We’re Almost Out of Time on the Climate Crisis

A beach in Pefki, on the island of Evia, Greece, was blanketed in smoke from a wildfire over the weekend. Photo: Konstantinos Tsakalidis/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For years, climate scientists have been clear: If individuals and nations do not take drastic, decisive, and immediate action to scale back carbon emissions, then the hellish conditions we associate with extreme weather will become routine. Temperatures will rise at a withering pace, bringing sea levels ever higher as glaciers melt. Devastating wildfires, floods, heat waves, downpours, and droughts will be the norm. Despite these predictions playing out in real time, governments have largely failed to act in proportion to the crisis; now, according to a new report, we are very nearly out of time. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stresses that the targets laid out in the 2015 Paris Climate Accord “will be beyond reach” in the next 20 years without massive intervention thanks to an “unequivocally” manmade catastrophe.

“The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: Greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk,” U.N. secretary-general António Guterres said of the report, calling its projections “a code red for humanity.”

The IPCC, made up of 195 preeminent climate scientists from around the world, delivers a status report about every seven years. Its latest assessment notes that human activity generated about 1.1 degrees Celsius of warming between 1850 and 1900 and that we are slated to exceed 1.5 degrees of warming — the tipping point established in the 2015 Paris Climate Accord and confirmed by subsequent IPCC reports, after which the worst outcomes of the climate crisis will be all but assured — within the next ten years or so. Sea levels have already risen about eight inches on average between 1901 and 2018, and much of the damage done to the climate is now “irreversible,” the report notes. Already, we are seeing the dissolution of ice sheets, the acidification of oceans, and global temperature records smashed with each passing year. Wildfires on the West Coast get worse every season, burning up broad swathes of the landscape, destroying homes, and generating choking smog that fans out across the country. Arctic fires have colored the sky black in parts of Siberia. Superstorms have devastated coastal regions and generated humanitarian crises. The signs have always been dramatic and impossible to ignore, yet much of the world has continued to ignore them. As of December 2020, not a single country was on track to cap emissions at 1.5 degrees.

Extreme-weather events are now commonplace and, at this point, seem unavoidable — but as the report makes clear, there is still time to head off the most dire predictions. Slashing net carbon emissions to zero by 2050 would, for example, give us a shot at stabilizing temperatures and sea-level rise. We cannot go backward, but we can prevent the situation from reaching its worst possible conclusions and maintain a habitable planet. We can perhaps avoid a state of “permanent emergency,” wherein once-in-a-generation pandemics, floods, and fires recur in perpetuity. And in order to make that happen, the report’s authors urge, we need drastic and unwavering emissions cuts immediately: “Unprecedented, transformational change,” IPCC vice-chair Ko Barrett told NPR. The report’s authors organized their findings by regions, allowing individual countries and local governments to envision and plan for their climate future. There is no time left to sleep on the IPCC’s warning. “With the world on the brink of irreversible harm,” Stephen Cornelius, chief adviser on climate change at WWF, told The Guardian, “every fraction of a degree of warming matters to limit the dangers.”

We’re Almost Out of Time