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If there is a consensus about the forthcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, it is that it represents, in the words of U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, the “last best hope” for the world to keep the worst consequences of global warming at bay.
But for many of the scientists whose work has informed the grim reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in recent years, the chances that an agreement will be reached to keep global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels seem dim, at best. With the currently insufficient actions from developed countries to limit greenhouse gas emissions and fund developing nations in that pursuit, temperatures are forecast to smash through that threshold. And a growing body of research, some conducted by scientists who spoke with Yahoo News’ “The Climate Crisis Podcast,” shows that a cascade of dire consequences is all but certain to follow.
“Well, it is a critical time. You know, this is COP26, which means there have been 25 of these things already,” said Peter Gleick, a climate scientist, referring to the conference’s acronym. “We’re way behind the curve in acting on what we have known for many, many years to be the reality, which is that humans are changing the climate, that those changes are going to be bad, that they’re going to accelerate as we move forward if we don’t get emissions under control, and that we're running out of time to prevent the worst-case scenarios from occurring.”
A co-founder of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, Calif., Gleick has spent decades warning that rising temperatures have begun to wreak havoc with the water cycle, including more severe drought, deadly flash flooding and crop instability.
“A lot of us are looking forward to COP26 as an opportunity to make some real progress, but of course we’re worried that COP26 will turn out to be like COP25 and COP24 and COP23 beforehand, before us, and not really produce the kinds of changes that we know are necessary,” Gleick said, referring to previous U.N. climate change conferences that have inspired good intentions but not substantial enough actions from the wealthier countries that produce most of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
As far as the scientific community is concerned, there’s little mystery about what’s responsible for climate change. A review published this week in the journal Environmental Research Letters looked at 88,128 scientific papers on climate change published between 2012 and 2020 and concluded that 99.9 percent of the studies agreed that human beings were responsible for the current spike in global temperatures.
For UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain, the only real suspense heading into Glasgow concerns whether world leaders will forge a consensus on how to act on what, scientifically speaking, is an open-and-shut case.
“We know how to solve this problem. We know the kinds of specific things we need to be doing even to fix the problem,” Swain told “The Climate Crisis Podcast.” “But that will involve a significant amount of social and economic, you know, inertia, that needs to shift pretty quickly. And that’s hard to do.”
A lead author of one of the IPCC reports that have synthesized the research on climate change and helped guide policymakers on how to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius, Stanford University climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh has not been encouraged by the actions taken since COP21 in 2015, when many nations signed on to the Paris Agreement.
“The United Nations actually just issued a report in advance of the Glasgow negotiations that are coming up, basically tracking where the countries of the world are relative to the the Paris Agreement goals, and that puts the world on a trajectory that’s a lot above two and a half degrees [Celsius] of warming, and approaching three,” Diffenbaugh said.
This year, a string of deadly extreme weather events in the U.S. showed many Americans that the threat from climate change is real. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, weather-related disasters in 2021 have already totaled over $100 billion in damages and killed 538 people in the U.S.
Yet a Yahoo News poll released last week finds that while 50 percent of Americans now view climate change as an “emergency,” there is a partisan divide on the question. Though 78 percent of Democrats see climate change as “an existential threat that requires major legislation,” just 24 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of independents do.
At the same time, armed with more advanced computer modeling and thousands of new studies to back them up, climate scientists have grown increasingly confident linking those events to climate change.
Researchers like Benjamin Strauss, president and CEO of Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization that analyzes climate science, have long warned exactly what rising temperatures will mean for life on Earth. In 2012, Strauss testified before Congress on the number of homes in the U.S. that would be put at risk due to rising seas. He knows firsthand that domestic political gridlock on climate change could weigh heavily on Glasgow.
“I know that President Biden and the administration really want — as represented by John Kerry in the talks — to be ambitious and to encourage other nations of the world to be ambitious,” Strauss said. “And it’s going to be really hard to do if in the United States we don’t have some form of legislation or policy either in place or, you know, imminent, that’s going to be a big step in our own effort.”
While Congress continues to debate the legislation that will determine how aggressively the U.S. will go about the task of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has already killed the most powerful weapon in the president’s plan to do so: the Clean Electricity Performance Program.
The failure to enact an agenda that would be seen as restoring American climate leadership on the world stage comes as a stark reminder that any promises of future U.S. emissions cuts will require action in Congress. Yet the inward focus of many Republicans and some moderate Democrats like Manchin worries climate experts. Klaus Jacob, a research scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute who served for more than a decade on the New York City Panel of Climate Change, stresses that for new Glasgow commitments to have real impact, they’ll need to look beyond America’s borders.
“We’ve got to have a global plan that works both on the mitigation side, namely to reduce greenhouse gases as quickly as possible and get that financed internationally,” Jacob said, “and not just the main emitters — nations like the U.S., China, Brazil or Europe, and maybe India. But we also have to address it on the adaptation side, and just think about nations like Bangladesh or Vietnam, that have tens and hundreds of millions of people that by the end of the century will have to be moved.”
For many climate scientists, the mood ahead of Glasgow can best be described as one of grim realism. Despite that, many of those who spoke to Yahoo News also expressed a measure of optimism that human beings can still significantly slow climate change.
“We’re still where we were five or 10 years ago. You know, there’s a lot of pledges, there’s a lot of commitments that even then aren’t enough to solve the problem, but we aren’t really on track to meet a lot of those pledges that we’d previously made,” Swain said. “That's kind of the world that we live in right now, which is this tension between the fact that this is at a fundamental level a solvable problem, but we’ve so far not taken it seriously enough. I liken it more to being on a train, not a runaway train where the brakes don't work, but a train where the brakes are perfectly functional, but the conductor is just actively choosing not to apply them. So if we choose to apply the brakes, the train will slow down and come to a halt. But so far, we’re still just thinking about tapping the brakes lightly. It's not enough.”
Ben Adler contributed reporting to this story.
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