'Earth is Our Only Home': 15,000 Scientists Urge Action on Climate Change

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As the COP23 UN climate talks continue in Bonn, Germany, 15,000 scientists from 184 countries have signed ‘World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice’, a journal article cum open letter urging immediate action on climate change ‘to prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss’. [1]

I have sometimes wondered what it would be like if we failed to stop climate change, imagining that on one sombre and momentous day the people of the world would listen to a definitive scientific announcement: ‘Fellow humans, it is my deepest regret to say that we have simply passed the point of no return.' Our heads would droop in disappointment, craving one more try at the past.

In reality, life and history are not so simple. This statement is not such an announcement of definitive failure. But we might very well read it as such if we choose to ignore the undeniable any longer. And as such, we would do well to wake up from the stupor of our routines, take stock of what truly matters, and commit to doing our part in this great battle. After all, it is a battle for survival, and at present it is as if we are allowing our rulers to march an invading army right under our noses. We can ignore reality, but it is impossible for reality to ignore us.

Something is Not Good Enough

The statement follows from a similar one in 1992 issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists and many others, entitled ‘World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity’ [2]. The 2017 successor remarks that apart from closing the hole in the ozone layer, humanity has failed to properly deal with the problems outlined 25 years ago:

Especially troubling is the current trajectory of potentially catastrophic climate change due to rising GHGs from burning fossil fuels … deforestation … and agricultural production—particularly from farming ruminants for meat consumption … Moreover, we have unleashed a mass extinction event, the sixth in roughly 540 million years, wherein many current life forms could be annihilated or at least committed to extinction by the end of this century.

But, they say, ‘humanity is now being given a second notice’. There is so much that we as a species and society can do to solve this problem, and it is not that we have done nothing, but we are thus far squandering the opportunity:

Since 1992, global average temperatures have increased by over 0.5 degrees Celsius and annual carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 62%. The amount of fresh water available per head of population worldwide has reduced by 26%. The number of ocean "dead zones" - places where little can live because of pollution and oxygen starvation - has increased by 75%. Nearly 300 million acres of forest have been lost, mostly to make way for agricultural land. Global carbon emissions and average temperatures have shown continued significant increases. Human population has risen by 35%. Collectively the number of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and fish in the world has fallen by 29%.’ [3]

The reason these statistics matter is that climate change means direct harm to us (and other species). Higher sea levels could displace millions of people by wiping out coastal cities, i.e. over half of major cities (and 50% of humans live in cities). 1.2 billion people depend on glaciers and snow for fresh water, which are rapidly depleting. Extreme weather events such as droughts, heat waves, cold waves, cyclones, and flooding, are set to increase in frequency and intensity over the century. Food production will be majorly disrupted, both crops and animal agriculture. The list could be extended but the gravity of the situation is clear enough.

By failing to adequately limit population growth, reassess the role of an economy rooted in growth, reduce greenhouse gases, incentivize renewable energy, protect habitat, restore ecosystems, curb pollution, halt defaunation, and constrain invasive alien species, humanity is not taking the urgent steps needed to safeguard our imperilled biosphere.’ [1]

The System and the Population

 

One clause here is particularly noteworthy: ‘[to] reassess the role of an economy rooted in growth’. This is a strong statement from a body of scientists. But, ultimately, it is not surprising; anyone who has a keen knowledge of our global situation can see the fundamental tension between the reality of our survival and the structure of our societies, the contradiction between the numbers and politics.

To explore this further, one other point stands out: the emphasis on population growth which runs throughout the article. It is undeniable that as human population has increased, so too has our ecological destruction. It is common sense that a greater population puts greater strain on our resources. But this is not the whole picture.

It is often thought by the general public that climate change has been caused by too many humans on the planet. That’s an understandable viewpoint until you examine the facts. The shocking reality is that 50% of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to a mere 10% of the global population [4]. The link is wealth, greater wealth is highly correlated with greater ecological footprint, and after a little thought it’s obvious why. At the most extreme, the top 1% of US residents produce 2500 more CO2 than the global bottom 1% [4].

The flipside of this is that the poorest 50% of our planet’s population is responsible for only 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions which are making our planet uninhabitable [4]. And broadly speaking, it is the poorest countries whose populations are growing the fastest, and the richest countries whose populations are growing the slowest or even declining.

It isn’t just about rich and poor countries though, it is about the rich and poor within each country. The super wealthy on this planet are a nation unto themselves. Of course the top 10% on Earth doesn’t just mean the super wealthy, it means a lot of people who we wouldn't consider to be extremely wealthy but because they live in a relatively wealthy country like Ireland as opposed to, say, Burundi, they still appear in the global top 10% – that’s how severely split the planet’s wealth is. This is good news in a way, it means that the actions of relatively few (on a global scale) can have a disproportionate impact on solving this crisis. Unfortunately, these people tend also to be the most insulated from the effects of climate change. The poor of Bangladesh watching their coastline disappear before their eyes are but spectators of how this ‘issue’ is dealt with.

