Dr. William Ripple isn’t one to sugarcoat the climate crisis. After all, he penned the infamous 2017 letter that popularized the idea of a climate emergency.
The original message, supported by tens of thousands of scientists, urged countries to phase out fossil fuels and limit natural resource extraction to avoid catastrophic consequences.
Ripple has since expounded upon that warning with annual updates that monitor recent climate events. In the most recent update, published in July, he points out that the global environment is approaching numerous “tipping points” that would make the decades ahead far more challenging. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warns that the planet could lock in warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius within 5.5 years.
Over the past year, disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented decline in greenhouse gas emissions. World leaders, eyeing an opportunity to transform their economies, pledged to “build back better” by prioritizing the environment. Since then, however, fossil fuel use has roared back.
At the same time, climate disasters are getting worse, from forest fires in Siberia to heatwaves in the United States to floods in China and Germany.
“Generally, I’m disappointed and frustrated at what I perceive to be business as usual, and that is that climate impacts are getting much worse and the action by policymakers is minor compared to the magnitude of the crisis,” Ripple told Global Citizen. “But there are some glimmers of hope and some positive signs.
“On the bright side, we’re seeing huge jumps in the number of governments that are formally declaring a climate emergency,” he said, referring to the 1,990 jurisdictions in more than 34 countries that have formally declared a climate emergency.
Ripple said that the youth-led climate movement around the world suggests that citizens everywhere are impatient for bold climate action. As these organizers gain more power, a watershed moment marking humanity’s departure from fossil fuels could occur.
Ripple’s paper notes that the movement to divest from fossil fuels grew by $6.5 billion between 2018 and 2020, while government subsidies for fossil fuels shrunk by 42% or $181 billion between 2019 and 2020. Carbon pricing schemes, which aim to make polluters pay for greenhouse gas emissions, now cover around 23% of human-released carbon dioxide.
These economic trends, while meaningful, can only move the needle so far, Ripple said; they have to be accelerated through government action.
Ripple’s letter advises countries to do six things to mitigate the climate crisis: shift energy production, reduce short-lived pollutants, expand nature-based solutions, transform food production, develop carbon-free economies, and limit population growth.
Tackling the economy may be the most urgent matter because it encompasses all other action items.
“I think we need to acknowledge that we can’t have unlimited economic growth on a finite planet,” he said. “It’s a simple statement but it’s profoundly true, and we have top economists leading the way with ecological economics, something that would be much more sustainable.”
Limiting population growth is perhaps the most controversial recommendation, because of the idea’s racist history. Critics of this idea argue that humans are not intrinsically the problem; instead, it’s humanity’s exploitative relationship with the environment that needs to change.
“We’re suggesting that we do things in a socially just way to curb population increase and gradually reduce the world population to a more sustainable level,” Ripple said, acknowledging the criticism.
“We understand this is controversial but we wanted to suggest that it would be important to treat all people equally on this planet, especially girls and women,” he added. “If we can educate girls and give them more equality, fertility rates automatically drop and standards of living and happiness increase. That's why we promote education for girls and women.”
The climate crisis is deepening global inequality. In fact, the people most responsible for the crisis are often the most shielded from its effects, while those with little environmental footprint often bear the brunt of natural disasters, droughts, and heat waves.
The paper’s insistence on reducing inequality is central to the broader movement for a just transition beyond the status quo of fossil fuels, which does not explicitly call for population growth policies.
Ripple’s scientific career revolves around ecology. He spent years studying the relationships between predators, prey, and plants in Yellowstone National Park. Over time, he gained a deep appreciation for the ability of nature to heal itself.
“I’m amazed at how resilient nature is,” he said. “This is completely amazing for me. I see it all the time. If we remove the problem, nature can heal itself. You might take livestock off of a landscape that has been impacted and then all of a sudden, over time, the ecological recovery happens.
“I think the sooner we can stop polluting our atmosphere with greenhouse gases, the sooner we will be much better off in terms of limiting the harm and I think we have a good chance at this point to limit the extent of climate change,” he added.
“The more we do now, the less harm and pain we’ll have later, so there’s really good motivation for working on this now.”