In Paris, time is of the essence.
World leaders in the French capital are working against the clock to broker a deal that would stave off the most devastating effects of climate change as the 2015 United Nations COP21 conference enters its second and final week.
On Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reminded the more than 150 diplomats that the decisions they make this week will “reverberate down through the ages.”
“Centuries of human endeavor and innovation have given the world great gifts. Yet we have also sown the potential seeds of our own destruction,” Ban said. “The clock is ticking toward climate catastrophe. The world is expecting more from you than half-measures and incremental approaches. It is calling for a transformative agreement. Paris must put the world on track for long-term peace, stability and prosperity.”
The representatives are trying to finalize an accord that would limit global warming to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-Industrial Revolution levels. They met a Saturday deadline to draft a blueprint but still need to hammer out vital issues, such as how the U.N. would monitor any given country’s progress in curbing carbon dioxide emissions.
For years, the scientific community has warned about the current and future effects of climate change. Many politicians have characterized tackling anthropogenic climate change as the most consequential issue of our time, while some leading U.S. Republican presidential candidates dismiss the problem altogether.
Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert argues that part of the reason public consensus lags behind scientific consensus is that our brains evolved to respond to threats that are intentional, immoral, imminent and instantaneous, like terrorism. The most devastating consequences of climate change — expected to occur down the line if humankind stays on its current path — have none of these qualities.
“Global warming isn’t trying to kill us, and that’s a shame,” Gilbert wrote in a Los Angeles Times column. “If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation’s top priority.”
The National Wildlife Federation and other organizations, noting this obstacle, are emphasizing that global warming is already affecting our planet: Temperatures are increasing, sea levels are rising, sea ice is melting, oceans are acidifying and so on.
Similarly, at the conference on Monday, action movie star and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he thinks green campaigners should shift their focus to how climate change and other problems like air pollution are wreaking havoc now.
“It drives me crazy when people talk about 30 years from now, rising sea levels and so on,” he told the Guardian. “What about right now? Thousands of people are dying from pollution. People are living with cancer [because of air pollution].”
Schwarzenegger, a Republican, recalled an advertising campaign in California that showed children whose respiratory systems had been damaged by breathing in air pollution. Poll numbers changed after people saw “what we are doing to our kids,” he said.
“If you do not have people behind you, you can’t do anything [on legislation],” Schwarzenegger continued. “Global warming is an extremely important issue, the most important issue. You have to communicate it properly. You have to communicate to people that this is right now.”
In Beijing on Monday, the local government issued its first red pollution alert for its extraordinary level of smog. The Chinese capital’s government is enforcing serious restrictions on traffic and factories in an attempt to protect its population from the deadly air.
With a red alert, the most severe in Beijing’s four-tier system, authorities are forecasting more than three successive days of heavy air pollution.
Back in the United States, two business groups sent letters to Congress on Monday urging climate skeptics not to undermine the anticipated multinational climate change agreement.
“The time for obstacles and obstruction is over,” Bob Keefe, executive director of Environmental Entrepreneurs, said in a statement. “As world leaders and business leaders alike have made crystal clear in Paris, we need action, and we need it now.”
Richard Eidlin, vice president of policy for the American Sustainable Business Council, said many business owners worry that the effects of climate change will hurt their operations.
“From increased insurance costs and supply chain disruptions to the loss of entire companies due to extreme weather events, business is already feeling the cost of inaction on climate change,” Eidlin said.
Also on Monday, U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders unveiled his climate change plan to invest in clean technology, cut carbon emissions faster than President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, ban oil and natural gas lobbyists from working in the White House and end enormous subsidies for fossil fuel companies, among other strategies.
“CEOs are raking in record profits while climate change ravages our planet and our people — all because the wealthiest industry in the history of our planet has bribed politicians into complacency in the face of climate change,” the senator from Vermont said in a statement. “Enough is enough. It’s time for a political revolution that takes on the fossil fuel billionaires, accelerates our transition to clean energy, and finally puts people before the profits of polluters.”