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Earth at risk: An urgent call to end the age of destruction and forge a just and sustainable future

This high-profile collaborative review by western and Indigenous scientists, historians, futurists and cultural scholars, including Stable Planet Alliance advisors Phoebe Barnard and Eileen Crist, first appeared in Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences Nexus (PNAS Nexus), April 2, 2024. The full open-access article can be read here.


Original artwork commissioned from coauthor and Upper Skagit Tribe elder, artist and cultural bridge healer, Jay Bowen


by Charles Fletcher, William J Ripple, Thomas Newsome, Phoebe Barnard, Kamanamaikalani Beamer, Aishwarya Behl, Jay Bowen, Michael Cooney, Eileen Crist, Christopher Field, Krista Hiser, David M Karl, Sir David A King, Michael E Mann, Davianna P McGregor, Camilo Mora, Naomi Oreskes, Michael Wilson


Abstract

Human development has ushered in an era of converging crises: climate change, ecological destruction, disease, pollution, and socioeconomic inequality. This review synthesizes the breadth of these interwoven emergencies and underscores the urgent need for comprehensive, integrated action. Propelled by imperialism, extractive capitalism, and a surging population, we are speeding past Earth's material limits, destroying critical ecosystems, and triggering irreversible changes in biophysical systems that underpin the Holocene climatic stability which fostered human civilization. The consequences of these actions are disproportionately borne by vulnerable populations, further entrenching global inequities. Marine and terrestrial biomes face critical tipping points, while escalating challenges to food and water access foreshadow a bleak outlook for global security.


Against this backdrop of Earth at risk, we call for a global response centered on urgent decarbonization, fostering reciprocity with nature, and implementing regenerative practices in natural resource management. We call for the elimination of detrimental subsidies, promotion of equitable human development, and transformative financial support for lower income nations. A critical paradigm shift must occur that replaces exploitative, wealth-oriented capitalism with an economic model that prioritizes sustainability, resilience, and justice. We advocate a global cultural shift that elevates kinship with nature and communal well-being, underpinned by the recognition of Earth’s finite resources and the interconnectedness of its inhabitants. The imperative is clear: to navigate away from this precipice, we must collectively harness political will, economic resources, and societal values to steer toward a future where human progress does not come at the cost of ecological integrity and social equity.



Climate purgatory

Although the global condition is bleak, after 200 years of fossil fuel expansion, we are at a turning point in the energy system. The clean-energy revolution is underway. Global sales of vehicles powered by fossil fuels peaked in 2017 (199), and in 2023 electric vehicle sales grew by 55%, reaching a record high of more than 10 million. For the first time ever, announced manufacturing capacity for electric vehicle batteries is now sufficient to fulfill expected demand requirements by 2030 (200).


Renewable energy installations jumped nearly 50% in 2023, the most rapid growth rate in two decades (200). After remaining flat for several years, global clean energy spending is increasing. Last year, renewables made up about 30% of total electricity generation, up from 25% in 2018. Global investment in the energy transition totaled $1.77 trillion in 2023, an increase of 17% from the prior year. Solar energy is expected to become the cheapest form of energy in many places by 2030 and major global powers are investing in infrastructure for energy transformation.


However, increasing global energy consumption offsets these gains in renewable energy. Because of rising power needs in developing nations due to population growth and industrialization, ongoing electrification of the transport and building sectors, and other areas of energy expansion, the International Energy Agency (IEA) projects increasing growth of energy demand, rising at an annual average rate of 3.4% in 2024–2026. Although the expansion of clean-energy sources is set to meet this demand growth, decoupling energy consumption and CO2 production, the separation is not nearly wide enough to meet Paris Agreement Goals for stopping global heating.


Countries and companies are taking steps to address climate change while simultaneously making choices that undermine these efforts. This paradox places us in a state of climate purgatory. The IEA predicts (200) a peak in fossil fuel demand by 2030, but reports show governments planning to increase coal, oil, and gas production well beyond climate commitments. This math does not align with the 1.5°C or even the 2°C warming targets. Many experts consider these targets nearly impossible due to the global reluctance to urgently phase out fossil fuels. In this climate purgatory, we are at a critical juncture, where urgent, transformative action is required to reconcile our ambitions with our actions.

The 2023 UN “gap report” (26) tells us that governments plan to produce around 110% more fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C, and 69% more than would be consistent with 2°C. National carbon-cutting policies are so inadequate that 3°C of heating could be reached this century. Based on existing national pledges, global emissions in 2030 will be only 2% below 2019 levels, rather than the 43% cut required to limit global heating to 1.5°C. To get on track, 22 GtCO2 must be cut from currently projected global emissions in 2030. That is 42% of the total and equivalent to the output of the world's five worst polluters: China, US, India, Russia, and Japan.


