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Scientists say climate extremes of 2023 point to need to end fossil fuels

In a new climate change report, an international group of scientists say they are “shocked by the ferocity” of this year’s weather extremes and warn that the climate is entering “uncharted territory.”

With an eye toward the upcoming United Nations climate talks beginning late next month, the authors urged an end to subsidies for fossil fuels, which have nearly doubled amid global energy insecurity and disruptions to energy supplies.

“Fossil fuel subsidies effectively penalize renewable energy production at a time when expanding renewable capacity should be a top priority,” the report’s lead author William Ripple told Newsweek in an email exchange. Ripple, a distinguished professor at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, linked government support for oil, gas and coal to many of this year’s climate extremes.

“Continued fossil fuel emissions increase the likelihood of catastrophic climate risks, including unprecedented floods, heat waves, and extreme storms,” he said.

The report details how many of those climate impacts reached new levels in 2023, including global temperatures, ocean warming and wildfires that all hit record highs. Of the 35 global vital signs the authors measured, 20 are now at record extremes.

The new report updates a 2020 article declaring a “climate emergency” which has since been cosigned by more than 15,000 scientists. In the new report, published Tuesday in the monthly journal BioSience, the authors said we are now seeing the manifestations of earlier predictions about climate change.

“Unfortunately, time is up,” they wrote, adding that we are now in “a situation no one has ever witnessed firsthand in the history of humanity.”

The report does not just serve as a warning of impending disaster, however. The scientists also encouraged action that can meet the scale of the challenge and reduce the severity of future climate impacts. “Big problems need big solutions,” they wrote.

Paying Polluters

One of the report’s top recommendations is to identify and eliminate the various government policies that support the production and use of fossil fuels.

There is a common misperception that it is only green energy sources that need subsidies to compete in the marketplace. However, the report points out the staggering number of subsidies also flowing to fossil fuels.

Governments around the world have used subsidies such as tax credits, loans and other favorable policies to dramatically increase clean energy supplies. The report noted that solar and wind energy grew by 17 percent globally between 2021 and 2022. But that is still dwarfed by fossil fuel consumption, which remains 15 times greater than green energy, and the subsidies for dirtier energy sources are in many cases far higher than those for cleaner ones.

“Fossil fuel subsidies take many forms in various countries,” Ripple said. Those include direct support for fossil fuel exploration and extraction, tax incentives for companies and consumer assistance that aims to buffer against high fuel prices. There are also indirect subsidies in the form of policies that mask the true environmental and public health costs associated with drilling, mining and burning fossil fuels.

In the Glasgow Climate Pact adopted in 2021, nations agreed to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. However, the report noted, fossil subsidies roughly doubled from 2021 to 2022, growing by more than $1 trillion around the world, partly due to disruption to the global energy market caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Energy prices have been increasing due to geopolitical conflict, especially the war in Ukraine,” Ripple said. “Thus, subsidies have also increased to partly offset these price increases.”

The Glasgow Pact recognized the need to provide “targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable” to guard against price shocks. However, an analysis this February by the International Energy Agency showed that many government measures were not well targeted and “artificially maintained fossil fuels’ competitiveness versus low-emissions alternatives.”

Ripple said this year’s climate talks, known as the Conference of Parties, or COP 28, should address those subsidies.

“We hope that COP 28 will result in action on fossil fuel subsidies, ideally, in the form of a global agreement to rapidly phase out these subsidies,” he said.

Ecological Overshoot

Ripple and his co-authors also argued for a collective shift in perspective on climate change. Rather than viewing climate as an isolated environmental issue, they wrote, we should view it as a systemic threat.

“We view climate change as a symptom of the broader issue of ecological overshoot,” Ripple said. Unsustainable consumption of resources, he said, also threatens biodiversity, fresh water supply and our food systems, while exacerbating social and economic injustice. He argued that climate solutions must ultimately address these other issues.

“As humanity continues to place immense strain on Earth systems, any climate-only remedies will simply reposition this strain,” he said.

Ripple said the report provides evidence that “catastrophic” climate change has arrived, but that does not mean that climate action is futile. The authors said it is vital to limit warming as much as possible.

“I have hope, but we need more action,” Ripple said, and he stressed that even small reductions in future warming could make a big difference to reduce the chances of extreme events.

“We view the present as an extraordinary time in history,” he said, “where we have an unprecedented opportunity to minimize suffering for future generations.”

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