Earth Is Entering ‘Uncharted Territory’ Because of Climate Change, New Report Warns

Researchers found that 20 of 35 “planetary vital signs” are at record extremes, and they call for rapid action

Wildfires burn Canada
Wildfires have smashed records this year in Canada, scorching more than 40 million acres in the country. Darren Hull / AFP via Getty Images

The Earth is venturing into “uncharted” climate territory, which is imperiling life on our planet, a new report has found. Due to human activity, the climate has shifted to create a “situation no one has ever witnessed firsthand,” per the paper.

“Humanity is failing, to put it bluntly,” Bill Ripple, an Oregon State University ecologist who led the research, tells Meghan Bartels of Scientific American. “Rather than cutting greenhouse gas emissions, we’re increasing them. So, we’re not doing well right now.”

In a new study published last week in BioScience, Ripple and his colleagues analyzed 35 of Earth’s “planetary vital signs” used to track the climate crisis and found that 20 are at record extremes, including carbon dioxide emissions, fossil fuel subsidies, ocean acidity and changes in glacier thickness. The vital signs include both human activities and the planet’s responses to them.

Among the study’s key findings were that fossil fuel subsidies roughly doubled between 2021 and 2022, going from $531 billion to just over $1 trillion. The authors attribute this partially to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which led many nations to switch from Russian-supplied gas to coal. However, the conflict also prompted several European countries to use more renewables, which contributed to an overall 17 percent increase in solar and wind energy from 2021 to 2022.

The authors note that most carbon dioxide emissions came from wealthy countries—the top 10 percent of emitters were responsible for 48 percent of emissions, while the bottom 50 percent emitted about 12 percent of the total. Yet, lower-income countries that have contributed less to causing climate change tend to pay the price, often facing extreme climate impacts without the funds to address them

“Natural scientists very often don’t include justice issues,” Joyeeta Gupta, a sustainability scientist at the University of Amsterdam who was not involved in the new research, tells Scientific American. “I think it’s really important that we bring this justice issue much more centrally to our narrative, because otherwise we won’t solve these problems; we’ll just keep telling people that there are problems.”

In 2023, an “extraordinary series” of climate records were broken, write the authors, including a total of 38 days with global average temperatures more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Since 2000, days that hot have been rare, and before the turn of the century, they were never recorded, per the paper.

This summer, the Earth hit its hottest day on record on July 3—only for that extreme to be broken again on July 4, 5 and 6. Twenty-one of the Earth’s hottest days ever were in July, and the month was overall the hottest ever documented. High temperatures have also contributed to the record-low levels of Antarctic ice and decreased ice mass in Greenland. Climate change-fueled wildfires in Canada this year released a massive amount of carbon dioxide—about a gigaton. For comparison, the country emitted a total of 0.67 gigatons of greenhouse gases in 2021. 

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

The new research updates a 2019 study also led by Ripple and his colleague Christopher Wolf that examined the planetary vital signs and warned of a climate emergency. That study was co-signed by more than 15,000 scientists in 161 countries.

Scientists have warned for years of the negative consequences of climate change and have recommended deep and rapid changes from governments across the globe to limit catastrophic consequences. While many countries have fallen short on pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, experts say it’s not too late for the planet—but we need to act immediately

“It’s now or never,” Jim Skea, a natural scientist at Imperial College London, told NPR’s Lauren Sommer last year. “Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”

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