If Earth were a human, it would already be in the emergency room.
An international team of scientists on Tuesday issued a new assessment of planetary health that says the world has entered “uncharted climate territory” and that “life on planet Earth is under siege.”
The report, published in the journal BioScience, found that 20 of 35 identified “vital signs” of the planet — from human population and greenhouse gas emissions to sea level rise and ocean acidity — have reached record extremes.
The analysis, authored by a dozen expert scientists, is as much a desperate warning as an urgent call for action.
“For several decades, scientists have consistently warned of a future marked by extreme climatic conditions because of escalating global temperatures caused by ongoing human activities that release harmful greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere,” the report states. “Unfortunately, time is up. We are seeing the manifestation of those predictions as an alarming and unprecedented succession of climate records are broken, causing profoundly distressing scenes of suffering to unfold. We are entering an unfamiliar domain regarding our climate crisis, a situation no one has ever witnessed firsthand in the history of humanity.”
This year has truly been one of extremes — unprecedented heat waves, record-shattering land and sea surface temperatures, record-low Antarctic sea ice extent, and a Canadian wildfire season that has so far torched over 45 million acres, more than 2.5 times the previous record.
A forest fire rages in British Columbia, Canada, in July.
Tuesday’s stunning, unfiltered assessment comes as many scientists are still trying to make sense of the climate anomalies documented in recent months.
“The truth is that we are shocked by the ferocity of the extreme weather events in 2023,” the report reads. “We are afraid of the uncharted territory that we have now entered.”
The changes have been so rapid that they’ve “surprised scientists and caused concern about the dangers of extreme weather, risky climate feedback loops, and the approach of damaging tipping points sooner than expected,” the report states. And they occurred against a backdrop of what the authors described as “minimal progress by humanity in combating climate change.”
Human activity, primarily the world’s addiction to fossil fuels, is the main driver of planetary warming and the extreme weather events causing devastation around the globe. Despite a steady drumbeat of warnings from the world’s scientific community, global carbon emissions are forecast to hit an all-time high in 2023. In just a single year, from 2021 to 2022, global fossil fuel subsidies more than doubled, from $531 billion to $1.01 trillion, which the report’s authors linked to rising energy costs stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
A gas flare from a Shell Chemical LP petroleum refinery illuminates the sky in Norco, Louisiana.
The paper warns that “massive suffering due to climate change is already here” and highlights several deadly, climate-fueled disasters over the past year, including extreme heat waves in Asia, catastrophic wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui, and devastating flooding in Libya. By the end of the century, between 3 billion and 6 billion people — as much as half of the planet’s population — could “find themselves confined beyond the livable region,” according to the analysis.
“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,” Christopher Wolf, a lead author of the paper, said in a statement.
The report advocates for much more than minimizing planet-warming greenhouse gasses, calling specifically for reducing overconsumption of the world’s resources, phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, increasing forest protection, shifting toward plant-based diets and transforming the global economy to “prioritize human well-being and to provide for a more equitable distribution of resources.” Additionally, it urges humanity to “stabilize and gradually decrease the human population with gender justice through voluntary family planning and by supporting women’s and girls’ education and rights, which reduces fertility rates and raises the standard of living.”
The recommendations go beyond the normal scope of climate science, but underscore how serious the researchers believe the crisis to be.
“Rather than focusing only on carbon reduction and climate change, addressing the underlying issue of ecological overshoot will give us our best shot at surviving these challenges in the long run,” the authors conclude. “This is our moment to make a profound difference for all life on Earth, and we must embrace it with unwavering courage and determination to create a legacy of change that will stand the test of time.”