As our window of opportunity to act is rapidly closing, an ever-increasing stream of warnings is adding urgency to calls for climate action. Year after year we have set new high-temperature records and we are rapidly approaching the upper threshold temperature limit laid out in the Paris Agreement. Repeated warnings have called us to recognize that we are on the cusp of the end of civilization. New reports confirm that humanity is in the process of destroying civilization. One such state of the planet report is titled, “Our future in the Anthropocene biosphere“.The report says that in just over half a century humans have altered 3.8 billion years of evolution. The report predicts that in the next half-century, as much as one-third of humanity will be forced to live in extreme climatic conditions.
Just Days before U.S. President Joe Biden’s Earth Day virtual climate summit, the U.N. Secretary-General issued a dire warning. Citing global warming, extreme weather, wildfires, and the COVID-19 pandemic, António Guterres said we are “on the verge of the abyss”. Guterres made the remarks at a press conference to announce the release of the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) “State of the Global Climate” report. We are “dangerously close” to surpassing the upper threshold temperature limit the report states and adds that we risk triggering feedback loops. The researchers conclude that we are already seeing clear signs that climate change is shutting down the ocean’s capacity to absorb CO2. In addition to warming and rising seas, the report also warns that ocean acidification and deoxygenation are a threat to marine life.
Protestors issued a warning of their own on Earth Day as climate activists from across the U.S. converged on Washington D.C. They told world leaders that the clock is ticking and they have limited time to zero out carbon emissions. These protestors also delivered a petition with 300,000 signatures of people demanding immediate climate action.
John Kerry, Biden’s special enjoy for climate understands the frustration and impatience of protestors. Kerry openly acknowledges that the threat posed by climate change is “existential”. “That means life and death,” he said in an interview on NPR. However, he qualified his remark by saying while we still have time to act, we are not responding to the magnitude of the threat, then he emphasized the need to do more.
President Biden is also hearing the message of those calling on leaders to act. As the protest was taking place outside the White House, the President called this is a “decisive decade” for climate action. Biden’s comment echoes the sentiment of the state of the planet co-author Line Gordon, who also called this a “decisive decade” for humanity “In this decade we must bend the curves of greenhouse gas emissions and shocking biodiversity loss,” Gordon said. “We are at the dawn of what must be a transformative decade,” said co-author Johan Rockström. The report was published in conjunction with the first Nobel Prize Virtual Summit which Rockström described as the scientific community shouting “wake up!”
The urgent need for action is widely accepted by climate scientists. The prevailing wisdom suggests that if we zero out emissions before 2030 we will be able to keep temperatures from surpassing the upper-temperature threshold. However, other estimates suggest we have far less time. Based on calculations by the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, the protestors that assembled in Washington say we have 6 years to zero out emissions
WMO Secretary-Secretary, Petteri Taalas, said we need to act now. The State of the Global Climate report, “shows that we have not time to waste. The climate is changing, and the impacts are already too costly for people and the planet. This is the year for action,” Tallas said. The UN chief also made it clear that 2021, “must be the year for action.” Guterres specifically called for immediate action to meet and surpass the emissions reduction goals laid out in the Paris Agreement. Taken together these assessments make it painfully apparent that when it comes to climate action, it is now or never.
Those interested in expediting action are studying the reasons why we have not responded effectively to the climate crisis. One of the reports suggests that disinformation aided by social media has played a role in delaying climate action. Both of the reports single out rising GHGs and inequality as major problems and barriers to progress. Energy is at the heart of the problem. Guterres said we must end the use of coal and shift subsidies away from fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy. Environmental activists are calling for an end to all new fossil fuel projects and they also want to see funding for the transition to a green economy.
These reports conclude that while technologies like AI can play a role in helping us to manage the climate crisis, we also need to combat disinformation by giving people access to reliable sources of information. The research also suggests we need new narratives such as the one that is emerging out of the horror and hardships of the last four years. A simple logic permeates this new understanding: The inadequacy of where we are today and the need for us to work together to avert a catastrophe. History may show that four years of failed U.S. leadership and a deadly pandemic were catalysts for transformative change. This constellation of events has given birth to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that gives us reason to believe that we can finally do what needs to be done.