Third Warning

World Scientists’ Issue (3rd) Warning of a Climate Emergency

November 7, 2019

12:15 pm

A plainly worded report hit the news on Tuesday, November 4, 2019, with a stark warning that humanity faces a climate emergency right now, and only urgent action will prevent “untold suffering.” The “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency” paper appears in the peer-reviewed journal Bioscience and is signed by over 11,000 scientists from 153 countries.

It’s a straightforward read, free of the jargon that often surrounds scientific reports and makes them hard to understand for non-scientists. Not this one. The opening paragraph literally tells it like it is:  

Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to “tell it like it is.” On the basis of this obligation and the graphical indicators presented below, we declare, with more than 11,000 scientist signatories from around the world, clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.

The authors call for “An immense increase of scale in endeavors to conserve our biosphere is needed to avoid untold suffering due to the climate crisis” and go on to make six suggestions.

In an interview with CNN, one of the authors Phoebe Barnes said, “there's no more wiggle room" for policymakers and that history will remember them for "dismissing climate change as a serious threat to our civilization.”

Six paragraphs in, the authors call out what has been the third rail of climate conversations: consumption. They say, “The climate crisis is closely linked to excessive consumption of the wealthy lifestyle” and put the greatest responsibility squarely on the world’s richest countries. “To secure a sustainable future,” they say, “we must change how we live.”

It’s strong. Unequivocal. And sadly, this isn’t the first time that the world’s scientists have issued a global warning to humanity.

It’s the third.

The second warning was only two years ago, almost to the day. The report called “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice” was published on November 13, 2017.

That paper reads more like you’d expect an academic report to sound, starting with a look back to the first warning given by the world’s scientists in 1992:

Twenty-five years ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists and more than 1700 independent scientists, including the majority of living Nobel laureates in the sciences, penned the 1992 “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” (see supplemental file S1). These concerned professionals called on humankind to curtail environmental destruction and cautioned that “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided.” In their manifesto, they showed that humans were on a collision course with the natural world. They expressed concern about current, impending, or potential damage on planet Earth involving ozone depletion, freshwater availability, marine life depletion, ocean dead zones, forest loss, biodiversity destruction, climate change, and continued human population growth. They proclaimed that fundamental changes were urgently needed to avoid the consequences our present course would bring.

What’s clear today is how the 2017 paper still frames the climate crisis at arm’s length, saying “humanity has failed to make sufficient progress towards solving foreseeable environmental challenges” (italics added for emphasis).'

There were 25 years before the first and second warning papers. Now the third appears just two years later.

What’s different since then, besides a scant 24 months?

A lot, of course, including the October 2018 IPCC Special Report and the formal adoption of the Paris Agreement global climate treaty by every country except the United States.

A case can be made, that there’s one word that makes the difference: “emergency.” The second paper from 2017 doesn’t mention the word emergency. Neither does the first from 1992. This one does.

Since the Climate Mobilization’s founding in 2014, over “1170 local governments in 23 countries have declared a climate emergency and committed to action to drive down emissions at emergency speed.” The chart showing how the Climate Emergency Declaration campaign’s accelerating growth looks a lot like the climate science “hockey stick” graph of atmospheric temperature rise since 1900.

Earth’s Call Fund reached out to one of the paper’s lead co-authors, Christopher Wolf, a post-doc research associate at the University of Oregon’s College of Forestry. His research concerns “trophic cascades” –the study of how a change at the top level of an ecosystem controls and changes everything in it. (One example of a trophic cascade is the reintroduction of grey wolves in Yellowstone National Park.) We asked him to share his thoughts on what’s important for readers to know and do:

“One of the goals that motivated me to collaborate on this third warning article is showing that there are many key steps necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change.  This is something that we worked to highlight in our paper by listing six critical steps, including reducing emissions of short-lived climate pollutants, replacing fossil fuels with renewables, and protecting and restoring ecosystems. These steps require actions ranging from the individual scale to broad policy initiatives.  I hope that people reading our paper will see that, with appropriate action at all levels, there is great potential for climate change mitigation and adaptation.” - Christopher Wolf

We hope this paper adds more urgency to the growth of the climate emergency, and sparks a wave of transformational positive action by governments, businesses, and all of us with means living in wealthy countries.

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