Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times/AP
During the record-breaking heat wave, the Fisher Pavilion at the Seattle Center on June 27, 2021, hosted a temporary city cooling facility with meals and beds for residents.

Heat waves challenge governments to step back from ‘climate abyss’

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The recent extraordinary heat waves around the world, from the Pacific Northwest of the United States and Siberia to the Middle East and Africa, have startled meteorologists. And they are concentrating the minds of the world’s diplomats as they prepare for the most important climate conference since the Paris Agreement six years ago.

When they meet in Glasgow, Scotland, in November, the plan is that the nations of the world will all make binding commitments to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. If they achieve that goal of carbon neutrality, scientists believe, the world will be able to avert the risk of climate catastrophe.

Why We Wrote This

Startling heat waves around the world have lent urgency to calls for action to slow global warming. Will they suffice to convince governments to change their fossil fuel ways?

But governments are still on the wrong track, experts say, still spending more money to support fossil fuels than on green energy projects. They are pinning their hopes on the Glasgow conference taking tough decisions.

“We are on the verge,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said recently. “When you’re on the verge of an abyss, you have to make sure your next step is in the right direction.”

The headlines may seem familiar: health facilities overwhelmed, emergency services scrambling to respond, lives tragically lost – not because of an act of terror or war, but a force of nature.

Except that, this time, the culprit was not the pandemic.

It was the latest, starkest sign of climate change, a “heat dome” enveloping the northwestern United States and Canada and driving temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit, 30 to 40 degrees above normal in some areas. Scientists have calculated that, before the age of man-made global warming, this might have been expected once in several thousand years.

Why We Wrote This

Startling heat waves around the world have lent urgency to calls for action to slow global warming. Will they suffice to convince governments to change their fossil fuel ways?

And it’s raising the political temperature, too, as governments prepare for their most important climate conference since the Paris Agreement of 2015, due to convene in Glasgow, Scotland, this November.

Even before the heat dome, experts had been lowering their hopes for the Glasgow meeting.

Once, many of them had been optimistic, buoyed by a pandemic-related reduction in carbon emissions and by the way that China and the U.S., the world’s largest carbon emitters, had announced more ambitious carbon-reduction targets.

More recently, though, climate experts have begun questioning whether these and other governments will actually follow through on their pre-conference promises – and even if they do, whether those pledges might not be too little, too late, to stem the accelerating pace of climate change. 

Soaring Pacific temperatures are just one reminder of the knock-on, interlocking effects of global warming, which has also increased the frequency and intensity of other “extreme events” such as wildfires and droughts, tropical storms and hurricanes.

Sweltering temperatures have been recorded from Northern Europe and Central Asia to the Middle East and Africa. Siberia is experiencing an unprecedentedly hot summer for the second year running. Nearly 10,000 miles away, in Brazil, global warming has combined with deforestation of the Amazon to cause the worst drought in nearly a century.

And a report from NASA earlier this year stressed that it’s not just about yearly records: the last seven years as a whole have been the warmest ever. The director of its Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Gavin Schmidt, warned that “as the human impact on climate increases, we have to expect that records will continue to be broken.”

It’s that human impact that’s now focusing attention on the Glasgow conference.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press/AP
Patrons line up at a splash park on a 96 degree F. day in Calgary, Alberta, June 30, 2021. A Canadian record was set at 121 degrees F. in British Columbia the previous day.

Its goal is that all the 150-plus countries represented will make binding commitments to so-called net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest – meaning that all the carbon they release into the atmosphere must be mitigated by measures such as reforestation or technology to capture and store emissions.

That would put the world on track to meet the aspirational goal set in Paris: to turn back global warming before temperatures reach 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That point, says the scientific consensus, marks the threshold beyond which the planet would risk climate catastrophe.

But holding temperature rises to that level won’t be easy, and there have been signs it’s getting harder.

Chief among them is that with the pandemic easing in the world’s richer countries, their governments’ main focus isn’t on climate change. It’s on getting their economies up and running.

At the height of the pandemic, many of these countries announced plans to prioritize low-carbon investment as they relaunched their economies. A study last month by the economic development charity Tearfund confirmed that the G-7, the group of economically advanced countries, did pump a total of $147 billion into green energy projects between January 2020 and March 2021.

But they spent even more, $189 billion, over the same period to support oil, coal, and gas, the report said.

This week, the International Energy Agency added that demand for gas – which fell steeply last year amid pandemic lockdowns – is rebounding strongly. The IEA said demand will continue to grow, and that unless governments acted to stem the trend they could not possibly meet the target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

Politically, however, there does remain some reason to be hopeful – especially in the three countries likely to be critical to a new world climate agreement: Britain, China, and the U.S. 

For British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, having led the drive to pull Britain out of the European Union, the Glasgow summit will offer a high-profile opportunity to demonstrate international leadership. He won’t want it to fail.

China, the world’s largest carbon-emitter, long resisted setting a net-zero target at all. But last September, Chinese leader Xi Jinping did so, committing his country to aim for carbon neutrality by 2060. In a further signal China sees a role for itself in Glasgow, he also accepted U.S. President Joe Biden’s invitation last April to a virtual summit on climate change. 

Mr. Biden’s interest in getting an agreement there is especially strong. On taking office in January, he reversed former President Donald Trump’s move to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. And ahead of last month’s G-7 summit, he pointedly declared that America wasn’t merely part of the Paris process again. He saw it as being “back in the chair.”

Still, the pressure to deliver results is building. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said recently that the world was at a “make-or-break” moment on climate change.

“We still have time,” he said. “But we are on the verge. When you’re on the verge of an abyss, you have to make sure your next step is in the right direction.”

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