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Why Solving Climate Change Is Not an Issue Where We ‘Succeed or Fail’

Why Solving Climate Change Is Not an Issue Where We ‘Succeed or Fail’

A climate reporter explains the findings of a distressing report and why the crisis never really fades from the news cycle, even if it seems otherwise.

Times Insider explains who we are and what we do and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.

The window to prevent the catastrophic effects of climate change is rapidly closing.

That’s one of several distressing takeaways from a recent report by a United Nations body of experts on climate change, which was approved by 195 governments.

Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that global average temperatures are expected to rise 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels by the first half of the early 2030s. Past that critical warming threshold, extreme heat, floods and crop failures will put severe stress on human societies, scientists say.

Brad Plumer, a reporter for the Climate desk, synthesized the thousands of pages of the report into an article for The New York Times. Its headline, “Climate Change Is Speeding Toward Catastrophe. The Next Decade Is Crucial, U.N. Panel Says,” is a startling one.

Mr. Plumer covers policy, technology and the wide-ranging effects of climate change, from wildfires to catastrophic flooding. The report, he said, is the closest scientists have come to a consensus on climate change and our very possible future.

In an interview, Mr. Plumer revisited some of the findings from the I.P.C.C. and the challenges of avoiding “pure pessimism” in climate reporting. This conversation has been edited.

What stood out to you the most from the I.P.C.C.’s report in March?

The last time the I.P.C.C. did this kind of reporting was in 2013, when it felt a little more as if climate change’s effects were in the future. There were a lot of warnings. One thing that was different about this report is that climate change’s effects are being felt today in every region of the world. Climate change has very much become a “now” problem rather than a future problem.

The report is pretty remarkable. It took years to put together, and each report comes with a summary for policymakers that every nation in the world has to approve. They often wrangle over the text and fine print. To the best extent possible, this report is our most complete picture of what we know about climate change, its effects and how to stop it.

Can you explain some if its findings?

The report is a synthesis of three other recent reports by the I.P.C.C.

The first report, from August 2021, was about the physical science of climate change. It was significant because it said that there was no doubt that humans were warming the planet.

The second report, from February 2022, described the effects of climate change. It revealed that humans can be very good at adapting to climate change when they really put their minds to it. When we have resources, time and foresight, we can do basic things to adapt to climate change. But there are also many places where adaptation is faltering, and in some countries, there are huge needs that are not being met, and that’s very worrisome.

The third report, from April 2022, offered a road map for what the nations of the world would need to do to halt global warming, like transforming our electricity sector, cars and trucks, homes. They assembled evidence for what works. The cost of renewable energy has also plummeted over the last decade, and more countries are putting climate plans in place.

As a reporter who covers news about climate change, which can often feel bleak, do you struggle to keep a hopeful tone in your articles?

Climate change isn’t the kind of issue where we either succeed or fail. At every step, we could always make things better. There’s always a chance to stop global warming and maybe we will. That’s going to be really difficult. But there’s always a way to improve the situation. It’s important to convey that.

There are great stories about people finding ways to adapt to climate change. There are also stories of failure, death, destruction and heartbreak. But those are inherent to the situation. It’s such a big, sprawling topic that reporting pure pessimism would provide an incomplete picture of what is happening. At the same time, climate change poses very serious risks and threats. We need to convey those as accurately as possible.

This report has been out now for a month. It seems as if the news cycle has drowned it out. Are you surprised by the muted reaction?

I don’t think there’s a muted reaction. These I.P.C.C. reports really influence how countries around the world think about climate change. It doesn’t mean that they all are pushed to act immediately. It doesn’t happen overnight. There are many different interests at stake. But these reports shape countries’ understanding. In some ways, this is something that doesn’t really fade from the news cycle, even if it’s not the top headline every day.

You’ve been writing about climate change since 2007. How has your reporting evolved?

Fifteen years ago, there was a pretty good understanding that humans were warming the planet, but there were a bunch of outstanding scientific questions. I was much more interested in answering those questions.

Now, I’m excited to cover some of the changes that are underway as countries and people try to deal with the effects of global warming. Climate change touches on so many aspects of daily life: the world, the economy, the energy sector. I find it endlessly fascinating.

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