2018 gave us 5 global reports we can’t ignore

So we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not.

— Greta Thunberg, 15 year-old climate activist from her speech at COP24

Scientists test, model, validate, verify or at least make educated guesses before sounding off alarm. They are probably the least reactionary bunch on the planet. Yet, 2018 was the year that scientists sent five time-bombs to the world in the form of reports. They are asking our global leaders to wake up to the reality of the environmental state of the planet.

They delivered their messages not only in the form of data and analysis, but also explicit policy recommendations. Scientists tried to send world leaders a “Mayday” message. It’s not only climate activists who are irked anymore.

I collected these reports from different organizations, representing a wide range of views and interests. They all stood out to me for their urgency. They all seemed to appear in the news cycle, make waves, and then die down to a low roar. That’s why I wanted to revisit them at the start of 2019.

Each and every one of the reports I’ve compiled give us insight about steps our leaders should be taking in 2019 and going forward. The level of information they provide is unprecedented. We are standing at a crossroads where we can either choose to acknowledge what we know or bury our heads on the sand.

None of us wants to be a coward, especially not when the consequences are handed down to our sons, daughters and grandchildren. Our awareness of the magnitude of the environmental problems we face warrants leadership, action and policy-decisions that can lead us toward a sustainable future. The time for economic and societal transition is ripe.

Hothouse Earth Report

In this July 2018 report, also known as “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the US (PNAS), a group of scientists including Will Steffen, Johan Rockström, and Katherine Richardson, et al. sent the world an SOS message.

They have predicted that planetary warming is leading us to a threshold that can set off irreversible feedbacks that lead toward a hothouse state never seen by humankind. Sounds fun, right? It would lead to an overall global temperature that would not likely decrease from 2.0 degrees celsius, the threshold that scientists are urging us to stay below.

Fig. 1. A schematic illustration of possible future pathways of the climate against the background of the typical glacial–interglacial cycles (Lower Left). The interglacial state of the Earth System is at the top of the glacial–interglacial cycle, while the glacial state is at the bottom. Sea level follows temperature change relatively slowly through thermal expansion and the melting of glaciers and ice caps. The horizontal line in the middle of the figure represents the preindustrial temperature level, and the current position of the Earth System is shown by the small sphere on the red line close to the divergence between the Stabilized Earth and Hothouse Earth pathways. The proposed planetary threshold at ∼2 °C above the preindustrial level is also shown. The letters along the Stabilized Earth/ Hothouse Earth pathways represent four time periods in Earth’s recent past that may give insights into positions along these pathways (SI Appendix): A, Mid-Holocene; B, Eemian; C, Mid-Pliocene; and D, Mid-Miocene. Their positions on the pathway are approximate only. Their temperature ranges relative to preindustrial are given in SI Appendix, Table S1.

The long timeframe of the analysis, which spans different geological epochs, proves that the Anthropocene is historically significant. As Greenpeace reported: “Earth has not experienced such a hothouse state — characterized by the absence of continental glaciers and sea-level over 100-meters higher — since the Cretaceous period, 100-million years ago.”

Our current trajectory will reinforce the rising temperatures and sea level rise leading to feedbacks that could have drastic, irreversible effects. Namely, the earth will lose its ability to reabsorb the carbon in the atmosphere. The visible manifestations of these events, or “tipping elements,” include loss of permafrost, iceberg melting, wildfires, insect attacks, droughts, and ocean temperature increases. Let’s brace ourselves for more carbon-spewing wildfires like those we saw in California.

Some of these tipping elements may rapidly change existing biomes, while others may have more gradual, self-reinforcing effects. This contrasts with most of the past geological epochs on Earth, when temperatures on Earth remained relatively stable in what is known as an interglacial state. In essence, the tipping elements produce a domino-effect, leaving any human actions insufficient for stabilizing the atmosphere at lower life-sustaining temperatures.

Fig. 2. Stability landscape showing the pathway of the Earth System out of the Holocene and thus, out of the glacial–interglacial limit cycle to its present position in the hotter Anthropocene. The fork in the road in Fig. 1 is shown here as the two divergent pathways of the Earth System in the future (broken arrows). Currently, the Earth System is on a Hothouse Earth pathway driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases and biosphere degradation toward a planetary threshold at ∼2 °C (horizontal broken line at 2 °C in Fig. 1), beyond which the system follows an essentially irreversible pathway driven by intrinsic biogeophysical feedbacks. The other pathway leads to Stabilized Earth, a pathway of Earth System stewardship guided by human-created feedbacks to a quasistable, human-maintained basin of attraction. “Stability” (vertical axis) is defined here as the inverse of the potential energy of the system. Systems in a highly stable state (deep valley) have low potential energy, and considerable energy is required to move them out of this stable state. Systems in an unstable state (top of a hill) have high potential energy, and they require only a little additional energy to push them off the hill and down toward a valley of lower potential energy.

The greatest risk for humans relates to food and agriculture, as we depend on the environment and biodiversity for our food supply. As atmospheric temperatures increase, agricultural lands become less sustainable, and crop yields decline. Without an ability to produce enough food to support the population, society would likely face increases in migration, famine, and wealth divisions become inevitable.

The scientists raise the three-fold imperative that their analysis implies. Not only do we need to reduce carbon emissions, but we also need to protect and even restore natural carbon-sinks such as the rainforests, and potentially alter the energy balance of the earth, like block solar radiation, which could have unintended consequences.

