Article by Morgan-Erickson Davis.
Scientists have issued a second warning of impending doom for the natural world if humanity does not make significant changes in how we treat the planet. The warning is presented in a paper published this week in Bioscience, and serves as a follow-up on a similar declaration by scientists in 1992.
The first “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” was authored in 1992 by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and signed by 1,700 scientists, including most living Nobel laureates in the sciences. It called out the “collision course” between humans and the natural world, pointing to evidence of “critical stress” to the planet’s various systems, from the ocean and atmosphere to forests and soil. It describes how this stress manifested in depletion of ozone, water, fish stocks, soil productivity and biodiversity.
They urged fundamental changes to be taken in order avoid catastrophe. Among them: moving away from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy, halting deforestation and the loss of species, more efficiently managing resources, stabilizing the human population, eliminating poverty and ensuring gender equity.
“A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the way of life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated,” the 1992 declaration stated.
The Kihansi spray toad (Nectophrynoides asperginis) is considered extinct in the wild.
In “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice,” Bill Ripple, director of the Trophic Cascades Program at Oregon State University, and his colleagues looked at how humanity has progressed toward the targets put forth over the past 25 years. With one exception – stabilization of the ozone layer through strict regulation of ozone-depleting chemicals – they found that not enough progress has been made to avert the massive environmental problems apparent in the late 20th century.
In fact, they found most of these problems have gotten far worse.
Two big trends were “especially troubling” to the researchers. One is the significant uptick in greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, deforestation and agricultural practices. The other is extinction.
The release of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide is driving global warming. Forests are big carbon sinks and deforestation has been widely acknowledged to be a major source of atmospheric carbon. Yet, while international conservation programs like REDD+ are seeking to curb deforestation and, with it, climate change, forests are still being lost at an ever-increasing pace. A recent analysis of satellite data showed global tree cover loss rose more than 50 percent from 2015 to 2016.
Since 1992, the world has also marched headlong into a mass extinction — the sixth such event in 540 million years. Researchers estimate species are being lost at a rate at least 100 times faster than historical levels, with habitat loss, over-hunting and climate change just a few of the many human-caused drivers behind the event.
The scientists warn that these consequences won’t just be felt by the natural world – they will also affect us.
“Humanity is now being given a second notice, as illustrated by these alarming trends,” write Ripple and his colleagues in their declaration. “We are jeopardizing our future by not reining in our intense but geographically and demographically uneven material consumption and by not perceiving continued rapid population growth as a primary driver behind many ecological and even societal threats.”
The scientists again implore humanity to alter its behavior before it’s too late. As in the first “Warning,” Ripple and his co-authors suggest more than a dozen concrete goals. These include the establishment of effective protected areas that would encompass a significant proportion of terrestrial, aquatic and aerial habitats, halting the degradation of forests and other native land cover and restoring those that have already been degraded; shifting diets to plant-based foods; reducing fertility rates by ensuring access to family planning services; and developing new green technologies.
The paper has been widely endorsed internationally, with more than 15,000 scientists from 180 countries signing their support for it.
“Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out,” Ripple and his colleagues write. “We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home.”
Ripple, W. J., Wolf, C., Galetti, M., Newsome, T. M., Alamgir, M., Crist, E., … & Laurance, W. F. World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice.
Banner photo: Micronesian kingfisher (Todirhamphus cinnamominus), which is extinct in the wild.