Broken climate promises

The world observed Earth Day for the 52nd time last week, but there was a shadow on the celebration. Earlier in the month, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its latest report on efforts to stop global warming. It showed a “litany of broken climate promises” was “putting us on track towards an unlivable world,” in the words of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The report is an indictment of governments, corporations and investors who have signed on to the “net-zero carbon” goal but have put little or no concrete effort behind their pledges. “Government and business are saying one thing and doing another,” Guterres said. “Simply put, they are lying.”

The report is the latest in a series from scientists taking part in the IPCC research and findings. They concluded it will be impossible to keep the Earth’s temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — unless we cut global greenhouse gas emissions 43 percent over the next eight years. That’s a formidable goal.

Scientists concluded that current investments to mitigate global warming are “a factor of three to six times lower” than needed even to hold global warming below 2 degrees.

The Pew Research Center also tempered Earth Day with a roundup of recent polls. Pew found only 53 percent of Americans are optimistic that nations will do enough to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Last fall, a Yale survey indicated that 70 percent of Americans, an all-time high, showed signs of anxiety or depression about global warming.

Then, as the sun set on Earth Day 2022, Wynn Bruce, a 50-year-old climate activist from Colorado, set himself on fire in protest in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. A friend reportedly said he had been planning the protest for a year as a “deeply fearless act of compassion to bring attention to climate crisis.” He was airlifted to a hospital but died the next day.

What’s the holdup?

So, what’s the holdup on climate action? In the United States, it’s principally the power of the fossil fuel energy sector to influence Congress and public opinion. One of the industry’s tactics is to claim that shifting to clean energy would cost too much, kill jobs and damage the economy. But that argument ignores the many benefits of clean energy and the high costs of doing nothing. Despite considerable evidence that the benefits of climate action far outweigh the costs, Pew found that roughly one-third of Americans think climate action will hurt the economy. But here are some facts:

  • Extreme weather is already causing enormous damage, and it will get worse. Since 1980, there have been 323 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in the United States, costing nearly $2.2 trillion. Last year, the U.S. spent $145 billion on its 20 worst climate and weather disasters. Climate change may not have been the principal cause, but it has made weather disasters more severe.
  • The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) says unaddressed climate change would cost the U.S. $2 trillion annually this century, not counting substantial costs to businesses and public health. The insurance company Swiss Re estimates unmitigated climate change could cost the world economy as much as $23 trillion a year by 2050.
  • According to the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, a global temperature increase of “only” 3.7 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — a possibility without more aggressive climate action — would cause damages of $551 trillion. That’s more than all the wealth on the planet today.
  • The First Street Foundation, a research group, reports more than 700,000 apartment buildings, malls and office complexes are at risk this year of floods severe enough to impede access. Business downtime could reach 3 million days and cost $50 billion a year.
  • If global warming reaches 2 degrees Celsius, half the world’s total population could suffer from climate hazards. Millions of businesses and homeowners in the U.S. will be forced to move because of sea-level rise and other global-warming impacts. This migration has already begun. The Urban Institute estimates more than 1.2 million Americans left their homes in 2018 for climate-related reasons.
  • According to consulting firm McKinsey & Company, demand for green products and services is growing strongly. Markets for zero-emission goods and products will generate more than $12 trillion in annual sales by 2030.
  • McKinsey estimates the transition to net-zero carbon could create 200 million direct and indirect jobs, compared to the loss of 185 million jobs in fossil-fuel-intensive sectors.

Empty promises

So, what are the empty promises the UN secretary-general has criticized? Researchers at Japan’s Kyoto University analyzed the corporate reports and spending of BP, Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil. They concluded that “no major (oil company) is currently on the way to a clean energy transition.”

Big investors are part of the problem. Tim Quinson, a senior executive editor at Bloomberg, reports “None of the world’s largest asset managers has definitively called on fossil-fuel companies to stop the development of new oil and gas projects.”

Notably, 30 of the largest asset managers have invested at least $550 billion in oil, gas and coal company expansion, Quinson says. “This is happening against a backdrop where the world’s leading climate finance experts and economists warn too much money is pouring into fossil fuels.” The International Energy Agency says if our goal is net-zero carbon, there is no reason to put any additional funds into fossil energy.

Meanwhile, Climate Action 100+, a group of investors pushing 166 corporations to act more quickly against climate change, reports that only 17 percent have established emission-cutting targets and financial accounts in line with holding warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The list of empty promises and greenwashing continues, and so does our march to irreversible climate catastrophe. Guterres called the empty promises a “file of shame.” Well put.

William S. Becker is a former U.S. Department of Energy central regional director who administered energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies programs, and he also served as special assistant to the department’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is also executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House.

Tags Antonio Guterres climate action Climate change climate crisis Global warming IPCC

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