Finally, the scientists make a socioeconomic critique, stating that stewardship of nature is a must. They call for rapid global institutional, social and economic changes promoting “Earth System Stewardship” as a dominant paradigm. They also argue that existing systems may need to be overthrown in order to rapidly make changes. In short, the dramatic changes needed require revolutionary approaches.

IPCC Report

Another report dealing in trajectories was the UN IPCC Special Report that compared the scenarios of allowing earth’s temperature to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius versus 2 degrees Celsius. The Paris Climate Agreement established plans for 195 countries to commonly work towards preventing the atmospheric temperature to rise beyond 2 degrees Celsius, and if possible, to keep it much lower than that level. With the atmospheric temperature already at 1 degree Celsius, scientists described the dramatic differences between a 1.5 degree and a 2 degree scenario in this report. These differences include substantially worse risks for fire, drought and flood. In short, 2 degrees is considerably more apocalyptic. But, they pointed out, 1.5 degrees isn’t great either.

Source: UN IPCC Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees Celsius, Summary for Policy Makers

Oddly, given the urgency of the matter, the section titled “Summary for Policy Makers” omits the worst consequences likely to be seen. Whether this is intended to shield the leaders from the disconcerting information, or to soften the blow is unclear. Nevertheless, the report lays out a clear 12-year timeline for us to prevent reaching a global atmospheric average of 2 degrees, which is also the threshold cited for the hothouse state trajectory, by limiting ourselves to a 1.5 degree threshold while turning the economy towards a goal of net-zero emissions by 2100.

WWF Living Planet Report

Alongside the sharp rise in CO2 emissions, we have graphs that show a sharp fall in the level of biodiversity on the planet.

The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Index Report reveals that there has been a 60 percent decline in wildlife since 1970 around the world. In Central and South America, the decline is a shocking 83 percent.

The report frames the importance of the natural services that forests and wild spaces provide. “Natural services” is a term that highlights the ways that rivers, bodies of water, forests, plant and animal life and the atmosphere all provide life-sustaining “services” that we benefit from.

Source: WWF Living Planet Report, pg. 21

Biodiversity in particular provides food-supply resilience, due to the interdependences between plant life, animals, climate, and the geologic features of a region, all of which contribute to a healthy ecosystem. When these links are broken, increased risks appear for other elements within the system leading to collapse.

Like the scientists who wrote the Hothouse Earth report, the writers of this report call for action: “We are calling for a new global deal for nature and people to halt wildlife decline and tackle deforestation, climate change and plastic pollution, backed by concrete commitments from global leaders and businesses to tackle wildlife loss, climate change and development in an integrated way.”

NASA’s Water Shortage Warning

Using satellites to track the water reserves around the planet, NASA exposed the level of water shortage risk that humans face. NASA created a heat map using images and data collected from Grace (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) satellite mission for the years 2002–2016, revealing how fresh water reserves have shifted globally at key hot spots.

In many places they’ve examined, such as California, the water supply has diminished rapidly, leaving the region at risk. They claim that drivers of this risk include both climate change induced heating as well as excessive aquifer and ground-water extraction for human use.

The trend in general shows increased wetness in the already wet areas whereas extreme dryness has appeared in arid areas, leaving fewer places in stable conditions. Watch a great summary here.

NASA cannot predict the overall trends in water evaporation or storage in the surface of the earth, but this study presents new data that allows people to understand water supply dynamics in a more comprehensive way.

FAO State of the World’s Forests Report

The subtitle of this report is “forest pathways to sustainable development.” Examines the relationship of people and forests. FAO wrote this report to highlight how forests are an essential asset for achieving the 2030 SDG goals.

They argue that food security, agriculture and forestry should be considered in tandem: “How to increase agricultural production and improve food security without reducing forest area is one of the great challenges of our times.” Oftentimes, forests and agricultural land are seen as mutually exclusive and deforestation is overlooked when a food security interest is at stake. Large tracts of forest are converted to commercial farmland and this leads to dangerous depletion of the world’s carbon sinks.

On the other hand, FAO points out that forests help 40 percent of people in extreme poverty survive. Therefore, we don’t need to view forests as impinging on the wellbeing of the poor. Furthermore, it calls on further protection and expansion of forests, particularly in ways that may overlap with land used for agricultural purposes.

The report emphasize the need to understand the cultural value of forests and their potential to be used as a resource promoting the livelihoods of the poor, renewable sources of energy, and areas that can also be used for food production. Furthermore, the FAO wishes to emphasize the need for trees in cities.

In general, this report serves to remind us that forests offer many natural, social and economic benefits that are often overlooked. The aim is to reshape our view of forests as a source of raw material to one that privileges the perennial benefits of forests when they are preserved and left intact.

Lasting Impressions

When read in concert with one another, these reports show that no one special interest group is trying to use the environment as a cheap shot at funneling money into a particular program. The broad emphasis on a shared cultural transition from diverse factions comes to the fore.

The information in these reports are all part of a crucial historical narrative that frames our present moment. Human actions have caused significant quantifiable environmental consequences, the status quo will not suffice, nature supports the wellbeing of both the rich and the poor, and change is possible.

Erica Eller is a freelance writer specializing in sustainability narratives. Learn more at ericaeller.com.