Human civilization stares out over a cliff edge. As a species in ecological overshoot, our journey cannot continue on its present path. The first Scientists Warning paper was issued in 1992, stressing mainly the ecological damage then inflicted by humans, and a 2017 study demonstrated that the subsequent twenty-five years had only witnessed further destruction of the ecosphere. The World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency report, published in 2019, which has now been endorsed by a total of 14,594 scientists from 158 countries, emphasised a set of collective actions, aimed toward restoring and protecting natural ecosystems, conserving energy, reducing food waste, the adoption of a more plant-based diet, population control and economic reforms. However, two subsequent papers, in 2020 and 2021 merely confirmed a further, dramatic deterioration of all climate markers.
The “WORLD SCIENTISTS’ WARNINGS INTO ACTION” (SWIA) paper was published on Friday, November 12th (2021), formally the concluding day of the COP26 climate change conference, although a final agreement was not actually reached until late on the Saturday (13th).
It is the “Into Action” qualifier that sets this publication apart from the previous warnings, since it offers practical means for steering away from the abyss, and toward a new territory where human needs are met, harmoniously, within the biocapacity of the Earth. SWIA summons all levels of leadership, from local to global, as are required to make real the proposed changes. Only immediate, rapid and far reaching action has a serious chance of keeping the Earth’s mean global temperature below the 1.5 degree limit.
Nonetheless, we do not “only” have to stop the Earth from heating (as a result of excess energy restrained from radiating into outer space by greenhouse gases), which drives climate change. While this challenge is, of itself, massive, it is really a single identifier of a whole system that is out of balance: a mechanism of resource hyperconsumption which transgresses several vital, but interwoven, planetary boundaries, powered by burning 15 billion tonnes of fossil fuels per year.
The term “changing climate” has been used previously as a means to not only refer to global heating and climate change, but also encompass the many other indicators of systemic collapse, which are now part of our daily experience. Since it is the system of civilization that must be fixed, any means to accomplish this must, of necessity, also be systemic in nature, and bring about a consolidated amelioration of climate change, biodiversity loss, and relentless degradation of the ecosphere.
Hence, decarbonising our energy sources, alone, will not put everything to rights, so long as the human animal still remains in a state of overshoot. Thus, reduction in our use of energy, and of all resources is essential, otherwise our climate targets may prove no more than hopeful and unrealistic attempts to preserve business as usual.
At various points during COP26, mutterings could be heard that, “it may take some time”, but delay is a treacherous luxury, since actions must be well underway during the five-year planning cycle, 2022-2026, setting foundations to build upon, out to 2030, and onward to 2050. Without such urgent and cumulative action, we will fail to attain the necessary trajectory and momentum to turn the current situation around.
The SWIA paper underlines six principal areas where effort must be focussed: Energy, Atmospheric Pollutants, Nature, Food Systems, Population Stabilisation, and Economic Reforms, of which the following is a highlighted summary:
- A rapid decrease in global energy demand, including the inculcation of citizens to adapt to a less energy-intensive future, while a low-carbon energy supply is aggressively pursued.
- Re-establishment of regional economies and commerce, so that populations are provided for as much as possible by regional resources, thus reducing reliance on carbon-intensive traded goods.
- Buildings must be retrofitted, to curb the energy costs of running them, along with an acceleration of small-scale energy generation.
- “Luxury” travel and trade, especially flights, inefficient vehicles and imported luxury goods must be curbed by the imposition of heavy taxes.
- A new tipping point threatens, arising from dramatic Arctic warming, with the potential for a rapid and massive release of substantial reservoirs of methane, trapped in permafrost, into the Earth’s atmosphere with likely calamitous consequences.
- Methane emissions must be intercepted at source, primarily from agriculture, and oil and gas production.
- Furthermore, the safe and effective reduction of atmospheric methane levels must be achieved through a combination of nature-based and technological means.
- Some of the Earth’s major tropical and temperate forests have become carbon sources, rather than sinks.
- Interdependent ecosystem processes – pollination, natural flood control and water purification have been damaged as a result of human activities.
- Widespread conservation, restoration and rewilding are necessary, for natural habitats to recover sufficient resilience to support human survival.
- The wholesale destruction and degradation of critical carbon-accumulating ecosystems such as forests, wetlands and grasslands must be halted immediately.
- Proforestation practices must be implemented, to protect mature forest ecosystems, while allowing secondary forests to continue growing; thus maximizing carbon storage, preserving and restoring biodiversity, and curbing emissions from harvested forests.
- 8 billion people cannot be fed sustainably by the present food system, which is also responsible for 25+% of greenhouse gas emissions, 70% of freshwater consumption, and the majority of deforestation and nutrient runoff, the latter causing freshwater contamination and the emergence of coastal dead zones.
- Widespread famines are likely within the present century: hence, leaders must act urgently at all, local, regional, national, and global, levels, over food production, land use, and farming practices.
- It is also essential to shift rapidly from animal products to low impact, more plant based, foods, thus enhancing the efficiency of land and water use.
- More regenerative (less degenerative) farming methods must be introduced rapidly, to protect and restore soil and other natural habitats.
- The human animal is in ecological overshoot, numbering 8 billion, and the Earth cannot sustain us. The addition of another 80 million people, year after year, only thwarts any efforts to alleviate climate instability, ecological destruction, famine, social and political instability and insecurity.
- Leaders must acknowledge population and consumption as the two underpinning ‘multiplier threats’ to a sustainable civilization, and take bold, equitable, and just action by 2026 to bend the curve.
- Support must be provided for wealthier families to have fewer children as the single most effective way to individually reduce their lifetime greenhouse gas emissions, while allowing poorer families to improve their situation, both economically and educationally.
- The great magnitude of the current human enterprise drives climate change, biodiversity loss, and overall converging crises of the ecosphere. Since this is underpinned and driven by a system of growth economics, we need to rapidly supplant this by a new economic model that functions within planetary boundaries.
- An urgent implementation of economic frameworks that support and prioritise the protection and restoration of natural capital and ecosystem services (including carbon sequestration, flood control, water purification, pollination, disease control).
- An instigation of reforms to ensure that farm and forestry lands, like the oceans, rivers and wetlands, are managed for the long-term benefit of nature and humanity, rather than short-term profits.
We call on all scientists to sign this paper, and act in a united effort to avoid a catastrophic collapse of civilisation. https://www.scientistswarningeurope.org.uk/signature
The time is now or never. Cooperation is fundamental to our success, and only by uniting as a human family, on all levels from local to global, can we hope to achieve an equitable and concordant future on our Mother Planet.