Thirty years from now, there won’t be much argument about climate change. Even today, only the truly deluded or utterly ignorant continue to deny the warming that is fueling extreme weather events all around the world as the planet heats up even faster than many scientists had once predicted.
The litany of change happening today, from the disappearance of glaciers to unprecedented wildfires to heat waves that flirt with the limits of human endurance, is astonishing to most researchers and the pace of that change is only going to increase as we continue to pump ever more heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The scientists who study climate change began warning humanity about the threat more than 40 years ago, but those warnings were cautious and reasonably hopeful in those early days, as everyone assumed that we had time to adapt, and that humanity would take the necessary steps to ward off catastrophe before it was too late.
Scientists are nowhere near as sanguine these days. They watched in frustration for years as the oil and gas industry funded lies intended to thwart the changes needed to reduce greenhouse emissions. Companies like Exxon understood the potentially existential impact of climate change because they had funded their own research on the subject in the 1970s and 80s. But they decided that their short-term profits were more important than the future habitability of our planet.
As the world gathers in Dubai over the next two weeks at the COP 28 summit to address climate change, scientists are warning that humanity is living on borrowed time and is sending the planet hurdling toward a disaster of our own making. While many countries, including the United States, are seeing progress in their needed transition toward renewable and non-carbon-based forms of energy, the pace of change is far too slow. Even as we make progress, carbon emissions here and elsewhere continue to increase at a time when they must begin declining if we’re to have any chance to hold the Earth’s temperature in check.
Back in 2015, the world’s nations pledged to seek to limit greenhouse warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as a way to head off the truly catastrophic effects should average global temperatures increase by more than that. Most climate scientists now believe it’s too late to hit that mark. Indeed, 2023 is likely to end very close to that 1.5 degree C increase over the pre-industrial climate. At the current pace of emissions growth, the world may well be headed to a hellish future with average temperatures of twice that amount.
That world, which will be here in the lifetimes of many young people alive today, will be unrecognizable. Much of the planet will be uninhabitable. Low-lying countries, states, and islands will be swamped by the rising oceans, creating hundreds of millions of refugees who will create a human flood that will inundate virtually every country. The border issues of today will be inconsequential in comparison to what’s to come.
Tipping points, which will activate feedback mechanisms that will exacerbate the problem, will have been breached, potentially sending the planet into a spiral that could well lead to the end of human civilization. There are those who still scoff at these projections, yet the warnings of climate scientists have not only come true, they’ve done so sooner and with greater impact than many of them had predicted.
We are facing two options: to finally get serious about addressing climate change, which means fundamentally reshaping our energy economy globally, or to fail and leave future generations to suffer the consequences of our lack of political will. And let’s be clear about that. We have the technology today to make the transition. It is a lack of political will that is preventing us from doing so.
As we look ahead to the 2024 election, few candidates for Congress and none of the candidates for President has fully embraced the necessity of real and rapid change in our energy systems. President Biden, however, does recognize the problem, and is willing (if pushed by the public) to implement strong policies to advance the shift to carbon-neutral energy sources. He has, in fact, implemented the most significant spending package in U.S. history to encourage our transition to renewable sources of power. The Biden administration will have representatives in Dubai over the next two weeks who will be pushing for more aggressive action to address climate change.
Unfortunately, what was once an area of bipartisan agreement, has become a litmus test for too many Republicans, who continue to parrot Donald Trump’s mindless mantras on the topic. At a critical time for leadership on an all-important issue, we have only one party that is willing to operate with the reality of our situation in mind. The other has opted for delusion and denial, and that decision is threatening all of us.