The world will need to increase climate spending to around $9 trillion annually by 2030 and to nearly $11 trillion by 2035 to roll out clean sources of energy and prepare for the inevitable impacts of a warming climate during coming decades (201). To limit warming to 1.5°C now requires eliminating emissions shortly after 2040. Although technically feasible, few mainstream scientists believe it is still achievable (202). Instead, analysts predict (203) that global fossil fuel emissions will peak at some point in the next decade, followed not by a decline but a long plateau (204), culminating with end-of-century warming potentially reaching 3°C (Fig. 4).

Global GHG emissions and temperature rise. Net emissions including removals (billion metric tons of CO2-equivalent). Policy and technological progress over the past 8 years has significantly reduced the global temperature outlook. Models now project very likely temperature increases of 2.0 to 4.0°C by century's end, with a 2.3 to 3.4°C likely range and a mean of 2.8°C. While this is progress from just 8 years ago, it still represents a dire climate future—falling significantly short of the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to well below 2°C (204).


Although global renewable energy capacity is growing, there is a lack of financing for emerging and developing economies. Redirecting financial resources to lower income nations is crucial. More than 90% of clean-energy investment comes from advanced economies and China, risking new dividing lines in global energy. The biggest shortfalls in clean-energy investment are in emerging and developing economies. More needs to be done by the international community to drive investment in lower income economies, where the private sector has been reluctant to venture. There is ample capital available—evidenced by the nearly $12 trillion allocated for COVID-19 economic relief and the over $1 trillion annually in fossil fuel subsidies, which balloons to $7 trillion with indirect incentives. Reallocating these funds is complex, particularly due to potential impacts on the poorest populations, yet it remains a vital reservoir for investment as the world plans for a sustainable future.


A new era of reciprocity with nature and among human societies

The purpose of this review is to draw immediate attention to the careless, foolish way that humanity is gambling with the future. Unless things change dramatically, and soon, damage to the natural world will have long-lasting consequences for species and ecosystems, and devastating upheavals for humanity. Although this will particularly affect vulnerable populations, all of humanity faces an unprecedented catastrophe.


There are signs that humanity is awakening to the need for a new system of values that recognize Earth as an island in space with limitations on resource availability. No one is coming to rescue us. Many of the changes that we call for in this essay are consistent with the work of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (141) and the UN SDG framework (205). But carbon assimilation in natural systems is decreasing— potentially with significant effects in only decades; planetary-scale biophysical systems such as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, the Southern Ocean overturning circulation, atmospheric Hadley circulation, summer sea ice, tropical forests, and others have shifted and are projected to falter. And urbanism, deforestation, consumerism, pollution, disease, social stratification, and extractive agriculture are all on accelerating and expanding trends.


This is a human inflection point that will determine future conditions of life on Earth (206). While transitioning to a carbon-free energy system comes with major societal restructuring, the socioeconomic adjustments needed to rapidly decrease emissions also present opportunities for achieving social and ecological justice, reducing disease, promoting the successful achievement of SDGs, and securing food and water availablity for our children.

We can end pollution, improve human health, reign in population growth, and reduce further biophysical risks. Indigenous communities have practiced regenerative ways of managing natural resources by understanding the reciprocal relationship between humans and their natural surroundings. Nature is not a commodity for exploitation, but a living system with its own rights, where humans are life-supported and in turn play a regenerative role. This kinship promotes nature and humanity thriving together.


Under current national plans, global GHG emissions are set to increase 9% by 2030, compared to 2010 levels. Yet the science is clear: emissions must fall by 45% by the end of this decade compared to 2010 levels to meet the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C (207). As governments invest in renewable energy sources, there are enormous cobenefits to be gained in terms of disease reduction, social equity, and a growing respect for Earth's rhythms. Yet renewable energy will not address the root problem of ecological overshoot, social justice, or pollution. Policies are needed that end the production of superfluous and luxury commodities, conserve energy at household and societal levels, stabilize global population, and replace the extractive model with one that emphasizes true sustainability so that more natural resources per capita become available and wealth is far more equitably distributed (208).


The shift away from an extractive, resource-driven global economy toward one that values human rights and livelihoods could redefine global economics and offer reasons for optimism. Opportunities to prevent catastrophic levels of heating are being missed due to accelerating consumerism, the false seduction of dubious climate quick fixes, unverifiable “carbon offsets”, exorbitant pollution levels, and growing economic disparity. Halting global ecological decline and addressing the crises of climate change, biodiversity collapse, pollution, pandemics, and human injustice requires a shift in economic structures, human behavior, and above all, values.

