We cannot wait for climate action — climate change will not wait for us 

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As we go into the climate talks at this year’s United Nations’s Conference of the Parties (COP28) meeting in Dubai later this month, we face global challenges and conflicts that have deservedly captured headlines around the world. But as those eager to see real and robust climate action know well, efforts to address the climate crisis have been plagued by inevitable crises that push climate change to the world’s back burner of priorities.  

Over the last few decades, we have seen time and again an inevitable slowdown in climate action due to some danger that appears more imminent and pressing than our changing climate. But, in many ways, these crises are more deeply connected with climate change than we may realize, and require simultaneous action. 

From economic downturns to wars, we have seen repeated distractions take the pressure off of leaders when it comes to specific and substantive climate action. Just in the last several years we have faced a global pandemic, challenges to American democracy and rule of law, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the tragic crisis between Israelis and Palestinians. The challenges can feel mentally exhausting; it is understandable that people and governments may have difficulty wrapping their minds around and spreading their resources out among the array of challenges we are facing. 

Yet amid all these myriad challenges, the climate crisis looms.  

The summer of 2023 was the hottest on record. By the middle of September, 2023 ranked as the worst year on record for billion-dollar climate disasters in the United States. The extreme weather events we have seen this year have included wildfire smoke that blanketed vast swaths of our country, including large urban centers like New York City, for days at a time; the first tropical storm to hit southern California in more than 25 years; and the devastating firestorm that swept across Hawaii. 

The tragedies of conflict and violence we see unfolding around the world are unbelievable to witness, but we must not let the urgency of dealing with these crises slow down the drive to preserve our climate. The reports issued by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in recent years should be no less shocking than today’s headlines, for they present no less of a threat to our future.  

The destruction we see in war will be mirrored by the effects of the climate crisis, as droughts, floods, tropical storms, heatwaves, wildfires and other extreme weather events are accelerating and wreaking increasing damage to our way of life. Aside from these obviously destructive events, we face general and wide-reaching disruption to our way of life as the natural resources and ecosystems we take for granted change. For example, glaciers that provide a great deal of our fresh water are disappearing and thus threaten to disrupt existing agriculture, while changing temperatures will dramatically change how we cool our homes and workplaces.  

The current trend in greenhouse emissions promises irreversible impact if we do not act soon. 

According to Climate Analytics and NewClimate Institute’s Climate Action Tracker, our existing policies and actions put us on a path for between 2.2 and 3.4 degrees Celsius total temperature increase above pre-industrial levels by 2100. That is significantly off course, at up to 120 percent higher than the goal set by the Paris Climate Agreement to get the global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Even the most optimistic scenario in which we assume full implementation of all announced emissions reduction targets would still put us up to 2.3 degrees above pre-industrial levels, which is more than 50 percent above the Paris Climate Agreement’s 1.5 degree target. 

Our current global efforts and even proposed commitments to climate action are grossly missing the mark on what we need to avoid a climate crisis if even our most optimistic scenario could be 50 percent off and we are actually up to 120 percent off if we look at the existing facts in front of us. In a very real way, this is humanity’s last chance to avoid the worst climate catastrophes.  

While the effects of the climate crisis continue to mount, our efforts to tackle the crisis have fallen short largely because we have done little to curb one of the primary culprits: fossil fuels. 

Despite being the primary culprit, global climate talks have glaringly omitted addressing fossil fuels head-on. The landmark Paris Climate Agreement did not even mention fossil fuels and last year’s climate talks in Sharm el-Sheikh only reference the phasedown of “unabated” coal and “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies. Fossil fuels remain the elephant in the room that the world has not had the stomach to honestly address. 

And fossil fuels are not merely destroying our climate — they are also contributing substantially to some of the other great challenges facing our world today. It would be bad enough if our global dependency on fossil fuels was only damaging the wellbeing of our most vulnerable communities through increasing air pollution, rising sea levels and myriad other direct climate impacts, but the fact is that many authoritarian regimes would not even be in power were it not for our fossil fuel dependency.  

History shows that countries with greater fossil fuel production are often more prone to fall under authoritarian or dictatorial governments: the exploitation of fossil fuels often goes hand in hand with a greater concentration of power and a lack of need to be accountable to a country’s people, as dictators are funded by fossil fuel revenues rather than the support and tax dollars of citizens. As an example, revenue from Russian oil and gas made up roughly 40 percent of Russia’s federal budget between 2011 and 2020. It is therefore hard to argue that fossil fuels are not directly bankrolling Vladirmir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.  

In an unfortunate cycle, the effects of climate change are likely to spur more frequent and severe instances of some of the other kinds of global crises that often distract us from addressing our changing climate. Extreme weather events and changes to regional climates around the world can result in disruptions to our food supply, which can lead to greater food insecurity and related conflicts. Humanity’s increasing encroachment on the world’s wild areas and changing climates that drive wildlife into closer contact with humans increase the risk for pandemics. Further, rising sea levels and extreme weather will likely result in tens of millions of migrants in the next few decades, adding pressure to the already contentious issue of immigration.  

Grasping the urgency and interrelated nature of the climate crisis and all the other global challenges we face can only point toward urgent action. What we really need is a hopeful vision of the future that would include a shift to renewable energy, energy-efficient buildings, greener forms of transportation, and an empowered workforce to join in the transition to a cleaner and more just future.  

And this has to begin with a recognition that we are committed to phasing out fossil fuels.  

A just transition off of fossil fuels is the one path that has the power to resolve multiple crises at once and set the world on a safer path so that we are not held hostage by fossil fuels, the vicissitudes of energy markets, and the unequal societies that fossil fuels tend to support. With a concerted effort, we can address the climate crisis and offer rational solutions.  

Unfortunately, there will always be another emergency that demands the world’s attention. We do not have the luxury of dealing with just one crisis at a time. We cannot wait for climate action because climate change will not wait for us. At COP28, it is time for world leaders to bring real solutions and end our reliance on fossil fuels. We just need the courage and hopefulness to chart that path. 

John Oppermann is executive director of Earth Day Initiative. 

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