Despite scientists’ warnings about the consequences of climate change for several decades, efforts to combat it have not reached the necessary magnitude. “Unfortunately, time has run out,” wrote the researchers in the new study published in the journal BioScience. We are witnessing the manifestation of disaster predictions with alarming frequency and speed. We are now entering uncharted territory, experiencing climate situations unprecedented in our history.
Given the current pace of change, climatologists believe that many planetary tipping points could occur much sooner than expected. Over 15,000 international scientists co-authored the new research with a team from Oregon State University (OSU).
“Life on Our Planet Is Clearly Under Siege”
This year, we have witnessed climate records worldwide. There were 38 days with average global temperatures exceeding 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels. On July 7, 2023, the daily average surface temperature of the planet was the highest ever recorded. Ocean temperatures were so high that Antarctic sea ice extent reached the lowest levels recorded since the advent of satellite data: 2.67 million square kilometers below the average.
The authors of the new study also mentioned the dramatic wildfires in Canada this year. These fires released over a gigaton of CO2 into the atmosphere, much more than the entire country’s 2021 emissions (0.67 gigaton). Unprecedented wildfires were also reported in mid-September in the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland. These fires are becoming more frequent in biomes where they are supposed to be less common.
Experts believe that these ecosystems are likely on the brink of adapting to new fire regimes, which will significantly alter the landscape and disrupt their carbon sequestration cycle. In other words, they may release more carbon than they sequester. A previous study suggests that this disruption of the carbon cycle is already underway in tropical forests such as the Amazon, which could soon transform into savannas. Given their key role in the global climate balance, the transformation of these ecosystems will have dramatic consequences for global temperatures.
After analyzing the 35 key vital signs indicating the habitability of our planet (atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration, forest loss, population growth, etc.), the researchers reveal that 20 of them have far exceeded viable limits. “Life on our planet is clearly under siege,” they write in their study. One of the authors, Christopher Wolf of OSU, states that “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.“
Adopting Measures Based on Equity and Social Justice
Despite political decisions and measures initiated to combat climate change, carbon emissions have continued to soar. Although renewable energy consumption increased by 17% between 2021 and 2022, it remains 15 times lower than fossil energy consumption. Furthermore, subsidies related to fossil energy have almost doubled to offset the global energy cost. Between 2021 and 2022, figures increased from 531 billion to 1 trillion dollars, not to mention that the REDD+ carbon offset system is struggling to generate tangible positive impacts.
The experts in the new study believe that as long as anthropogenic pressures on ecosystems continue at their current pace, any strategy solely focused on carbon or climate will only redistribute the pressure. Therefore, it is essential to adopt firmer measures based on equity and social justice, such as reducing overconsumption and carbon emissions in the wealthiest social categories.
It is important to note that although they make up only a tiny percentage of the world’s population, these individuals emit more carbon annually than all the less privileged ones combined. Additionally, the effects of climate change—to which they have made the least contribution—disproportionately affect the most vulnerable populations. The researchers’ recommendations also include reducing dependence on fossil fuels and taking action to protect forests.