targets of the Paris climate agreement.
“We’re just getting into this climate emergency and it’s counterintuitive to be doing new fossil fuel extraction projects at this time,” Ripple said.
Abandoning fossil fuels is connected to the letter’s next area of focus — stopping “short-lived pollutants.” Unlike carbon dioxide, which lingers in the atmosphere for decades, short-lived pollutants such as methane, black carbon, hydrofluorocarbons, and others dissipate relatively quickly after being released into the air. This doesn’t mean their impact is less severe. On the contrary, methane, for instance, warms the atmosphere nearly 30 times more than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.
These pollutants come from heavy industry, poorly managed landfills, livestock, the refrigeration industry, and elsewhere. By reducing them, countries can both limit global warming and clean the air that people breathe. Currently, more than 8.6 million people die each year from air pollution, and exposure to air pollution has been linked to worse COVID-19 outcomes.
Nature-based solutions, central to any climate strategy, account for the letter’s third pillar. Forests, mangroves, wetlands, and other ecosystems can absorb tremendous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, an analysis from the Nature Conservancy found that restoring ecosystems can get country’s more than a third of the way toward achieving the Paris climate agreement. The letter highlights the promise of the Bonn Challenge, which calls for the restoration of 350 million hectares of forests and lands by 2030.
Phoebe Barnard, the chief science and policy officer of Conservation Biology Institute and co-author of the letter, emphasized the importance of conserving existing landscapes and marinescapes.
“We cannot continue to transform or destroy land if we want any chance to rein in our runaway climate crisis,” Barnard told Global Citizen. “If we cannot figure out how to use land and reuse land much more efficiently, without gobbling up more, then we are doomed.
“Restoration is a really powerful way to take the most efficient, effective low-cost methods of restoring our planet and climate to heart, but for me, ecosystem restoration is never going to be as good as simply stopping the destruction of lands, wetlands, and river systems,” she said. “We have to focus on protecting ecosystems to halt land transformation.”
She added that old-growth trees can absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than tens of thousands of newly planted saplings. Funds should therefore flow toward the preservation of rainforests, such as the Amazon, that have been ravaged in recent years.
Some countries are ramping up conservation. An estimated 15% of land and 7% of marine spaces are shielded from exploitation, and the UN calls on countries to conserve 30% of the planet within the next decade.
These efforts go hand-in-hand with transforming global food production. By shifting away from industrial agriculture and livestock farming, countries can mitigate climate change, rehabilitate degraded ecosystems, improve global food security, and ensure people have healthier diets.
The most ambitious proposal in the document involves moving beyond carbon-based economies. This essentially means embracing a degrowth economic model, in which countries phase out the global focus on economic growth and instead prioritize human and environmental welfare. Otherwise, the planet is facing ecological collapse — humanity needs 1.75 Earths to maintain current levels of resource consumption into the future.
“We can’t work our way out of this massive problem with technology,” Ripple said. “This is just way too much for planet Earth to handle, in terms of our consumption rates and our exponentially growing human population.”
This brings us to the last recommendation: limiting population growth by empowering women, expanding access to health care, and improving educational opportunities.
“The world is growing by 200,000 people per day, and a big part of the population problem is we’re moving more and more people into the middle class,” Ripple said “That’s good for individual quality of life, but there’s huge environmental and climate impacts of that.”
If a degrowth model were adopted, however, population growth would be less of a concern because overall consumption levels would drop.
Scientists have been playing catch-up in recent years. The prevailing consensus for a long time has been that dispassionate science would eventually guide public policy. That hasn’t happened, so now scientists are taking it upon themselves to force the conservation forward.
“We’re not just scientists dispassionate about the data,” Barnard said. “We’re also parents, mothers, lovers, sisters, and activists in our communities. We’ve all felt that the writing is so clearly on the wall that we cannot stand by. We have to help mobilize humanity.”