Taking on the Climate
At the biggest international climate summit of the year, world leaders meeting over the past two weeks have been dogged by reports that countries are falling short of their commitments to combat climate change.
So what’s the point of the annual gathering? In short, nations still strive to reach the goals they set even if they don’t fully meet them. Rather than viewing these conferences as the final word, experts argue they are part of a process in which the world’s most powerful people recommit to fighting climate change. Through this effort, humanity has made real, even if insufficient, progress against global warming.
“No one thing is going to turn this massive ship,” said my colleague Lisa Friedman, who’s covered 11 of the annual climate conferences, including this year’s in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. “There is no country on Earth that has gotten rich without burning fossil fuels. Governments are trying to create a whole new economy. And when you have these global conferences, it puts pressure on leaders to do something.”
That potential for progress makes these conferences, convened by the United Nations, and their resulting pledges worth following. So today’s newsletter will explain what the 2022 talks mean for the climate’s future.
Consider one issue that countries have debated at the climate summit: whether the world should continue to try to contain global average temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. That is the threshold that experts have said will best avoid the risk of catastrophe.
Global powers have made some progress toward that goal. Before 2015, the world was on track to warm by about four degrees Celsius. Today, it is on track for two to three degrees of warming. Even that small shift could prevent more frequent and severe wildfires, heat waves, floods and other disasters, potentially saving hundreds of thousands or millions of lives in the coming years.
World leaders have promised more. For the climate talks this year and last year, several countries stepped up their pledges to reduce planet-warming carbon emissions. The U.S., the largest historical emitter, and China, the current largest emitter, also agreed to restart discussions this week, potentially setting the world’s two biggest powers on a path to more action.
Still, no big polluter is yet doing enough to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (as these charts show). Some experts also argue the target would require such drastic action that it is now unrealistic, prompting renewed discussions about whether it should even be the goal.
The difference between 1.5 and two or three degrees might seem small. But because the climate is sensitive to change, the fractional difference really does matter — amounting to more or fewer climate disasters.
Developing countries will probably suffer the most from climate change because they have far fewer resources to adapt. Yet these countries have also contributed the least to the problem because they have burned much less fossil fuel.
Pakistan, for example, has emitted just 0.3 percent of the world’s cumulative carbon emissions, compared to the U.S.’s 24.3 percent. Yet this year, it was hit by a heat wave that sent temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit and floods that inundated a third of the country, both of which, scientists say, were made more likely by climate change.
The disparity led wealthy nations to promise $100 billion a year in climate-related funding by 2020. But in 2020, they sent only about $83 billion (which might be an overestimate, Oxfam found). And now world leaders are debating whether they should commit to more, although those talks had not made much progress through this morning.
The bottom line
The talks demonstrate the kind of mixed story that comes up again and again at these climate conferences: Countries have made progress and promised to do more, but they also have fallen short of previous goals.
“It is imperfect,” Lisa said. “This is a place where lawyers can fight for hours about the placement of a comma. It can be maddening. But it’s the only forum that exists for this purpose. And slowly — maybe too slowly — it is having an impact.”
More climate news
How does extreme heat affect the body? The Times visited two cities transformed by climate change — Kuwait City and Basra, Iraq — to document what billions of people may soon experience.
When climate talks reach an impasse, it’s time to bring in “The Closer.”
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