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11,000 Scientists Declare a Climate Emergency

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NASA astronaut Terry Virts captured this Earth observation of Ireland, the UK and Scandinavia on Feb. 6, 2015. The UK and Ireland were the first two countries to declare a climate emergency. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

On the 40th anniversary of the First World Climate Conference, more than 11,000 scientists have come together to urge immediate action on the climate crisis, The Guardian reported.


"Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to 'tell it like it is,'" a group of scientists wrote in a letter published in BioScience Tuesday. "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 letter was written by dozens of scientists and endorsed by thousands more from 153 countries. It differs from past scientific communications about the climate crisis in that it does not speak in uncertainties and it lays out actual policy recommendations, The Washington Post pointed out. It is also the first time a large number of scientists have embraced the word "emergency" to describe climate change.

"The term 'climate emergency' … I must say, I find it refreshing, really," climate scientist and Woods Hole Research Center President Phil Duffy, who signed the letter Monday, told The Washington Post. "Because you know, I get so impatient with the scientists who just are always just waffling and mumbling about uncertainty, blah, blah, blah, and this certainly is, you know, is much bolder than that," he said. "I think it's right to do that."

Lead author and Oregon State University professor William Ripple told The Guardian he was inspired to spearhead the effort because of the uptick in extreme weather events he had noticed.

"It is more important than ever that we speak out, based on evidence. It is time to go beyond just research and publishing, and to go directly to the citizens and policymakers," he told The Guardian.

The letter writers outlined several "vital signs" of both human activities that contribute to global warming and climate impacts themselves.

"Policymakers and the public now urgently need access to a set of indicators that convey the effects of human activities on GHG emissions and the consequent impacts on climate, our environment, and society," they wrote.

Their indicators for human activities are

  1. Human population
  2. Total fertility rate
  3. Ruminant livestock population
  4. Per capita meat production
  5. World Gross Domestic Product (GDP)
  6. Global tree cover loss
  7. Brazilian Amazon rainforest loss
  8. Energy Consumption
  9. Airplane passengers per year
  10. Total institutional assets divested from fossil fuels
  11. Carbon dioxide emissions
  12. Carbon dioxide emissions per capita
  13. Greenhouse gas emissions covered by carbon pricing
  14. Carbon price per tonne of carbon dioxide
  15. Fossil fuel subsidies

For the scientists, the most worrying indicators were the increases in human and livestock population, meat production, world GDP, tree cover loss, fossil fuel consumption, number of airplane passengers and carbon dioxide emissions both generally and per capita.

Positive signs included decreases in the fertility rate and Amazon deforestation and increases in wind and solar power consumption, divestment from fossil fuels and the proportion of emissions covered by carbon pricing.

"However," they noted, "the decline in human fertility rates has substantially slowed during the last 20 years, and the pace of forest loss in Brazil's Amazon has now started to increase again. Consumption of solar and wind energy has increased 373% per decade, but in 2018, it was still 28 times smaller than fossil fuel consumption. As of 2018, approximately 14.0% of global GHG emissions were covered by carbon pricing, but the global emissions-weighted average price per tonne of carbon dioxide was only around US$15.25. A much higher carbon fee price is needed."

The signs the scientists chose to monitor the impacts of the climate crisis were

  1. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
  2. Methane in the atmosphere
  3. Nitrous oxide in the atmosphere
  4. Surface temperature
  5. Minimum Arctic sea ice
  6. Greenland ice mass change
  7. Antarctic ice mass change
  8. Glacier thickness change
  9. Ocean heat content change
  10. Ocean acidity
  11. Sea level change
  12. Area burned in the U.S.
  13. Extreme weather events
  14. Annual losses due to extreme weather events

The letter writers warned of "untold suffering" unless measures were taken to address the climate crisis. They proposed six.

  1. Energy: They called for a rapid shift to renewable energy and for leaving fossil fuels in the ground. They also called for negative emissions technology to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and for wealthy countries to help poorer countries pay for the transition.
  2. Short-lived pollutants: They called for a reduction in shorter-lived pollutants like methane, black carbon and hydrofluorocarbons, which could reduce short-term warming by more than 50 percent and have the added benefit of saving lives from air pollution.
  3. Nature: They called for preserving and restoring ecosystems like forests and coral reefs. They said that as much as one third of the emissions reductions needed by 2030 to achieve the Paris agreement goals could be met by preserving and planting natural carbon stores.
  4. Food: They called for a shift towards a mostly plant-based diet and a decrease in meat and dairy consumption, which would decrease emissions and free up agricultural land for human food and ecosystem restoration.
  5. Economy: They called for a carbon-free economy that did not rely on excessive resource extraction. "Our goals need to shift from GDP growth and the pursuit of affluence toward sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being by prioritizing basic needs and reducing inequality," they wrote.
  6. Population: They also wrote of the need to stabilize and, if possible, reduce the world population. They argued that there were ways to do so that also encouraged human rights, such as making access to family planning available to all and achieving gender equality, especially by encouraging education for young women and girls.

Attempts to limit or control population growth have proved a sensitive topic in the past, so much so that the UN does not negotiate on it, BBC News reported. But the writers thought it was important to address.

"It is certainly a controversial topic ― but I think that population should be talked about when considering human impacts on the earth," letter author Dr. Thomas Newsome of the University of Sydney said.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.