The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest, highly anticipated report on the state of Earth’s climate. The report, which updates the previous effort from eight years ago, represents the collective assessment by several hundred scientists from around the world of efforts to keep global temperatures from rising to levels that would trigger catastrophic changes in Earth’s environment and weather conditions. Spoiler alert: It’s bad.
The report rules out any possibility of preventing the 1.5-degrees-Celsius rise in global temperatures that was the most ambitious target set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. That threshold will be reached by 2040, no matter what mitigation efforts are adopted now. Some of the changes in climate and weather patterns currently on display will be irreversible. And while it will certainly make no difference to climate change deniers, the report states that the “unequivocal” cause of the rise in global temperatures is human activity, compared to the 2013 report’s “near certainty” of human causality.
But while the report makes for grim reading, it also offers some hope, however bare. In a best-case scenario, the rise in temperatures will level off at 1.5 degrees C, avoiding the most extreme effects of global warming. That would require a successful planetary effort that reaches “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050, while also removing significant amounts of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
Absent this successful effort, global temperatures could increase by 4.4 degrees C by the end of the century in a worst-case scenario, with the added risk of triggering the dreaded “tipping points” that could further exacerbate and accelerate the process. And even the moderate scenarios would blow through the Paris Agreement’s less ambitious goal of limiting temperature increases to 2 degrees C.
The report places added importance on this year’s COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow, where global leaders will meet to outline their updated climate plans under the Paris accord. It will also put added pressure on those leaders to be more ambitious, given that most of the world has yet to fully translate their plans of action into legislation, let alone implement them.
On the bright side, it comes on the heels of several positive developments in global efforts to contain carbon emissions. The first is the return to the fold of the U.S. under President Joe Biden, who has reentered the Paris Agreement and announced ambitious emission-reduction targets, in an effort to reclaim leadership of global climate diplomacy for the United States. But Washington has paid a price for its four-year absence under Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, in terms of the opportunity costs of delayed implementation of emission-reduction measures, but also the reputational costs of both flouting the international consensus on climate change and introducing uncertainty about the dependability of the U.S. commitment to mitigation efforts.
In the meantime, the European Union has stolen a step on the U.S., having passed its “net zero by 2050” goal into law, while also introducing a draft plan for reaching it that now serves as the trans-Atlantic benchmark. The proposed measures face a lengthy period of consultation and negotiation within the bloc, which will have to overcome opposition from Central and Eastern European member states whose power grids are still largely dependent on coal-fueled plants. But if passed, it will radically reconfigure everything from how Europeans drive to how they heat their homes. It will also affect how they trade with the world, due to its controversial Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism. A tax in everything but name, the mechanism will impose costs on imports of emissions-intensive products from countries where weaker emissions standards would provide a competitive advantage over European producers.
Other major emitting countries that have announced plans to achieve net zero emissions include Japan (by 2050) and China (by 2060). Though they remain in various stages of adoption, and none are remotely near the implementation stage, collectively this embrace of net zero represents at the very least a nominal acceptance of the urgency conveyed by the IPCC report.
A more skeptical—and probably more realistic—reading of the current mitigation efforts, however, is that, combined, they are a promise of too little, too late. Even if the major “net zero” pledges become reality by 2050, we will still be living with the permanent or long-term consequences of our collective inaction over the past three decades, with significant implications for human life as well as the Earth’s environment and ecosystem.
One long-standing obstacle that continues to stand in the way of meaningful climate action is the imbalance between who is responsible for the problem and who must bear the cost of the solution.
But there is no guarantee that what is being promised will be delivered, and many reasons to believe that it won’t be. And even if it is, it will create its own set of problems and injustices.
One long-standing obstacle that continues to stand in the way of meaningful climate action is the imbalance between who is responsible for the problem and who must bear the cost of the solution. The U.S. and Europe have historically emitted the vast majority of greenhouse gases, and they are still Nos. 2 and 3 in terms of current emissions, even if China now tops the field. It is encouraging to see them adopting ambitious mitigation schemes without waiting for comparable efforts from developing countries that are now major emitters as well, like India, a notable holdout from the net zero trend. But absent the massive funding required to enable developing countries to pay for their own mitigation and adaptation efforts, those schemes will remain regional, rather than the global effort that is required.
The funding for clean energy transitions was promised and pledged to developing countries, but so far it has not materialized. And in an era of rising nationalism and geopolitical competition, broad transfers of wealth from the richer countries to the poorer ones of the world, even for such a noble and necessary effort as climate change, will continue to be a hard sell.
Moreover, the West’s privileged position in terms of global power and influence, which has only recently begun to be narrowed due to the development of Asia’s major economies, is a direct result of its historical carbon-intensive development path. So in the absence of mitigation and adaptation funding, developing countries are being asked to forego the most cost-effective pathways to economic development to solve a problem they didn’t create. They will also pay the cost of schemes like the EU’s border adjustment mechanism, which is an effort to impose the bloc’s ambitious emissions targets on its trade partners, with no accompanying attempt to help them transition to a post-carbon economy.
The EU mechanism, which is already raising eyebrows in Washington for its potential to introduce new tensions in trans-Atlantic trade relations, also highlights the challenges that still face even developed economies that share a good-faith commitment to reducing emissions. For the past 15 years, climate diplomacy has been an effort to convince recalcitrant constituencies, whether domestic or international, of the urgent need to address the crisis. But a cooked-in assumption was that, once convinced, those constituencies would act cooperatively. The EU mechanism shows the ways in which mitigation efforts might end up being more competitive and at times antagonistic than cooperative, even among allies and partners. And as the recent heated language between China and the U.S. demonstrates, there is nothing about the climate crisis that prevents it from becoming another field of strategic competition, rather than reconciliation, among rivals and adversaries.
A global event that causes humanity to see its internecine conflicts for the petty and irrelevant squabbles they are is a common trope in science fiction writing. Usually, the role of outside unifier is played by an alien species seeking to conquer Earth. The climate crisis and our response to it suggests, however, that in the face of such a potential cataclysm, even a human-made one susceptible to a collective solution, instead of uniting, we will instead simply carry on as before. In this, it is an encapsulation of the best and the worst of humankind: our capacity to remake our world in wondrous ways, but also to destroy it in the process; our ability to take note of the grave danger we find ourselves in and do nothing—or too little—to stop it. But that duality is what makes us human. If we were only the worst parts of our nature, we would be intolerable. If we were only the best, we would be insufferable.
Writing in 1989 in his book, “Infinite Mobilization,” the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk asked rhetorically, “[W]hat more needs to happen before something happens? … [H]ow big would a catastrophe need to get before it radiates the universal flash of insight we are waiting for?” His depressing answer then was that “the conscious minds of humans have the ability to stay immune to disastrous evidence. … In the end, minds are tougher than facts, and those who did not want to listen when it was still possible will also make themselves immune to learning the hard way, too.”
If there is any consolation, it is that all catastrophes are in a sense human-made, in that they are only catastrophic when seen through our human perspective and the scale imposed by it. As George Carlin famously noted, there is even something arrogant about the idea that humans can “save the planet.” As he pointed out, it has been around for billions of years. No matter what destruction we visit upon it, Earth will survive and be just fine. Whether or not we’ll be around to witness it now depends on our ability to surprise ourselves.
Judah Grunstein is the editor-in-chief of World Politics Review.
This article was originally published on WPR. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.