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Scientists: COVID did little to slow 'catastrophic threat' of climate crisis

Air travel and carbon dioxide emissions went down for a bit, but the world continues to burn amid a global climate emergency.

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Local authorities respond to the 2020 Slater fire in Happy Camp, California.

Will Harling/Mid Klamath Watershed Council

Nearly 18 months after COVID-19 began to take hold and slow the pace of life worldwide, scientists are reiterating a dire warning: The climate crisis is still very much with us.

In November 2019, the journal BioScience published an article co-signed by over 11,000 scientists that declared a global climate emergency. On Tuesday, the same journal released an update to the declaration, showing improvements in a few key metrics due to the pandemic but ultimately concluding it did little to reverse the concerning trajectory of the planet's natural systems.

"A major lesson from COVID-19 is that even colossally decreased transportation and consumption are not nearly enough and that, instead, transformational system changes are required, and they must rise above politics," the article reads. "Given the impacts we are seeing at roughly 1.25 degrees Celsius (°C) warming, combined with the many reinforcing feedback loops and potential tipping points, massive-scale climate action is urgently needed."

The authors, led by ecology professor William Ripple and forest ecosystems researcher Christopher Wolf of Oregon State University, cite catastrophic floods, wildfires and record-shattering heat waves like those seen in the last 20 months as examples of the fingerprints of climate change.

The article is less a rigorous scientific study than an update of a number of key data points. The paper presents the latest trend lines for both human-related activities like carbon dioxide emissions and Brazilian Amazon forest loss as well as environmental indicators such as greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and loss of ice mass in Greenland and Antarctica.

The data shows a COVID-related dip in air travel, world gross domestic product and carbon dioxide emissions, but also finds record levels of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, increases in livestock numbers and ocean acidification as well as the shocking loss of ice around the world, from glaciers and ice sheets to the near disappearance of summer Arctic sea ice.

"Global gross domestic product dropped by 3.6% in 2020 but is projected to rebound to an all-time high," Ripple said in a statement. "Likely because of the pandemic, fossil fuel consumption has gone down since 2019, as have carbon dioxide emissions and airline travel levels. All of these are expected to significantly rise with the opening of the economy."

Over 2,800 more scientists have signed the declaration since 2019. This week's update reiterates several calls to action from the original article, including the elimination of fossil fuels and air pollutants like soot and methane, a switch to mostly plant-based diets, a more sustainable economy, and stabilizing then gradually reducing human population.

It's a tall order and a list of demands that's sure to meet plenty of resistance, but Wolf says our outsized impact on the planet does much more than just add a little heat to the atmosphere and adds that responding with half measures just won't cut it.

"As long as humanity's pressure on the Earth system continues, attempted remedies will only redistribute the pressure," Wolf said. "But by halting the unsustainable exploitation of natural habitats, we can reduce zoonotic disease transmission risks, protect carbon stocks and conserve biodiversity, all at the same time."

Wolf adds a top priority should be "immediate, drastic reductions in greenhouse gases, especially methane."

Ripple concludes that climate considerations should be part of post-pandemic planning.

"We need to quickly change how we're doing things, and new climate policies should be part of COVID-19 recovery plans wherever possible. It's time for us to join together as a global community with a shared sense of cooperation, urgency and equity."

The new paper comes out two weeks before the International Panel on Climate Change plans to release a new report on the latest understanding of warming trends and projections for the future. Leaders also plan to meet in November in Glasgow for COP 26, the latest international climate change conference.