You don’t have to be a scientist to feel the urgency of climate change. Just open your window. In Massachusetts we experienced our wettest July in a century. Torrential thunderstorms raised alarms across towns particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and coastal flooding.
We were relatively luckier than those battling larger wildfires from Alaska to Oregon, to Greece, Siberia, and Peru; those facing extreme flooding across the United States, Europe, Latin America, Africa and China; and those experiencing increasingly intense typhoons in Asia and the Pacific and a changing monsoon pattern in India. But more alarming is what the world’s scientists have to say.
This week’s major scientific report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gives us the starkest warning yet of the future we will face should we fail to act swiftly enough on the climate crisis. Through careful scientific assessment, they offered a jeremiad for the ages. This is, as UN Secretary General António Guterres called it, a “code red” for humanity.
The report shows that our planet is now at its warmest point in at least 125,000 years, a level unseen since before the last ice age. It warns the very conditions that fostered humanity’s development — a relatively comfortable climate — are no longer guaranteed, as the effect of climate change is already widespread and accelerating, from swift declines in global glaciers, to sea levels rising faster than at any time in the last 3,000 years, to more frequent and dire weather and climate events across every region on Earth.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We know that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius could help avoid future catastrophic changes. But the report made abundantly clear that the international community’s ability to do so is narrowing — requiring immediate, massive reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, which must reach net-zero by mid-century — a scientific requirement to stabilize the climate and therefore our future.
This is why the United States is working with countries around the world to deliver the necessary changes to avert climate catastrophe. And we are seeing progress.
Under President Biden, the United States has made the commitment to rejoin the Paris Agreement, and announced our own intent to get to a 50-to-52 percent emissions reduction in 2030. We are seeing others with ambitious commitments. The United Kingdom, which is hosting our next key global negotiation on climate at the UN Climate Change Conference, “COP26,” this November in Glasgow, Scotland, has committed to 68 percent reduction. Europe has committed to a 55 percent reduction. At this point, countries representing more than half of the global economy have put forward targets that are aligned with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But others are not moving far or fast enough.
The biggest step countries can take this decade is scaling up the development of a global clean energy economy — ramping up renewable energy from wind and solar, advancing electric vehicle production, and fueling a clean energy investment boom.
The report also makes clear that it is insufficient to wait any longer to act. This is the critical decade for charting a new path, and the science outlines the depth of effort that is required — that the world has to reduce emissions by around 50 percent by 2030. That means that we need to see the major economies of the world not just set ambitious targets but lay out clear plans for how we’re going to get there over the next decade — and then to go beyond that and develop plans for getting to net zero emissions by 2050. Those are the guideposts we will now carry with us into Glasgow.
Nations have to make choices — together. Life is about choices. So is governing.
COP26 is a turning point. It’s a moment in time where we have the latest science, delivered to us in an extraordinary and heroic effort by scientists around the world who even during a pandemic came together to do remarkable work. It gives us a clear path forward. It describes the need for deep reductions across all greenhouse gases.
I’ve served in government for decades — including 28 years as the US senator from Massachusetts. I’ve faced a number of tough policy choices over the course of my career. This isn’t one of them. Few choices offer as many positive outcomes — a stronger economy, more jobs, new technologies, better health, cleaner air, and national and international security — as the choice to respond in earnest to the climate crisis.
Former US Secretary of State John F. Kerry is the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate.