U.N. report predicts climate catastrophe, absent major action

·Senior Editor
·2 min read

A United Nations report released Thursday compiles the latest scientific findings on climate change and shows a gathering disaster unless nations take swift, dramatic action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The report's key message is that global warming is occurring more rapidly, and with more quickly worsening effects, than most past models had predicted. Within the next five years, there is a 40 percent chance that the world may breach the threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming previously identified by scientists and world governments as the hoped-for limit.

“We have reached a tipping point on the need for climate action. The disruption to our climate and our planet is already worse than we thought, and it is moving faster than predicted,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a video message that accompanied the release of the report. “This report shows just how far off course we are.”

Already, the U.N. reports, “the global average mean surface temperature for the period from 2017–2021 is among the warmest on record, estimated at 1.06 °C to 1.27 °C above pre-industrial (1850–1900) levels.”

Vapor rises from a chimney
Toxic vapor pours from a chimney at a power plant in Belchatow, Poland. (Piotr Malecki/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The impact — with more frequent and extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts and hurricanes — is being felt sooner than many expected.

The measures promised by countries at the 2015 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris are insufficient, according to the new report and other recent studies by nongovernmental organizations, as they would leave the world on a pathway toward at least 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming by the century’s end.

Moreover, global greenhouse gas emissions keep rising. Carbon dioxide, which is by far the most prevalent greenhouse gas, peaked in 2019 and dropped in 2020 only because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Emissions of other greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide, are rapidly increasing, more than past climate models had anticipated.

The report is intended to encourage more ambitious pledges of national action to combat climate change at the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in November. Heads of state are also appearing at the U.N. General Assembly next week, where climate change is sure to be a major topic of discussion.

But just as important as making those commitments is that governments follow through and implement the policies that will get them to those targets for emissions cuts. As a U.N. summary of the conclusions put it, “Although the increasing number of countries committing to net-zero emission goals is encouraging, to remain feasible and credible, these goals urgently need to be reflected in near-term policy and in significantly more ambitious actions.”


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