Whether the world is considered overpopulated depends on various factors. It is essential to consider not only population numbers but also consumption patterns, resource distribution, and sustainability when discussing this complex issue. Additionally, strategies for addressing concerns related to population growth often involve a combination of policies related to education, healthcare, resource management, and environmental protection. In developing economies, overpopulation is not just about how many people there are but also about how much each person consumes compared to the availability of resources.


High levels of consumption in developed countries contribute to environmental degradation, raising the issue of unequal distribution of resources. While some regions may be densely populated and face resource constraints, others have much lower population densities and abundant resources. Inequities in resource distribution can lead to perceptions of overpopulation but are in reality more closely related to social inequalities, often with deep historical roots related to imperialism and unjust resource extraction.


Humans must become rejuvenators of natural systems (209). We must shift from wealth as a goal, to sustainaiblity as a goal driving our decisons. This includes developing replacements for plastics, adopting regenerative and restorative cultivation and harvesting methods, investing in cradle to grave research and development focused on material reuse, absolute decoupling of the economy from net resource depletion, and establishing conservation goals to conserve 30–50% of Earth's land, freshwater, and oceans (210).


Addressing social inequities based on gender, ethnicity, and income is crucial, and leaders in political, educational, business, and religious organizations must analyze and redress discriminatory practices, historical racism, and unjust distributions of power that hinder communities from adapting to climate change. It is imperative to promote reproductive healthcare, education, poverty eradication, ecological restoration, environmental justice, and reciprocal relationships with nature. Economic development must not come at the cost of destroying Earth.


As reported in numerous peer-reviewed studies (211), to reverse the many negative impacts generated by our modern socioeconomic system there must be global investment in (Fig. 5):


  1. Rapid and legitimate decarbonization, correcting market distortions favoring fossil fuels, avoiding the spurious trap of “net zero” as an excuse to continue polluting the atmosphere (212), and proper monitoring, verification, and reporting of carbon offset contracts.

  2. Revising the basis for decision-making under the UNFCCC. Decision-making under the UNFCCC should be reorganized by transitioning from unanimous voting to qualified majority voting, enabling decisions to be made with agreement from a defined majority of member nations. To encourage compliance and accountability, penalties such as financial sanctions could be introduced for noncompliance with UNFCCC decisions. These changes would enhance efficiency, enabling prompt action and stronger enforcement of climate-related agreements among member nations.

  3. Building a new era of reciprocity and kinship with nature, and decoupling economic activity from net resource depletion. We must shift Earth-centered governance from an aspirational political issue to a foundational principle through constitutional reforms with policy implications (213).

  4. Implementing sustainable/regenerative practices in all areas of natural resource economics including, especially, agriculture.

  5. Eliminating environmentally harmful subsidies and restricting trade that promotes pollution and unsustainable consumption.

  6. Promote gender justice by supporting women's and girls' education and rights, which reduces fertility rates and raises the standard of living.

  7. Accelerating human development in all SDG sectors, especially promoting reproductive healthcare, education, and equity for girls and women.

  8. In low- and middle-income nations, relieving debt, providing low-cost loans, financing loss and damage, funding clean-energy acceleration, arresting the dangerous loss of biodiversity, and restoring natural ecosystems.

The historical context of imperialism, population growth, and an extractive relationship with nature has led to a series of modern outcomes that put our planet at risk: disease, climate change, biodiversity loss, socioeconomic inequality, and pollution. These risk the stability of human communities. Humanity may achieve a just and sustainable future through global investment in rapid decarbonization, correcting market distortions favoring fossil fuels, avoiding “net zero” as an excuse to continue GHG emissions, proper monitoring and validation of carbon offsets, revising the basis for decision-making under the UNFCCC, decoupling economic activity from net resource depletion, shifting to Earth-centered governance, sustainable/regenerative practices in all areas of natural resource economics, eliminating environmentally harmful subsidies, restrict trade that promotes pollution and unsustainable consumption, accelerate human development in all SDG sectors, promote gender justice by supporting women's and girls’ education and rights which reduces fertility rates and raises the standard of living, and for low- and middle-income nations: relieve debt, provide low-cost loans, finance loss and damage, fund clean-energy acceleration, arrest the dangerous loss of biodiversity, and restore natural ecosystems.


A cultural shift in values

How do we achieve these goals? The authors call for a global cultural shift in social and economic values. Creating a cultural shift toward regenerative practices in socioeconomic activities is complex and requires a multifaceted approach involving, critically, the leaders of the G20, and all nations, comprehensively engaging programs in the following:


  1. Education in sustainability and equity concepts: Increasing awareness and understanding of sustainability and equity issues through education at all levels to empower individuals to make more environmentally conscious decisions. Embedding sustainability and equity into educational curricula at all levels can shape future generations’ values and actions. We advocate adoption of the issues discussed in this paper in school curricula, public service announcements, and as a guide to government decision-making.

