We must cut greenhouse gases to save ourselves, not the planet

COP-26, the climate change conference in Glasgow, came to a predictably unsatisfactory end. America’s return under the Biden administration to taking climate change seriously produced a hopeful agreement with China for future collaboration on climate, helped make some progress on financial issues, and helped encourage some countries to strengthen pledges to reduce green house gas (GHG) emissions. But scientists told the assembled delegates Nov. 9 that their announced plans would lead to an increase in global temperatures by at least 2.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, dangerously above the Paris goal of 1.5 degrees.

COP-26’s response to the reality check from the science community was essentially to agree to meet again next year with new and improved plans.

COP-26 will undoubtedly spur more climate action, and its shortcoming may energize those already committed to climate action to do more. But next year’s COP-27 is likely to be just as unsatisfactory in tackling climate change without a fundamental change in major countries’ political will to reduce GHG emissions by the amounts required to meet the Paris goal.

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Creating and strengthening political will for climate action requires a more direct and accurate message on what is at stake. 

Heretofore, climate activists, editorial boards, journalists and commentators have linked the need to reduce GHG emissions to “protecting” or “saving” the planet. Those phrases were ubiquitous in the weeks leading up to and during COP-26. As recently as Nov. 12, the Washington Post had a front-page story on how peat bogs are “a superhero in fight for the planet.”

But the planet is not in danger. Earth is some 4.5 billion years old and during its long life has dealt with temperatures ranging from well below freezing to over 400 degrees Celsius. Regardless of what humans do about GHG emissions, the earth will continue to orbit the sun for another 5 billion years, until the Sun becomes a red giant and most likely consumes it. The question is whether there will be life on the planet before that happens. 

What really matters about GHG emissions is that the cascading impacts of increasing global temperatures produced by human GHG emissions undermine the sustainability of life on the planet. Global temperature increases above 2 degrees Celsius make life — plant, animal and human — on earth increasingly difficult and at 5 degrees Celsius or more virtually impossible. As global temperatures rise, national economies will be strained as sea level rise, droughts and inland flooding undermine food production and generate waves of domestic migration from coastal cities and from inland regions that can only support a limited population.  Democratic forms of government, such as in the U.S. and Europe, are likely to face existential threats as pressures to deal with domestic challenges are compounded by substantial migrations from countries and regions even more devastated by the changing climate. Over time, instability will radiate out from affected areas, increasing the likelihood of conflict within and between nations.

Current and past generations bear the responsibility for the changing climate, but it is our grandchildren, great-grandchildren and their children who will feel the full impacts of climate change. Most people alive today will have descendants whose lives — if GHG emissions stay on their current path — will range from less comfortable than today, to very challenging, to a Hobbesian existence: nasty, brutish and short.

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How we think about a problem is important to how we address it. We spend money on seat belts and smoke detectors and put up with security checks at airports because decades ago the consequences of not doing so were made bluntly clear, to the public and to political leaders.

As attention turns from COP-26 to developing national plans to address the gaps identified by scientists, the national conversations in the developed world about climate change need to focus graphically on the very predictable consequences — nationally and globally — of climate inaction. There should be no more talk of “saving the planet”; we need to save our grandchildren and their children.

The message, therefore, needs to be that with unchecked GHG emissions, there will be much more migration in the future, not less; water stressed regions will become increasingly so; rising seas will increasingly challenge coastal cities and areas, and ultimately many of them will be partially or permanently inundated; heavy precipitation in other areas will make inland flooding a regular occurrence; increasing heat will make workers and land less productive; and national and global economies will lose hundreds of billions and then trillions of dollars in GNP as climate change impacts from inadequately reduced emissions are sustained and grow. And the worst of these consequences will fall upon our descendants who are not yet born.

Despite COP-26, the U.S., China, and the rest of the developed world are on a path that makes life as we know it unsustainable.

What we do about GHG emissions will determine whether our descendants have a future that is tolerable or dystopian. To generate the political will that COP-27 will need to start putting us on a sustainable path of emissions reductions, we need to drop the language of saving the planet and have a public discussion that is truthful, frank, graphic, and targeted on the need to save life on the planet — and what the consequences of inaction are for our grandchildren and the generations beyond.

Kenneth C. Brill is a retired career Foreign Service Officer who served as an ambassador in the Clinton and Bush Administrations and was the founding Director of the U.S. National Counterproliferation Center within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.