Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Second Warning to Humanity

By Ian Lowe

Fifteen thousand scientists have issued a warning to humanity that “many current life forms could be annihilated or committed to extinction by the end of this century”.

Forty-five years ago, the first report to the Club of Rome was published. The Limits to Growth was a fundamental challenge to conventional politics and economics, which presume that endless growth is possible. It used the first global systems model to show that limits would be reached this century, with the most likely outcome a catastrophic decline in the capacity of natural systems to support human needs.

Twenty-five years ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists and more than 1500 researchers published the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity. The document was signed by the majority of living Nobel Laureates in the sciences. They warned that human development was on a collision course with natural systems and urged “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and life on it” to avoid “vast human misery”. The statement documented several areas of concern: depletion of the ozone layer, accelerating climate change, loss of biodiversity, freshwater availability, forest loss, marine life depletion, ocean dead zones and increasing human population.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the warning, more than 15,000 leading scientists have issued A Second Notice ( It warns that all of the alarming trends noted in the earlier warning have worsened, with the singular exception of halting the damage to the ozone layer. It describes as “especially troubling” the potential of catastrophic climate change and the development of the sixth major extinction event in the Earth’s history, with the prospect that “many current life forms could be annihilated or committed to extinction by the end of this century”.

The statement says we need to rein in “our intense but geographically and demographically uneven material consumption”. The list of “urgent steps needed to safeguard our imperilled biosphere” is daunting: limit population growth, “reassess the role of an economy rooted in growth”, restore ecosystems, protect habitats, constrain invasive species, and manage a rapid transition to renewable energy.

There is some good news. We have rapidly curbed the use of ozone-depleting substances, extreme poverty and hunger has been reduced, renewable energy systems are expanding rapidly, the rates of deforestation have slowed in some regions, and fertility rates have been successfully reduced in many regions by investing in women’s education. But we have made no progress in the huge task of restructuring our economy “to ensure that prices, taxation and incentive systems take into account the real cost which consumption patterns impose on our environment”.

The report concludes with the warning: “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out”. Our decision-makers still show no sign of having heard the repeated warnings, and remain obsessed with short-term economic considerations, even using slogans like “jobs and growth” as if the ecological issues could safely be ignored.

A landmark event in the history of Australia’s electricity system took place in South Australia late in November. Tesla executive Elon Musk had told the State government he could build within 100 days a 100 MW array of lithium ion batteries to provide storage and help make better use of South Australia’s wind turbines and solar panels. The agreement had been signed at the end of September, giving Musk until the end of the year to fulfil his pledge.

The project was actually online before the end of November. The SA Premier, Jay Weatherill, formally opened the new facility near Jamestown on 1 December, just 2 months after the contract was signed. He was understandably cheerful that the government’s gamble with the unproven technology had been vindicated, especially as he had been criticised by the Australian government for the move.

Perhaps more importantly, the day before the battery bank was officially online, the market operator had asked for help to meet a late afternoon peak in demand. It was a very hot afternoon and the wind dropped, creating a potential problem. The battery system was switched on and supplied 74 MW to the grid, avoiding the need to fire up a gas turbine.

The batteries had been fully charged the night before, when the wind was blowing and demand was low. So the two aims of the battery investment, to help alleviate power shortages and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, were satisfied.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.