The world is in a dangerously self-destructive place. The new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change spells out in great detail the dire environmental changes that are already underway as a result of global warming — changes that will undoubtedly intensify within the lifetimes of most people alive in the world today unless humankind takes extraordinary steps to curtail carbon emissions. Yet the report also shows why it is increasingly unlikely that those steps will be taken: lack of political will.
It’s stunning that humans cannot be brought to act even as the world careens toward catastrophe. Stunning at least until you consider the power, wealth and greed of the oil and gas industries, the reluctance of ordinary people to make radical sacrifices to fight an invisible enemy, and the enormity of what is now required of all of us because we have waited so long to act. Add to that the Trump administration’s stubborn refusal to accept the scientific consensus on climate change, but to instead push for policies aimed at increased extraction and burning of fossil fuels, and our failure becomes easier to understand.
The report by the IPCC, which operates under the auspices of the United Nations, should be a clarion call for action.
It warns that if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, the atmosphere will climb to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels by 2040, adding to rising seas and propelling more severe storms, wildfires, food shortages, heat waves, droughts and floods. So the world is warming faster than previously believed, meaning the horizon for catastrophe is closer. A child born today will be 22 years old in 2040.
It is technically still possible to counter the continued rise, but even the voluntary emissions caps promised by the nations of the world in the 2015 Paris agreement (from which President Trump has pledged to withdraw the U.S.) are woefully insufficient. Market forces alone won’t get us where we need to go, as the Nobel committee recognized in awarding its prize in economics Monday to two academics whose work explored the nexus between climate change, free markets and government policies. Extraordinary government intervention is vital, including but by no means limited to increased spending on development of alternative fuels, far tougher regulations governing emissions, and policies that raise the price of carbon high enough to change people’s behavior.
Are the world’s nations — and the world’s people — willing to take the necessary steps? Or are we content to imperil the habitability of Earth for the sake of selfishness and near-term economic growth? We have been warned, and warned again, about the dangers we face from our own activities. Now we need to take the crucial steps to address them.