  2. Policy, legal frameworks, and legislation: Governments can enact and enforce policies that mandate sustainable practices and ensure social equity, such as progressive environmental regulations, social justice legislation, and economic reforms that prioritize community well-being over individual profit.

  3. Economic incentives: Shifting the economic focus from growth at any cost to a model that values environmental and social well-being. Aligning economic incentives with sustainable outcomes, such as tax breaks for green businesses, can encourage companies and consumers to adopt better practices.

  4. Cross-sector partnerships: Facilitating collaboration between the public sector, private sector, civil society, and academia to develop integrated and comprehensive approaches to sustainability and equity.

  5. Community empowerment and inclusion: Encouraging participatory governance that includes diverse community voices in decision-making processes, particularly those of marginalized and indigenous groups, to ensure that practices are equitable and culturally sensitive.

  6. Corporate responsibility and accountability: Promoting corporate social responsibility through transparency, fair trade, ethical sourcing, and sustainability reporting.

  7. Incentives for sustainable/equitable behavior: Channeling investment into the development and deployment of green technologies that enable sustainable production and consumption patterns. Creating economic and social incentives for businesses and individuals to adopt sustainable practices, like subsidies for renewable energy or tax benefits for sustainable/equitable business practices.

  8. Innovation and technology: Investing in research and development for new technologies can provide more efficient and cleaner alternatives to current practices.

  9. Leadership and commitment: Encouraging leaders within communities, businesses, and governments to model sustainable and equitable behaviors. Leaders in business, politics, and community groups must commit to sustainability goals and lead by example to inspire others.

  10. Cultural narratives: Leveraging media, art, and culture to promote stories and images that valorize sustainability and equity, thereby shaping public opinion and cultural values. Changing the cultural narratives around consumption and progress to value sustainability and long-term thinking over immediate gratification or economic growth at any cost.

  11. Global engagement and solidarity: Participating in international efforts and agreements that aim to address global challenges collectively, ensuring that sustainability and social equity are global priorities.


This systemic transformation requires a shift in collective values, behaviors, and institutional practices to prioritize long-term ecological health and social well-being over immediate gains.

Heads of state must immediately pivot the considerable power of the economy toward restoring a livable planet and an equitable and just socioeconomic system. To achieve a successful future where humanity can thrive, economic values must embrace human equity, health, and welfare, kinship with nature, regenerative resource use, sustainability, and resilience. Emphasizing fairness and inclusivity, these values promote social cohesion and reduce disparities.


Recognizing our interconnectedness with the environment, a focus on sustainability and regenerative resource use ensures the preservation of nature for future generations. Prioritizing health and well-being, societies must invest in healthcare systems, fostering a higher quality of life by building resilience against uncertainties. A new economic paradigm is needed to create a prosperous and harmonious future, meeting the challenges of a rapidly deteriorating world.


Earth is our lifeboat in the sea of space

As succinctly stated by Rees (68), “We are consuming and polluting the biophysical basis of our own existence.” Climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, disease, and social injustice risk the stability of human communities on Earth (Fig. 6). We must stop treating these issues as isolated challenges, and establish a systemic response based on kinship with nature that recognizes Earth as our lifeboat in the cosmic sea of space.


Coauthor and artist Jay Bowen, Upper Skagit Elder, explained why North American Indigenous Peoples described their North America as “turtle island” (Fig. 6):

“It was not understood why the ancestors had referenced it in this way until the pictures of Earth were seen in 1969 from the Apollo Space Mission. The outline of North America resembled a turtle. We had an understanding of the whole Earth even though we lived on only a tiny piece of it. The ancestors understood global society. We understood that Earth was of one family. This family built and strengthened ties through voyaging to engage in trade, cultural exchange, and discovery.”

There is no guarantee of a just, nourishing, and healthy future for humanity, and hope will not catalyze the change we need. That work must fall upon us, and it is clear from this review that we are past due for, and critically far away from, an appropriate reaction to the global emergency we have created.


Note

“Ecological overshoot” is defined as depleting essential ecosystems faster than they can regenerate and polluting the ecosphere beyond nature's assimilative capacity. (The authors cite Stable Planet Alliance patron and advisor, Prof Bill Rees)









Keywords: environmental policy, global economics, climate change, biodiversity loss, socioeconomic inequality

Subject: Sustainability Science (Physical Sciences and Engineering); Sustainability Science (Social and Political Sciences)

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