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The Ripple Effect - A (second) warning to humanity


written by Kevin Max

IN 2017, BILL RIPPLE SAT IN FRONT OF A COMPUTER IN HIS OFFICE on the campus of Oregon State University and composed an email. He sent his research paper—World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice—to forty colleagues. “Humanity is now being given a second notice, as illustrated by these alarming trends,” Ripple and colleagues said in the article. “We are jeopardizing our future by not reining in our intense but geographically and demographically uneven material consumption and by not perceiving continued rapid population growth as a primary driver behind many ecological and even societal threats. By failing to adequately limit population growth, reassess the role of an economy rooted in growth, reduce greenhouse gases, incentivize renewable energy, protect habitat, restore ecosystems, curb pollution, halt defaunation, and constrain invasive alien species, humanity is not taking the urgent steps needed to safeguard our imperilled biosphere.” Within forty-eight hours, Ripple had 1,200 signatories. By the time the paper was published in the journal BioScience that fall, it had 15,364 signatures from scientists in 184 countries. “On that day, my life changed,” Ripple said.

Since then, A Second Notice has reportedly prompted speeches in Israel’s Knesset and Canada’s BC legislature and made the pages of France’s Le Monde. Back at home, OSU’s Faculty Senate and Associated Students of Oregon State University passed a joint resolution endorsing the research.

The Second Notice comes twentyfive years after 1,700 scientists, many of them Nobel laureates in science, came together to warn governments and the general public of the evidence of an encroaching environmental disaster. Their statement in 1992 landed with the impact of a snowflake on a remote mountaintop.

Has the world finally awoken to its existential crisis? If so, Dr. Bill Ripple had a voice in it.


Ripple was born in a rural community in Lesterville, South Dakota, about 80 miles southwest of Sioux Falls, where his greatgrandfather homesteaded. The population was 200 during his childhood in the 1950s. His father farmed and worked as the postmaster. His mother cut hair in the salon and young Ripple grew up outdoors, riding his bicycle and hiking and teaching himself photography.

In college, he scored a job working in South Dakota’s Custer State Park, set into the Black Hills National Forest. At the pastoral park, bison roam and classic American westerns such as How the West was Won and A Man Called Horse were shot here. Ripple’s life began to take on purpose.

“One job I had was to take photographs of nature,” Ripple recalled. “I realized how inspired I am by nature and how great it would be to do a job for a living outdoors.”

Bill Ripple is at the forefront of the fight over climate change.

Bill Ripple is at the forefront of the fight over climate change.

Robin Comforto

In 1974, while still in college, Ripple joined Cameron Ferweda from the U.S. Forest Service on a historic photographic expedition. Ripple helped Ferweda find and photograph the landmarks that British photographer William H. Illingworth had shot 100 years prior as part of the 1874 Custer Black Hills Expedition. The Custerled foray was commissioned by President Ulysses S. Grant with the purpose of determining if the area was hospitable for a military fort. Then gold was found in the Black Hills and, soon, prospectors with pans swarmed the area.

Ripple and Ferweda researched, compared, plotted, explored and sought the same rocks, trees, grasslands and mountain profiles that Illingworth had documented a century before. This work and that of others culminated in a photographic before-and-after book—Yellow Ore, Yellow Hair, Yellow Pine—which documented human impact on the Black Hills over a century.

“What I really like is the historical ecology aspect to put things in perspective,” Ripple said. “This is really important to me, and I think it’s important to science.”

Ripple went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in geography from South Dakota State University and a doctorate from Oregon State University, where he is a distinguished professor of ecology.

His work in the field and through his published works were unwitting conduits leading to A Second Notice. He worked on a northern spotted owl project before commencing his groundbreaking research on wolves in Yellowstone National Park. None of it came without controversy.

In June 1990, following the federal decree that the northern spotted owl and habitat should be protected, thus curtailing logging in federal forests, loggers caravanned in 434 logging rigs, honking their way through Roseburg in a long, loud protest, according to The New York Times.

Earlier that year, 7,000 loggers and millworkers crammed into downtown Portland to protest the reduction of logging in federal forests. “We aren’t going to stand for a bunch of Volkswagendriving environmentalists coming here and driving us to the poor house,” Mike Draper, executive director of the Western Council of Industrial Workers, one of the two largest millworkers unions in America, reportedly told the UPI news agency.

