Climate change

Earth’s ‘vital signs’ deteriorate to record levels

Earth’s ‘vital signs’ have deteriorated to record levels as environmental human activity impacts deepen worldwide. The global activities’ business-as-usual approach to climate change has seen severe climate levels hit new records; warning that several climate tipping points are now imminent.

There has been an unprecedented surge in climate-related disasters, such as record-shattering heatwaves and wildfires in Australia and the US, flooding in South America and Southeast Asia, and devastating cyclones in Africa and South Asia.

An influential group of scientists, more than 14,000 who participated in the research found that of 31 “vital signs” 18 had hit record highs or lows. The Earth’s “vital signs” are key metrics of planetary health that include greenhouse gas emissions, glacier thickness, sea-ice extent, and deforestation. The study was published in the journal Bioscience.

The scientists signed on to an initiative declaring a worldwide climate emergency. They said governments had consistently failed to address the root cause of climate change: “the overexploitation of the Earth”.

Tim Lenton, director of the University of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute and study co-author, said the recent record-breaking heatwave in the Western United States and Canada showed that the climate had already begun to “behave in shocking, unexpected ways”.

“We need to respond to the evidence that we are hitting climate tipping points with equally urgent action to decarbonize the global economy and start restoring instead of destroying nature,” he said.

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The scientists said there was “mounting evidence that we are nearing or have already crossed” a number of climate tipping points.

These include melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, which may now be irreversible, regardless of how or if humankind cuts carbon emissions.

Levels of atmospheric CO2 and methane hit all-time highs in 2021 despite a dip in pollution linked to the pandemic.

Greenland and Antarctica both recently showed all-time low levels of ice mass, and glaciers are melting 31 percent faster than 15 years ago, the authors said.

Ocean heat and global sea levels set new records since 2019, and the annual loss rate of the Brazilian Amazon reached a 12-year high in 2020.

The scientists said that forest degradation linked to fire, drought, and logging was making the Amazon forest act as a source of carbon, rather than an absorber of carbon gas.

Livestock such as cows and sheep are now at record levels, numbering more than four billion and with a mass exceeding that of all humans and wildland mammals combined, they said.

They said increasing ocean deoxygenation and warming waters were threatening warm-water coral reefs.

“Given these alarming developments, we need short, frequent, and easily accessible updates on the climate emergency,” said the study.

The authors called for transformative change in; eliminating fossil fuels, cutting pollutants, ecosystem restoration, switching to plant-based diets, moving away from indefinite growth models, and stabilizing the human population.

They called for climate change education to be included in school core curriculums globally to raise awareness.

In the immediate term, they proposed a trio of emergency responses to the climate emergency.

These consisted of “a significant carbon price”, a global phase-out and ban of fossil fuels, and the development of strategic climate reserves such as restoring and maintaining carbon sinks and biodiversity hotspots.

“We need to stop treating the climate emergency as a stand-alone issue –global heating is not the sole symptom of our stressed Earth system,” said William Ripple, distinguished professor of ecology at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry.

“Policies to combat the climate crisis or any other symptoms should address their root cause: human overexploitation of the planet.”

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