Time is slipping away in the battle to avoid catastrophic climate change impacts.
The first two of the three reports constituting the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment reported on the basic underlying science and impacts of the climate crisis, respectively. They reported on new science that firmly connects the dots between climate change and extreme weather events, and underscores the increasingly narrow path still left to avert evermore devastating climate change consequences.
These first two reports communicated the urgency of climate action. The third and final report in this sequence, released Monday, examines the viability of climate solutions, showing that the path to a sustainable climate future still exists. In other words, there is still agency on our part.
Make no mistake, though. We’re not there yet. Despite some progress at the COP26 summit last year in Glasgow, the world is still hurtling far too speedily down the global warming highway. The latest report demonstrates that we will soon pass a critical exit ramp off that highway. Pathways that keep warming below the danger level of 1.5 degrees Celsius (3 degrees Fahrenheit) warming will disappear if nations continue current policies.
The existing pledges by the countries of the world might be enough to hold warming to 2.5 degrees C and perhaps lower. That represents substantial progress compared with where we stood at the time of the 2015 Paris Summit (COP21), where we were headed toward nearly 4 degrees C of warming, but it is not nearly enough to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.
This increase would lead to far more devastating consequences than we are experiencing now. Even if the world succeeds at limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C (the goal of the Paris Agreement), we will face much more severe impacts, including far more scorching hot days and a quarter of the world’s population at greater risk of severe flooding. Every bit of warming beyond that would lead to substantially worse impacts — searing heat waves, droughts, and wildfires, unprecedented floods, superstorms, and rising seas — that are already wreaking havoc on us and our planetary environment.
Monday’s report underscores the ethical quandary that the climate crisis presents. It is front-line communities — particularly those in the developing world that had the least role in creating the problem in the first place — that are suffering costly and dangerous losses from a warmer world and have the least financial resources to better protect themselves.
One of the stumbling blocks in Glasgow was the failure of industrial nations to provide the promised $100 billion of financing necessary for developing countries to deal with the already-devastating climate impacts they are experiencing and to leapfrog past fossil fuels and embrace clean energy as they seek to grow their economies. The good news is that the dividends of such investments are greater than the upfront costs. As the report notes, “scaled-up public grants to adaptation and mitigation funding for low-income and vulnerable regions, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, have low costs and high social returns.”
The report shows that the cost of keeping warming below the 1.5 degrees C dangerous level is minimal (one-tenth of 1 percent of annual GDP). And that’s neglecting that the switch to clean energy isn’t really a cost but an investment in a sustainable future and the cost of climate inaction, as measured by destructive extreme weather events, coastal inundation, and adverse health impacts and fatalities, far exceeds the cost of action.
The report describes the substantial progress being made with climate solutions despite the numerous challenges that remain. A clean energy revolution is indeed underway, built on renewable energy, new and improved methods of storage, and smart-grid technology. We have the technology to achieve the necessary reductions in carbon emissions. The obstacles that remain aren’t technological, they’re political.
Which leads us to one of the most important developments in the IPCC Sixth Assessment. For the first time since IPCC’s inception, the report points fingers. It reviews the considerable scholarship that demonstrates that the primary obstacle to meaningful climate action has been the lobbying efforts of fossil fuel interests and the disinformation campaigns that they have waged in an effort to keep the world addicted to fossil fuels.
The IPCC strives to be policy-informative but not policy-prescriptive. It can lead governments to the climate action door, but they must walk through. That means accelerating the transition already underway from fossil fuels toward clean energy. It means investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency technology, employing market mechanisms to cap carbon emissions, and blocking all new fossil fuel infrastructure. It means making the necessary financing available to developing nations right alongside calls for them to take greater action.
It also means that at the UN climate negotiations in Egypt in November, major emitters like the United States must provide funding to help vulnerable countries adapt and manage unavoidable losses and damages from climate change.
Confronting the climate crisis also means voting for politicians who will support climate action and voting out those who won’t. Nothing less than the future of our planet lies in the balance.
Michael E. Mann is a professor of atmospheric sciences and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. His latest book is “The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back our Planet.” Wanjira Mathai is vice president and regional director for Africa at the World Resources Institute and chair of the Wangari Maathai Foundation.