In 1996, Ripple went to a presentation on how aspen trees were declining in Yellowstone. “There was controversy and a mystery behind this,” Ripple said. He took on Erik Larsen, a doctoral student at Oregon State, to work together to solve this riddle. The two spent weeks drilling into aspens in Yellowstone and extracting samples in 1998. They found something odd—that aspen trees stopped regenerating in the early twentieth century. There were big old aspens but few small, young aspen trees.

The pair researched events that could have led to this change and found wolves were being killed off in the late 1920s. Indeed, a federal predator control program was the leading cause of grey wolf extirpation. “This was our a-ha moment,” Ripple said. “We put forth a hypothesis in 2000 that the killing of the wolves may have expanded the elk population to the point where they would eat the aspen sprouts and, as a result, they would not grow into tall trees.” Ripple had divined a, well, ripple effect. In natural sciences, the ripple effect takes the moniker “trophic cascade,” or a succession of consequences along a food chain when one species or predator is eliminated. The research paper on this topic, published in Biological Conservation, was an early professional coup for Ripple, whose wolf research brought him to the fore of the scientific community.


Since the ’80s, the number of voices on climate change has steadily grown but most of their words have fallen silently, like an unobserved tree in the woods. Perhaps because people are busy these days and focused on near-term survival, slow-motion catastrophes are not compelling or concerning to the general public. Maybe people and governments believe climate change is a problem too far gone to engage. Maybe our culture increasingly rings itself with social media, where science has neither the reach nor power of celebrity. Perhaps air, water quality and mortality have less political voice than corporations in the aftermath of Citizens United, a 2010 Supreme Court decision that effectively swapped government by the people for one paid for by unregulated big corporate donations. No matter the case, objective data behind A Second Notice show we continue to put human and aquatic existence in jeopardy.

“You can think of ocean acidification as injecting CO 2 into the water like a Soda Stream,” said Kerry Nickols, an assistant professor of biology at California State University, where she studies the efficacy of sea kelp in reducing ocean acidification.

Since 1992, the amount of harmful CO 2 from burning fossil fuels in the atmosphere has jumped more than 62 percent. When the CO 2 goes into the water, it lowers the pH and increases water’s acidity. Higher acidity has an impact on aquatic life and is, perhaps, most profound in shellfish such as oysters, clams, mussels, lobster and crab—industries that employ millions of people around the world and whose value easily climbs into the billions of dollars.

The increased CO 2 emissions also trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, warming ambient air and water temperatures. “Just by warming the water, we’re increasing sea level because warm water takes up more volume,” Nickols said. Further, as the Antarctic ice caps melt, sea levels are rising at increasing rates. “A lot of New Orleans will be gone,” Nickols said.

In 2007, the State of Oregon even got on board and formed the Oregon Global Warming Commission, a body that submits biennial climate change reports to the Oregon Legislature. In 2017, the commission pushed up its reporting date to the Legislature so it would land months before the legislative session, to allow for full consideration and legislative action. The report warned of disturbing trends in greenhouse gas emissions and increasing temperatures and highlighted political interference. “The political pendulum in the federal government has swung 180 degrees, from an Administration that committed to an historic 2016 global Paris Agreement and was actively driving down power plant and vehicle emissions, to one that has characterized climate change as a Chinese hoax. While this shift was largely unrelated to climate policy, it casts a dark cloud over prospects for progress at the federal level.”

If Ripple and his colleagues’ warning wasn’t enough, in October 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) kicked the dog. The IPCC, an international body of scientists from dozens of member countries, published its special report on the impacts of global warming. Global warming will likely increase average temperatures by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit within as few as eleven years if we don’t lower our carbon dioxide emissions, the report noted.

On the heels of the IPCC report, yet another bombshell report dropped. “The Fourth National Climate Assessment” landed on Black Friday in 2018, while many Americans were rushing to and fro to take advantage of holiday sales. This report warned of catastrophic damage to the United States from the effects of climate change. It concluded that “while Americans are responding in ways that can bolster resilience and improve livelihoods, neither global efforts to mitigate the causes of climate change nor regional efforts to adapt to the impacts currently approach the scales needed to avoid substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades.”

