Editorial: The world is running out to time to blunt climate change. Where’s the urgency?

Emissions from a coal-fired power plant are silhouetted against the setting sun.
Emissions from a coal-fired power plant in Independence, Mo., are silhouetted against the setting sun in February 2021.
(Associated Press)

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres didn’t mince words in responding to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which shows global warming is on track to blow past a critical 2.7-degree Fahrenheit limit by the end of this decade unless countries make swift and dramatic cuts in fossil fuel emissions. This final installment of a three-part climate assessment, which follows previous reports on the science of climate change and its escalating impacts, focuses on the world’s progress in cutting emissions and remaining options to avoid disastrous levels of warming.

Guterres said the assessment, released Monday, revealed a “litany of broken climate promises” and “empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world.” He said government and business leaders who claim they are committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions are lying. “And the results will be catastrophic.” He cast blame on high-polluting countries and corporations that are “choking our planet, based on their vested interests and historic investments in fossil fuels.” He didn’t name them. But we know who they are.

He’s right, of course. But his remarks stand out because of how sharply they contrast with the complacency shown by most world leaders, even as they are confronted with yet another harrowing climate assessment that demands immediate action.


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But little urgency to scale up our response is evident in the U.S., where President Biden’s climate agenda is stalled while he releases oil from the nation’s strategic reserve and pledges to boost natural gas exports to Europe in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Nor is it happening in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to send car owners $400 gas tax relief payments, the state is not on track to meet its own outdated emissions-reduction targets and lawmakers haven’t passed significant climate legislation in years.

The solutions are, at this point, obvious. Stop burning fossil fuels. End the construction and operation of coal, oil and natural gas infrastructure. Dramatically accelerate the switch to clean renewable energy. Cut greenhouse-gas emissions nearly in half by 2030 and get to net zero by mid-century.

Some progress is documented in the report. Growth in global emissions slowed during the 2010s and there is evidence of sustained reductions in some countries. The very worst-case projections of temperatures as much as 9 degrees higher by the end of the century now appear unlikely. But the world remains dangerously off track. If we don’t move quickly to slash pollution, we are only a few years from hurtling past the goal of limiting global warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1.5 degrees Celsius, which world governments agreed to aim for in the 2015 Paris accord to avert the worst consequences of climate change.

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“The last two decades saw the highest increase in emissions in human history even though we know how much trouble we’re in,” said Inger Andersen, executive director  of the U.N. Environment Program.

The IPCC assessment makes clear that preventing catastrophic climate change is no longer a question of science, technology or even money — the cost of solar, wind and batteries have come down as much as 85% over the last decade, according to the report, and generating renewable energy is now often cheaper than burning fossil fuels. The barriers are entirely political at this point, maintained by politicians and the fossil fuel interests they prop up.

The report, written by hundreds of scientists and approved by 195 nations, does not single out individual countries. But the United States has spewed more cumulative planet-warming pollution than any other nation. Globally, the top 10% of households with the highest emissions per capita generate as much as 45% of the pollution, the report says, while poorer nations and people that are least responsible for the climate crisis stand to suffer most.


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Now is not only a time to be disappointed and outraged by our leaders’ shortsighted and industry-serving cowardice. It’s a moment to take stock of politicians who purport to represent our interests at the national, state and local level and hold them accountable, forcefully and vociferously, for their inaction, delay and denial. That means calling out the president and Congress, governors and state legislatures, city councils and demanding a response from every elected official who doesn’t step up to take appropriate action now.

These next few years are critical and will determine how severe global warming will become. Unless countries ramp up cuts in climate pollution, the planet will be 4.3 to 6.3 degrees warmer by the end of the century, the report found, resulting in horrifying impacts like more devastating droughts, wildfires, flooding, extreme heat and sea level rise.

Every fraction of a degree of warming we prevent means less human suffering, less damage to nature and the economy and more options to adapt. We have the tools and knowledge to secure a tolerable future. It’s time to act.