Editorial: Climate change remains the greatest crisis of our crisis-filled era

Smoke hovers over the forest amid the August Complex fire in September
Smoke hovers over the forest amid the August Complex fire in September.
(Mike McMillan / USFS)

As the nation deals with the tragic drama of President Trump’s final days in office, and the world reels under a now-year-long assault by a virus, the Earth continues to evolve into a dangerously inhospitable environment. And it is our collective fault.

This past year was, in essence, in a statistical tie with 2016 for the hottest on record, with temperatures driven upward by the warming effects of human activities that spew carbon and other greenhouse compounds into the atmosphere.

Temperatures breached 100 degrees in, of all places, Siberia, setting a record for north of the Arctic Circle. Climate change-driven wildfires scorched the Earth’s surface from Australia to the American West — the August Complex fire in Northern California became the first in the state to burn more than 1 million acres — to the Arctic, all adding yet more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.


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It is telling, some climate scientists argue, that the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2005 — including each of the last seven years — suggesting a steady pace upward that could push the average global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels within the decade. That, notably, is the level at which scientists believe nature will deliver even more dire consequences than what we’re already experiencing.

So what is the world doing about this? Hardly much of anything at levels sufficient to address the problem. Part of the drag has been the Trump administration’s abject opposition to efforts to reduce our production and use of fossil fuels, an immoral and arrogant policy of prioritizing short-term (and short-lasting) profits above the health of the planet and everything that lives on it.

But other nations have been slow to act as well, something we hope will change with President-elect Joe Biden’s pledge to once again make the U.S. a global leader. He already has named John F. Kerry who, as the Obama administration’s secretary of State, was instrumental in reaching the 2015 Paris agreement to combat climate change, as an international envoy on the issue, and is creating a White House office to address climate change domestically to be led by Gina McCarthy, Obama’s head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Both will be working within the framework of Biden’s ambitious climate-change agenda.

As the United Nations annual Adaptation Gap Report released Thursday shows, nations have a long way to go. The report found that while nearly three of four nations recognize the need for direct and concerted action to adapt to the changes already underway, few have actually devised plans sufficient to address it, and annual global funding by wealthy nations to help under-developed nations is less than half of what is needed.

That followed annual U.N. reports released in December that found similarly distressing mismatches between individual nations’ need to reduce emissions, and the reality. Even if countries meet the promises they made under the Paris agreement, the average global temperature would still rise by the end of the century to 3.2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. The world’s nations would need to triple promised reductions in carbon emissions to meet Paris’ target of 2 degrees, and quintuple the reductions to hit the lower, preferred target of 1.5 degrees.

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Instead, while nations need to cut fossil fuel production by about 6% a year through 2030 to meet the Paris goals, “countries are instead planning and projecting an average annual increase of 2%.” We clearly are going in the wrong direction, with disastrous results in the offing.


It’s difficult to say whether the broad contours of Biden’s climate plan will get us where we need to be, especially since aggressive spending and investment will require the cooperation of Congress. Even though Trump will be gone shortly, his coterie of climate-change deniers remain in the House and Senate, and we can expect Republicans who spent the last four years embracing deficit spending like New Deal Democrats to suddenly become worried about the nation’s overdrawn checking account.

Adapting to the realities of climate change will be expensive, but not confronting this head-on and in as unified a manner as possible will endanger lives, disrupt food chains and biospheres, propel even more migration of climate refugees, and potentially destabilize governments. The world cannot afford that.