On Sunday, winds whipped up sand in western Utah to such an extent where roads became deadly. The dust storm resulted in a car crash that left eight people dead, including four children. They are yet another casualty of climate inaction; the state is in a severe drought leaving soils dry and bare—the perfect weight and consistency for winds to take to the air.
This is only the latest in a series of devastating impacts. In the last month, we’ve seen a killer heat wave, megafire, and tropical storm. And this isn’t even including events outside the U.S. That’s why scientists are reaffirming their warnings of a climate emergency. The planet is telling us it’s in trouble. It’s past time our leaders listen.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we stand with science. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. In a paper published Tuesday, a coalition of scientists issued an updated version of their original 2019 climate emergency declaration. This time, they’re showing us just how quickly the situation is worsening despite temporary improvements during the COVID-19 lockdowns—from increased atmospheric carbon to deforestation. Don’t worry; there are glimmers of hope, too.
William Ripple witnessed the devastation of Oregon’s 2020 wildfire season firsthand. The blazes were historic: They destroyed over 4,000 homes—more than the five previous years combined. Ripple, a distinguished professor of ecology at Oregon State University, remembers walking through the rubble that was once Detroit, Oregon. The Lionshead Fire devoured the small town that a couple hundred people call home.
Ripple realized in that moment he had to continue documenting and communicating the urgency of the climate crisis and all the planet’s rapid changes. He and some colleagues had declared a climate emergency in 2019, but that wasn’t enough. They must continue to sound the alarm until world leaders treat global heating with the urgency it deserves.
“Things are getting worse rather than better,” Ripple said.
The new paper, published Tuesday in the journal BioScience, outlines just how much worse through a data analysis of 31 planetary vital signs. For one, the Brazilian Amazon has reached a 12-year high in annual forest loss. Research now suggests the rainforest is officially a source of carbon emissions rather than a sink. To make matters worse, fossil fuel consumption is on track to increase when we literally need to do the opposite. In 2021, we’ve seen records set for the concentration of key greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. As a result, heat records are breaking and ice in Greenland and Antarctica keep melting.
“Companies and policy makers are literally making choices that are burning up the planet, flooding towns, drowning people.”
This is all troubling to Ripple, but he did point out some bright spots among the data. Between 2018 and 2020, divestment from fossil fuels increased by $6.5 trillion. That means institutions such as universities and banks are pulling their money from dirty energy projects. And we know money talks. Renewables are also on the rise—though they need more governmental support to replace oil, coal, and gas globally.
And that’s really what this paper drives home: Leaders got to step up. Aradhna Tripati, the founding director of UCLA’s Center for Diverse Leadership in Science, sees this not only through the paper’s data analysis but also through the extreme weather events playing out in real time.
“Companies and policy makers are literally making choices that are burning up the planet, flooding towns, drowning people,” said Tripati, who was not involved in the research. “We’ve gotten to the point where this is really willful blindness. This needs to stop.”
The article features policy suggestions, including phasing out fossil fuels and protecting ecosystems to store carbon and preserve biodiversity. Instead of our governments propping up polluters, they need to better support frontline communities so they can join the “green transition,” as Tripati called it. She recommends governments pay the people to conserve land or switch to clean transportation. Access and accountability are key to equity—especially after decades of corruption and corporate greed on behalf of the fossil fuel industry.
The pandemic has given us a hint of what’s possible when humans let nature breathe, but it’s also shown us the limitations of individual actions. Abandoning cars and planes won’t save the planet—not when governments give major polluters a free pass. And we can’t save lives if these institutions don’t start treating climate change as the emergency it is.