We need real leadership at climate talks in Poland

Sic transit gloria mundi — "Thus passes the glory of the world” — is a phrase generally directed to popes, kings, and other leaders to remind them of the fleeting nature of human triumphs. But as the United Nations's 24th round of climate talks, COP 24, proceed in Poland, that phrase is taking on a whole new meaning. "If we don't take action," Sir David Attenborough said in the opening speech, "the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon." 

The Trump administration withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord, leaving the rest of the signatories to decide how to implement it, hobbled by the fact that the United States — the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter after China — is sitting on the sidelines and willfully ignoring scientific warnings. In an interview last week, President TrumpDonald John TrumpREAD: Transcript of James Comey's interview with House Republicans Klobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Israel boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate MORE told The Washington Post, “I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else's brain can ever tell me.” 

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Relying on his gut might have won him an election, but Trump's rejection of the U.S. National Climate Assessment report courts disaster. Prepared by 300 scientists and reviewed by 13 U.S. agencies, that report indicates that climate change is not just a dire threat to the environment; it could curb U.S. economic output by as much as 10 percent by the end of the century.

Action is urgently needed. The latest U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report projects temperatures will reach the crucial threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius as early as 2030, subjecting the world to higher risks of extreme droughts, floods and wildfires. To stay below that threshold, carbon dioxide emissions would need to drop by 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030, and then achieve "net zero" emissions by 2050. 

We’re very far off that pace now. The U.N.’s annual Emissions Gas Report reiterated last week that global greenhouse gas emissions reduction efforts fall far short of what's needed to keep global temperature increase even within 2 degrees Celsius, so as to avoid catastrophic warming and sea level rise. Even if all countries could meet their current emissions targets, it would still result in an average global temperature rise of 3.2 degrees Celsius (nearly 6 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100.

At the same time, humanity is over-utilizing global resources and compounding the impacts of climate change.

In many parts of the world, lakes and rivers are shrinking and water tables are falling. The Aral Sea in Asia and Lake Chad in Africa are rapidly disappearing. Our once mighty Colorado River is now a trickle by the time it reaches the Pacific Ocean. Unsustainable irrigation is drying up wells and threatening food security in India, China and other vital breadbaskets. About two-thirds of the world’s population now lives in areas that experience water scarcity at least one month a year.

Our demand for food, which is expected to increase by another 50 percent by 2050, will put increasing pressure on the world’s forests. We already use a landmass about the size of South America to grow crops for human consumption, and we use an area nearly the size of Africa to graze and feed the animals we eat. And deforestation continues apace. The U.N.’s most recent State of the World’s Forests report indicates forest areas decreased from 31.6 percent of the global landmass to 30.6 percent between 1990 and 2015.

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As a growing percentage of the world’s population moves to coastal areas, our marshes, swamps, and mangroves are steadily being destroyed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the United States has lost over half of its wetlands already. 

Hunting, fishing and loss of habitat is devastating the world’s wildlife population. The World Wildlife Fund’s latest Living Planet report found on average, populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians declined by 60 percent in the past 40 years. Leading scientists warn that humanity is precipitating the Sixth Mass Extinction of plant and animal species. 

With world population projected to rise from 7.6 billion people today to nearly 10 billion by mid-century, there is no end in sight to the increasing demand for energy, water, land and other resources.

The deterioration of an already overburdened environment constitutes a real and present danger to humanity’s future. We need effective leadership that understands the urgent need for better stewardship of the planet. Our president, however, ignores the scientific evidence, preferring to listen to his gut. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Robert Walker is the president of the Population Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit promoting family planning and the reproductive health of women at home and abroad. He directs the organization’s advocacy and public education activities, including its work on issues related to health, economic development, sustainability and the environment. He is author of the report “Demographic Vulnerability: Where Population Growth Poses the Greatest Challenges.” Mr. Walker worked 14 years on Capitol Hill, including five as legislative aide to Rep. John B. Anderson (R-Ill.) and six as legislative director for Rep. Mo Udall (D-Ariz.).