Undoubtedly we should all take measures to keep our population level in check. But let’s also think critically about it. An economic system based on infinite growth, with little or no cost on ruining the biosphere, is the central problem. In an ecologically sound political and economic system – which is certainly possible – the formula of ‘people = destruction, more people = more destruction’ would not hold. Humans are not inherently destructive to our surroundings, to other lifeforms, but we are currently trapped within a social frame that makes it true. And in fairness to the article, there is some recognition of that, for instance acknowledging the ‘geographically and demographically uneven material consumption’ across the planet. [5]

Rising Tides, Rising Temperatures, Rising People

 

They don’t say to give up. The statement underlines the need for action at both the highest political levels and in our personal lives, including all of us getting out onto the streets. To quote the banner of a large, vibrant, protest at one UN summit 'Rising Tides, Rising Temperatures, Rising People':

As most political leaders respond to pressure, scientists, media influencers, and lay citizens must insist that their governments take immediate action as a moral imperative to current and future generations of human and other life. With a groundswell of organized grassroots efforts, dogged opposition can be overcome and political leaders compelled to do the right thing. It is also time to re-examine and change our individual behaviors, including limiting our own reproduction (ideally to replacement level at most) and drastically diminishing our per capita consumption of fossil fuels, meat, and other resources.

While it would be ridiculous to pin the blame on the disenfranchised masses who are too busy each day commuting, making a living, looking after their family, and so on, to raze hectares of rainforest or give subsidies to oil and dairy companies, the fact is that we’re presented with a choice: to sit back and see our world in ruins, or to rise up and stop this chaos.

Five Steps to the Future

 

The first step is to educate yourself. It all starts with you. Climate change is less daunting when you have a handle on the facts, because it means you can start doing something. There are loads of resources available online to learn the basics of climate change and the social factors behind it, and even more if you like.

The second step is to educate others. Even if you know a little, you can share that with others. Point people towards whatever you’re learning from. Bring it up at dinner, at the pub, at school, on your lunchbreak at work, in bed with your partner, on internet forums. Many hands make light work. Maybe this is a bit awkward, but it's fairly awkward for our home to collapse.

The third step is to get organised. Go to a protest about climate change. Join a group which is trying to change things. If there isn’t one, start your own, even if there’s only a few of you. Build up your organising experience, draw more people into the fold. This is how change has always happened, it’s tried and tested.

The fourth step is to make a few impactful changes to your own lifestyle. Trying to micromanage every behaviour is tiring but there are a handful of things each of us can do to make a significant difference, such as limiting or stopping flying on airplanes and switching to a plant-based diet. The importance of this is 1) people are best convinced by doing rather than saying, and 2) climate change is a social problem, but individuals also need to change.

I’d say the last step, and it’s a big one, is we need to transform our society. There’s a lot of good which can be done to slow down climate change within the current economic and political system, but if we’re ever going to have a healthy long-term relationship with our natural world, that requires system change. That’s perhaps a daunting prospect, and it’s not something we can do overnight, but ultimately it could be more rewarding than we can imagine. And like escaping from a burning building, what is scary might also be unavoidable.

'Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out. We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home'

 


 

Endnotes

[1] World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice, Ripple et. al. http://scientists.forestry.oregonstate.edu/sites/sw/files/Ripple_et_al_warning_2017.pdf

[2] World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, Union of Concerned Scientists. http://www.ucsusa.org/about/1992-world-scientists.html

[3] Carbon and Equality from Kyoto to Paris, Chancel & Piketty. http://piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/ChancelPiketty2015.pdf. Note, the numbers are top 10% making 45% and bottom 50% making 13%, frequently rounded off to 50% and 10% to more simply convey the pattern.

[4] https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/letter-to-humanity-warning-climate-change-global-warming-scientists-union-concerned-a8052481.html [Accessed 15/11/2017]

[5] The main reference used in the 'World Scientists' Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice' in relation to population talks much about how increasing population limits relative access to resources such as food, rather than merely the contribution a growing population makes to climate change. However, it is important to remain critical for the same reason as discussed, namely that the properties of the current economic system are pivotal in determining both the gross social product (e.g. total food produced) and the distribution of that product (e.g. how much food each person gets). That famines can occur in regions with a net food surplus is an extreme proof that resources are political as well as natural.


 

Resources
 

1. NASA Climate

2. 350.org

3. Skeptical Science

4. Real Climate

5. Climate Central

6. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

If you simply type 'climate change' into YouTube there are millions of results, and lots to learn from if you step over the climate denial disinformation funded by big business. Three experts worth searching for are Dr. James Hansen, Prof. Michael Mann, and Prof. Kevin Anderson.

Three excellent YouTube Channels are:

  1. Climate State
  2. Potholer54
  3. The Elephant

 

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