Of the 1,600-page report that was the work of thirteen federal agencies and 300 scientists, President Donald Trump told reporters, “I don’t believe it,” before hopping aboard Marine One en route to a political rally.

Current politics aside, the solution to climate change is still not beyond our grasp, according to leading scientists. David Suzuki, who has a Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Chicago and who is a household name in Canada for being the longtime host of longrunning science show The Nature of Things, has seen this all before. In his senior year at Amherst College in 1957, he watched the first successful space shot as the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launched into orbit around Earth. Instead of conceding defeat in the nascent Cold War, America dove right into the imposing task of sending three men to the moon in a metal rocket. “

The American response was quite remarkable,” Suzuki recalled. “No American said, ‘We can’t catch up to the Soviets.’ We came together as a country and started pouring money into science. In 1961, President Kennedy said, ‘We’re getting astronauts to the moon and back within a decade’ and did. … I keep telling Americans that it’s un-American to say we can’t fight climate change. That’s not the America I knew.”

Ripple said he is cautiously optimistic of society’s challenges regarding climate change. “I have hope that the right steps will be taken,” he said. “Deep down, however, there needs to be more education about what’s happening on planet Earth.”


Two American economists at the forefront of work on climate change and the role of governments in boosting growth have been jointly awarded the prestigious Nobel Memorial Prize for economics. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said William Nordhaus and Paul Romer were honored for their research into two of the most “basic and pressing” economic issues of the age.

Nordhaus made his name by warning policymakers during the first stirrings of concern about climate change in the 1970s that their economic models were not properly taking account of the impact of global warming, and he is seen as one of the pioneers of environmental economics.

Romer is seen as the prime mover behind the endogenous growth theory, the notion that countries can improve their underlying performance if they concentrate on supply-side measures such as research and development, innovation and skills.

Read a brief introduction to the work of William Nordhaus and Paul Romer at www.bit.ly/economicsciences

(Source: www.nobelprize.org)


Oregon’s elected officials’ national environmental scorecard:


Jeff Merkley (D) 99%

Ron Wyden (D) 90%


Suzanne Bonamici (D) 98%

Earl Blumenauer (D) 96%

Peter DeFazio (D) 91%

Kurt Schrader (D) 71%

Greg Walden (R) 9%

(Source: Oregon League of Conservation Voters)


As most political leaders respond to pressure, scientists, media influencers and all people must insist their governments take immediate action as a moral imperative to current and future generations of human and other life.


• Re-examine our own reproduction (ideally to replacement level at most).

• Drastically diminish our per-capita consumption of fossil fuels, meat and other resources.


• Prioritize the enactment of connected, well-funded and well-managed reserves for a significant proportion of the world’s terrestrial, marine, freshwater and aerial habitats.

• Maintain nature’s ecosystem services by halting the conversion of forests, grasslands and other native habitats.

• Restore native plant communities at large scales, particularly forest landscapes.

• Rewild regions with native species, especially apex predators, to restore ecological processes and dynamics.

• Develop and adopt adequate policy instruments to remedy defaunation, the poaching crisis, and the exploitation and trade of threatened species.

• Reduce food waste through education and better infrastructure.

• Promote dietary shifts toward mostly plant-based foods.

• Further reduce fertility rates by ensuring women and men have access to education and voluntary familyplanning services, especially where such resources are still lacking.

• Increase outdoor nature education for children, as well as the overall engagement of society in the appreciation of nature.

• Divest monetary investments and purchases to encourage positive environmental change.

• Devise and promote new green technologies and massively adopt renewable energy sources while phasing out subsidies to energy production through fossil fuels.

• Revise our economy to reduce wealth inequality and ensure prices, taxation and incentive systems take into account the real costs that consumption patterns impose on our environment.

• Estimate a scientifically defensible, sustainable human population size for the long term while rallying nations and leaders to support that vital goal.

(Source: World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice)



SEE MORE: Help support The Second Warning, an upcoming documentary chronicling Bill Ripple’s work, at www.bit.ly/thesecondwarning