Headed to ‘Potential Collapse’: Alarm Bells Are Blaring in New Climate Report

Headed to ‘Potential Collapse’: Alarm Bells Are Blaring in New Climate Report

Global climate extremes are adding up, and scientists are warning with renewed urgency that both natural and human systems are at risk of collapse. In a new report published in the journal BioScience, researchers analyze what they describe as 35 planetary vital signs used to track climate change. They found that 20 of the 35 signs are at new extremes. While most of those are bad records, a few actually represent positive steps.

The vital signs, which include things like ice sheet melt, greenhouse gas emissions, meat production, tree cover loss, and billion-dollar flood events, highlight the interconnectedness of the climate crisis. For example, the report references the rate of ice loss in Greenland, which in turn contributes to sea level rise. Other records include our ever-rising methane emissions and carbon dioxide emissions; meanwhile, fossil fuel subsidies (another vital sign they tracked) are at an all-time high. Experts warn the world must scale back fossil fuel infrastructure to stop the planet from hitting 1.5 degrees of warming above preindustrial levels.

“Without actions that address the root problem of humanity taking more from the Earth than it can safely give, we’re on our way to the potential collapse of natural and socioeconomic systems and a world with unbearable heat and shortages of food and freshwater,” Christopher Wolf, one of the study authors, said in a statement.

William Ripple, study author and professor at the Oregon State University College of Forestry, said he’s especially worried about countries lowering overall emissions. If we don’t cut out fossil fuels, the planet may find itself in a dangerous feedback loop that will only worsen the sort of events that have occurred in 2023, he warned.

“I’m shocked at the frequency and intensity of climate-related disasters this year. It seems like they’re happening most every day in the summer in the Northern Hemisphere,” he told Earther. “Some places are having repeated climate related disasters, one after another, so they can’t even recover from the previous one. This is quite disturbing.”

Back in 2019, Ripple and many other concerned climate scientists published another paper on the climate emergency. That report outlined six areas where policymakers could take more action, including restoring ecosystems and cutting a range of emissions. Ripple says he expected climate change-related extremes to continue to increase over time since then. But some moments in 2023 shocked him, like seeing images of the New York City skyline shrouded in smoke from Canadian wildfires. Or learning that so much smoke was produced, it broke pollution records in just a few months.

“The number of wildfires and the smoke. It is quite jarring,” he said. “The area that burned in Canada is off the charts.”

A small handful of the records in the list of 20 vital signs are actually positive. Study authors pointed out that about $US39 trillion was divested or pledged to be divested from the fossil fuel industry in 2021. The consumption of renewable energy from wind and solar grew about 17% between 2021 and 2022. However, it is still several times less than fossil fuel energy consumption worldwide, according to the report.

The report also notes how so many governments have declared a climate emergency, which is cause for some tentative hope, Ripple told Earther. “The first thing and addressing any big problem is to admit to it and raise awareness,” he said.

The new report emphasizes that our financial and energy systems are the problem—not simply the number of people (8 billion) on the planet. Wealthy individuals and wealthy nations emit so much more than everyone else, by using private jets and living in larger, multiple homes that guzzle water during droughts. “We therefore need to change our economy to a system that supports meeting basic needs for all people instead of excessive consumption by the wealthy,” the study authors wrote.

“Climate justice and social justice topics need to be part of the discussion for both climate mitigation and climate adaptation,” Ripple said.

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