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The climate crisis challenge belongs to all of us

By Jeffrey D. Sachs |

Decisions taken by the US government and the rest of the world during the remainder of 2021 will be among the most important of our generation.

August 10, 2021

A boy walked through a dried-up agricultural field in the Saadiya area, north of Diyala in eastern Iraq on June 24. As Iraq bakes under a blistering summer heat wave, its hard-scrabble farmers and herders are battling severe water shortages that are killing their animals, fields, and way of life. The oil-rich country, scarred by four decades of war, is also one of the world's most vulnerable to the climate crisis and struggles with a host of other environmental challenges.AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

The new report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change summarizes the current state of scientific knowledge regarding the global climate crisis, including the urgent steps needed to keep global warming below 1.5°C — a threshold the report said the planet is likely to hit or exceed within 20 years if no steps are taken. Together with other recent reports, it provides a critical basis for policymaking in the crucial months ahead. Decisions taken by the US government and the rest of the world during the remainder of 2021 will be among the most important of our generation.

Even as the world grapples with the Delta variant of COVID-19, climate crises are exposing our fragility. Floods, droughts, heatwaves, extreme storms, and mega-fires are ravaging the planet. The IPCC report explains that these events reflect a climate system profoundly destabilized by the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide caused by fossil fuels. Only rapid decarbonization — the shift to wind, solar, and other zero-emission energy technologies — can save us from intensifying disasters.

Yet this is not all. Last month’s report ”The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World,” issued by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and partner institutions, documented the dire state of food insecurity. No fewer than 3 billion people on the planet, 40 percent of the global population, cannot afford a healthy diet. Climate change threatens to worsen the food crisis. The IPCC report shows that much of the world faces the prospect of intensifying agricultural and ecological droughts as a result of climate change.

A farmer walked back to his car between two barren fields on July 23 in California's drought-stricken Central Valley. Before the drought the fields were sown with hemp or garlic crops, but as a result of California's water restrictions the farmer decided not to plant.ROBYN BECK/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Yet another recent report — ”Biodiversity and Climate Change,” co-sponsored by the IPCC and the Intergovernmental Science-PolicyPlatform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services — documents the profound decline of biodiversity and the risks that climate change poses to biodiversity. The collapse of biodiversity in turn further threatens global food supplies and countless other ecosystem functions on which we utterly depend.

Thus, even as hopelessly puerile and demagogic politicians such as Republican Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida waste our time and squander the lives of their citizens with cruel rants regarding face masks and vaccines, the real work of rescuing the world from human folly has become more urgent than ever. There is a way out of the current morass — and even a diplomatic and political timetable in the coming months.

The solutions to our growing crises lie in two overriding transformations — the first to sustainable energy and land use, and the second to a fairer society.

In the spring, the International Energy Agency published an essential roadmap, Net Zero by 2050, showing how the global energy system can be converted to net-zero CO2 emissions with technologies already in hand or within reach. Solar and wind power, electric vehicles, green hydrogen (produced from water with zero-carbon electricity), and other technologies can support a rapid, low-cost energy transformation by mid-century.

Ventilation fan units beside the hydrogen electrolysis plant at the Wesseling green hydrogen refinery, operated by Royal Dutch Shell Plc, in Wesseling, Germany. Europe is pinning its green hopes on hydrogen in an unprecedented economic overhaul that aims for the region to reach climate neutrality by 2050. ALEX KRAUS/BLOOMBERG

The path to a fairer society is also within reach. The key is more taxes on corporations and the super-rich, to enable governments to ensure health care, nutrition, education, and other basic needs to every citizen. This too is not complicated. Many societies (notably in Northern Europe) already achieve this kind of basic fairness. The United States could as well by adopting basic tax reforms.

President Biden and the Democrats in Congress have the opportunity to pass historic legislation outlined in a proposed budget resolution to the FY2022 Budget Reconciliation bill that Senate Democrats launched Monday. The legislation targets environmental sustainability and a fairer society paid for with higher taxes on corporations and the rich. The Democratic proposals are strongly backed by public opinion. The real political battle is not with the public but with the corporate lobbies and the mega-rich campaign donors who still fight for their tax breaks and protection against IRS audits. Key votes will take place in September and October.

The US political drama will unfold against a backdrop of unprecedented global diplomacy, a make-or-break period for the world as a whole to set a course toward sustainability and fairness after the shocking dislocations of the pandemic. No less than four major diplomatic events are on the calendar, a series of meetings that can redirect the world toward sanity and safety.

First, at the UN in September, leaders will meet in a UN Food Systems Summit to chart a path toward food security. In mid-October, the world’s nations will hold a UN Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, China, with the goal of setting urgent new guardrails against the collapse of biodiversity and ecosystems. In late October, the world’s leaders will meet at the G20 in Rome, where they can agree on global tax reform and a revamp of global finances needed to direct more resources to low-income countries. In November, all 193 UN member states will convene in Glasgow, Scotland, for the UN Climate Change Conference. That should be the occasion for all nations to commit to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and to do so cooperatively.

The most basic challenge for global survival and well-being is to turn our knowledge into action. The world’s scientists are clear on the dangers. The technologists are clear on the solutions. The challenges are therefore political and ethical, to use our knowledge wisely, for the common good. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, and the International Energy Agency have done their part to inform us of what needs to be done. The challenge is now ours and our governments to act for the common good.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is university professor at Columbia University, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, and president of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.



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