Want to fix climate change? This is what it’ll take.

Want to fix climate change? This is what it’ll take.

A firefighter tries to extinguish a wildfire burning in the village of Pefki, on the island of Evia, Greece.

REUTERS/Nikolas Economou

In recent weeks, countries as varied as Canada and the US, Iran, Turkey and Greece have experienced some of the worst heat waves, droughts, and wildfires in decades. Meanwhile, unprecedented torrential rain and floods have hit China and Germany. These climate-related disasters have killed scores of people, left thousands homeless, and cost billions from damaged infrastructure and property.

As Elizabeth Kolbert told us a few months ago, we're screwed unless we all do something about climate right now. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agrees.


The IPCC, which represents the world's top climate scientists and is backed by national governments, published on Monday its first review of climate science since 2013. For the first time, the IPPC now says that climate change is unequivocally caused by humans, and that it's directly linked to the extreme weather events we're seeing recently.

First, some bad news. The latest data show that global surface temperatures have risen faster since 1970 than in any other half century in the past two millennia. And the IPCC warns that some of the damage will be permanent: in two decades it'll be an average 1.5 degrees Celsius hotter than during 1850-1900. We're getting close to various "tipping points" — when the planet undergoes abrupt changes in response to global warming that can't be reversed no matter what we do, like polar ice caps or coral reefs vanishing.

Now some (sort of) good news. The IPCC says that maybe, just maybe, it's not too late to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. For that to happen, though, the world must halve its carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, and for all countries to attain "net zero" emissions — taking as much carbon out of the atmosphere as putting into it — by 2050.

So, what'll it take to actually get this done?

Between countries, governments will need to work together a lot more closely than they have in a long time to agree on ways for all nations to do their part — and sustain such efforts over time.

Among the top polluters, to meet the IPCC's 2050 deadline the US and the EU will have to convince China to go "net zero" a decade earlier than Beijing now plans to, and perhaps offer India the cash Delhi has long demanded for poor countries that have polluted far less per capita yet are now being asked to cut emissions by as much as rich industrialized nations. The Chinese and Indians will likely need assurances that Americans and Europeans won't back out later on (like the US having to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate deal signed by Obama but later cancelled by Trump.)

Climate activists like Uganda's Vanessa Nakate say nations in Africa — which is barely responsible for causing climate change but will suffer some of its worst effects — will need incentives from wealthy countries to pursue green growth. So will crucial middle-income economies like Brazil (please stop burning the Amazon) or Indonesia.

Within countries, politicians and citizens will need to find on climate the common ground that's otherwise absent nowadays. That means that French President Emmanuel Macron and the gilet jaunes will have to figure out how to get rid of diesel without unfairly taxing low-wage workers. In the US, some Republicans may have to acknowledge that climate change is real and back a long-term plan that creates green jobs and invests in sustainable infrastructure, although maybe not as much as the Green New Deal.

Even in China, where debate on climate change is less open than in democracies, Xi Jinping knows that he must strike a balance between burning coal to deliver economic prosperity and investing in alternatives to protect Chinese people from a climate dystopia.

Importantly, the private sector must be on board. Governments don't pollute nearly as much as companies, especially those in countries with lax regulations. Businesses must come under intense pressure by both lawmakers and consumers to never put profits over the planet, and that they too must all go "net zero."

What's more, they should share all the technology they develop to curb emissions, particularly carbon capture and storage.

Is such cooperation even possible right now? The urgent tone in the IPCC report raises the stakes for COP26, the global climate summit to be held in Glasgow in November. It may be the last opportunity we get in the narrow window we still have to come up with a global consensus on how to save the planet from... ourselves.

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