Editorial: The world refuses to slow its suicidal course toward catastrophic climate change

A new report says global fossil fuel production will be more than twice the amount we can safely burn if we want to keep global temperatures from rising to dangerous levels. Above, the Kern River Oil Field in Bakersfield in 2015.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

The United Nations’ Environment Program released a rather dire report Wednesday concluding that by 2030, global production of fossil fuels — extracted coal, oil and natural gas — would be more than double what we can safely consume if we hope to limit the most severe impacts from human-caused global warming.

In other words, rather than adopting policies and practices to slow the rise in global temperatures, humanity is essentially continuing on the same suicidal course it’s been on for decades. And, of course, Trump administration policies seeking ever more fossil fuel production in the U.S. are exactly opposite of what we need to do.

The Emissions Gap Report is the first U.N. effort to compare projected global emissions with the stated goals of the 2015 Paris agreement, in which world governments acknowledged the looming danger and pledged to take steps to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. The agreement, which aimed to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, was shepherded by the Obama administration; President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the pact would leave the U.S., despite its key role in forging the agreement, as a global outlier, the sole country not a party to it.

The new report extrapolates from emissions data from the U.S. and seven other nations that account for 60% of global fossil fuel production. It also builds on an earlier report that projects that even if nations meet their current commitments under the Paris agreement temperatures would still rise somewhere between 3 and 4 degrees Celsius. Even more troublesome: Global carbon emissions “have remained exactly at the levels projected a decade ago, under the business-as-usual scenarios used in Emissions Gap Reports,” wrote Inger Andersen, executive director of the Environment Program.


That spotlights a key hurdle in making meaningful changes in how we create and consume energy. Too many nations pursue too many policies — from pushing increased fossil fuel production to subsidies for coal, oil and gas industries — that work against their promised reductions in emissions.

There is no easy way to fix this, but there are some pretty clear steps that could be taken, including dropping tax breaks and subsidies for the fuels that are imperiling us, thus letting market prices more accurately reflect the true cost; changing the market itself by using government policies, including carbon taxes, to push a rapid global transition to renewable energy; and helping developing nations whose demands for power are growing to build renewable energy infrastructures that do not rely on fossil fuels.

And we must do this with a sense of urgency, and without deluding ourselves about the fate that awaits us if we do not.