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Earth’s ‘vital signs’ at their worst levels in human history

A team of scientists troubled by the sudden increases in the frequency and severity of climate-related disasters has warned that human activity is pushing our planetary systems into dangerous instability.

A new report has warned that 20 of 35 planetary vital signs are at ‘record extremes’ and that life on Earth is in peril.

As it reveals, the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has soared, extreme heatwaves continue to be more frequent, sea ice levels in Antarctica are at an all-time low, the oceans are the warmest they’ve ever been, and the amount of trees lost to wildfires in recent years is incomprehensible.

The international team of scientists that conducted the analysis are concerned that these factors place us closer to a dangerous tipping point and cite human activity and our failure to tackle the climate crisis as the driving force behind them.

‘Humanity is failing, to put it bluntly, says ecologist, William Ripple. ‘Rather than cutting greenhouse gas emissions, we’re increasing them. So we’re not doing well right now.’

Published in the journal BioScience, the findings state that 2023 has already witnessed 38 days with global average temperatures of more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

A chart showing the world's hottest day, and how it compared to other days in that year and the multi-decade mean.

The highest monthly surface temperature ever recorded was in July and was probably the hottest the planet has been in 100,000 years.

The analysis also noted a steep increase in the frequency and severity of climate-related disasters, such as severe flooding in China and India, extreme heatwaves in the US and an exceptionally intense Mediterranean storm led to the deaths of thousands of people in Libya.

Even more concerning, it adds, is the fact that many of these catastrophes are hitting communities that have historically contributed the least to climate change.

‘Life on our planet is clearly under siege,’ says Ripple. ‘The statistical trends show deeply alarming patterns of climate-related variables. We also found little progress to report as far as humanity combating climate change.’

Co-author, Thomas Newsome, explains that the trends indicated by the report underline the urgent need to scale up international efforts to combat the environmental emergency.

A graph showing fossil fuel subsidies between 2010 and 2022, as calculated by the International Energy Agency. There is a significant spike upwards beginning in 2020.

He stresses that a transition to an economy which priorities human wellbeing and cuts the overconsumption and excessive emissions of the rich is crucial given the top 10% of emitters were responsible for almost 50% of global emissions in 2019.

‘Without actions that address the root problem of humanity taking more from 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,’ says co-author, Dr Christopher Wolf.

His recommendations include phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, transitioning toward plant-based diets, scaling up forest protection efforts, and adopting international coal elimination and fossil fuel non-proliferation treaties.

‘By 2100, as many as 3 billion to 6 billion people may find themselves outside Earth’s liveable regions, meaning they will be encountering severe heat, limited food availability and elevated mortality rates,’ he finishes.

‘Big problems need big solutions. Therefore, we must shift our perspective on the climate emergency from being just an isolated environmental issue to a systemic, existential threat.’