An international team of scientists led by Oregon State University (OSU) researchers has used a novel 500-year dataset to frame a ‘restorative’ pathway through which humanity can avoid the worst ecological and social outcomes of climate change.
Oregon State’s William Ripple, former OSU postdoctoral researcher Christopher Wolf and collaborators argue their scenario should be included in climate models along with the five “shared socioeconomic pathways”, or SSPs, that are used by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Dr William Ripple, distinguished professor of ecology at Oregon State University, told Yorkshire Bylines:
“This paper is our suggested holistic pathway for input into climate models to save the world from climate change as well as other crises involving biodiversity loss and social injustice. I did this paper because many people do not realize that climate change is a symptom of a much broader problem”.
“We understand that our proposed scenario may be a major challenge to implement given current trends in emissions, a lack of political will and widespread social denial, but its merits can’t even be honestly debated if it’s not included in the suite of options”, said Ripple, “We’re arguing for radical incrementalism: achieving massive change through small, short-term steps. And we’re offering a much-needed contrast to many other climate scenarios, which may be more aligned with the status quo, which isn’t working”.
Equity and social justice need to be prioritised
The paper, ‘An environmental and socially just climate mitigation pathway for a planet in peril’, published in Environmental Research, outlined that the continued current narrative of economic growth at all costs limits long-term solutions.
“To effectively address climate change, it is essential for governments to take holistic action that prioritizes equity and social justice. However, the situation presents a challenge as the current viewpoint is rooted in continued growth, which limits consideration of different perspectives, including those of diverse and vulnerable populations.
“The climate crisis requires immediate action, but a long-term perspective is also important given the magnitude of the necessary changes and the ultimate goal of cooling our planet back down to a safe level.”
In a press release, Dr Ripple commented:
“By prioritizing large-scale societal change, our proposed pathway could limit warming much more effectively than pathways that support rising resource consumption by wealthy nations. We aim to bend the curves on a wide range of planetary vital signs with a holistic vision for addressing climate change, biodiversity loss and socioeconomic injustice. Our work presents a case for how humanity can embark on the journey of saving the world from these environmental and social crises.”
He explained further to Yorkshire Bylines that, “Our proposed restorative pathway is primarily intended as a long-term solution to climate change and other environmental and social crises. However, we also emphasize the need for immediate action in the context of ‘radical incrementalism’ – a framework where we can work toward rapidly achieving small changes, evaluating their effectiveness, proceeding with further incremental steps, and so on”.
Multiple levers pulled at the same time
Wolf, Ripple and collaborators took a long-term look back at a range of variables: fossil fuel emissions, human population, GDP, land use, greenhouse gas concentrations, global temperature, vertebrate wildlife species abundance, income inequality and meat production to create their holistic pathway.
Dr Ripple told Yorkshire Bylines that, “To properly address humanity’s overexploitation of natural resources, we need action across all areas of society and the economy. In the near term, dramatically reducing fossil fuel-related emissions of methane and other short-lived pollutants is particularly important”.
He continued, “Our proposed pathway can help mitigate multiple crises, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and injustice. We believe this could make it more feasible than, for example, relying primarily on potential technological solutions to climate change”.
Unlike some of the current shared socioeconomic pathways, the restorative pathway does not then rely on the development of carbon capture technologies, nor does it assume continued economic growth as the SSPs do.
The authors suggest that equitable economic policies that address overconsumption and support convergence in resource use could stabilise per capita GDP over time. They also argue that fertility rates and human population size could decrease through better education for girls and young women, along with other rights-based policies.
Treat the patient, not the symptoms
The paper highlighted that current policies focus on short-term solutions rather than the permanent paradigm shifts that are required. “To address climate change, we must address these underlying causes and take steps towards sustainable living practices that prioritize the health of the biosphere and all its human and nonhuman inhabitants.”
It continued, “Ecological overshoot or the overexploitation of the Earth is the cause of multiple environmental and social crises, and policies should focus on addressing this issue rather than simply treating the symptoms”.
As Dr Ripple explained, “We view climate change as a symptom of the broader problem of ecological overshoot – the overexploitation of the Earth, which is driving many environmental crises. Ultimately, we’ll need transformative and equitable action to tackle this underlying issue”.
What we are doing isn’t working
Whether countries will be willing to adapt to this new environmental and socially just pathway remains doubtful, as, at present, countries even struggle to enact nationally determined contributions to reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
Any existing model which advocates a ‘business as usual’ approach for continued use of fossil fuels only continues to imperil the planet’s finite resources even further.
Too many countries want to be seen as climate leaders – but too few want to act like climate leaders.