What caused 11,000 scientists to declare a climate emergency?

Crisis or emergency? — This isn’t a scientific analysis like the IPCC reports provide. John Timmer – Nov 8, 2019 3:50 pm UTC Enlarge / Vanishing glaciers, like this one in Glacier National Park, are a clear indication of climate change.The past few years have seen high temperature records set with regularity, accompanied by things…

Crisis or emergency? —

This isn’t a scientific analysis like the IPCC reports provide.


Image of a small glacier.

Enlarge / Vanishing glaciers, like this one in Glacier National Park, are a clear indication of climate change.

The past few years have seen high temperature records set with regularity, accompanied by things like intense heat waves, coral bleaching, wildfires, and other problems. All of that has made refusing to accept the reality of climate change an increasingly untenable proposition and has left people who would rather not deal with the consequences to adopt various fallback positions. One common refrain has been the claim that climate change does pose a problem but that it’s not really a crisis.

This week, it seemed like scientists had had enough of this argument, as headlines everywhere announced that 11,000 scientists had declared that we’re facing a “climate emergency.” And it seemed to have the desired effect, attracting extensive press coverage. But the declaration of emergency itself doesn’t carry anything like the intellectual weight of the scientific reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and it’s actually the latest of a series of declarations with a somewhat odd history.

The warning itself

The document itself comes with a self-explanatory title: “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency.” The second sentence is equally clear, stating, “We declare, with more than 11,000 scientist signatories from around the world, clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.”

Of course, “emergency” isn’t a technical term, so you might expect that the scientists behind the document would provide a definition of the term and demonstrate that the climate change we’re driving fits it. Instead, “emergency” isn’t used again until the very end of the document, where it’s simply reiterated that climate change is an emergency.

In between, there’s extensive documentation of a large number of worrying trends: warming, loss of ice, rising meat production and air travel, shrinking forest cover, and more. All of these are contributors to or indicators of climate change. They’re accompanied by indications that we’re not doing enough, like the generally low price on carbon when it is priced, as well as the continuation of massive subsidies to fossil fuels.

These problems have been described extensively in the scientific literature, but many of these trends have been around for more than a century; it’s not clear why they constitute an emergency now.

But there’s also a bit of an odd focus on economics that aren’t necessarily linked to climate change. At one point, the document declares, “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.” This is especially odd because two trends that are promoted as positives—a declining fertility rate and the growth of carbon pricing—have been largely driven by high-GDP economies.

So where did this come from?

The document itself clearly isn’t a scientific one, regardless of the total number of scientists involved. It is published in a scientific journal (BioScience) that is produced by a professional organization of biologists. But the journal is notable for publishing essays and discussions in addition to peer-reviewed research; this letter appears to fall into this “essay” category of work.

An original “World Scientists’ Warning” on environmental issues was organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists and simply published as an open letter in 1992. But in 2017, a different group issued what they called a “second notice” without the UCS being directly involved. The 2017 version adopted a similar format to the current warning, presumably because the effort was led by the same three people who spearheaded the more recent one. Both were published in BioScience, marking the current warning as a clear descendant of the 2017 second notice.

The key differences seem to be that the 2017 version claimed over 15,000 scientists as signatories and featured climate as the prominent concern among a larger list of issues.

Notably, the 2017 document indicates that so many scientists signed on enthusiastically that the organizers decided to form the Alliance of World Scientists in response; the group is listed as being responsible for the new letter. Aside from being notable for its somewhat out-of-date Web design, most of the Alliance’s webpages echo the themes of the warnings, including their anti-commercial attitude. (“This quagmire is the belief in the idea of Consumerism, with its cast of advertising executives, bankers and economists, corporate CEOs, politicians, etc.,” is one notable statement.)

Should we take this seriously?

Climate change is already posing multiple challenges for humanity, and the situation will only get worse. We’re not doing nearly enough to address it or, more generally, address our tendency to push the Earth and its resources well beyond their sustainability. Whether you consider this to constitute an emergency or not, the document gets the general outline of the situation right.

That said, it’s not clear that overwhelming people with the sheer number of scientists who signed on is the right way to handle being right. After all, there’s already a competing petition that claims 30,000 scientists are saying that climate change is nothing to worry about. It’s wrong, and its “scientists” include the Spice Girls and Star Wars characters, but that hasn’t stopped the petition from being discussed during congressional testimony. (There’s also a similar petition that claims that evolution is wrong, which is a nice indication of why petitions shouldn’t settle scientific issues.)

Bogus scientists don’t seem to be a problem here (every scientist signatory we tried to verify before getting bored was, in fact, an actual scientist). But by focusing on numbers, the document and its accompanying press run the risk of turning this into a he-said-she-said situation.

The anti-commercial aspect of the document also creates a variety of problems. On the simplest level, we’ll need to have allies among the politicians, economists, and CEOs that the organization dismisses. We’ll also need the backing of those countries that want to increase their GDPs, both to improve the lives of their citizens and to be able to afford the technology that enables sustainability.

But more generally, it’s difficult to separate addressing climate change from commercial activity. We will certainly require a massive expansion of our capacity to produce things like solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles. This expansion will undoubtedly create sustainability issues that we’ll have to balance carefully. We’re likely to need to find commercial uses for carbon dioxide pulled from the atmosphere in order to reduce the impact of the emissions we’re currently failing to control.

So it’s difficult to escape the sense that the people behind this warning are a bit tone deaf when it comes to its implications.

BioScience, 2019. DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biz088  (About DOIs).

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