Today, we are at an important turning point. The changing climate is no longer an abstract threat lurking in our distant future — it is upon us. We feel it. We see it. In our longer and deeper droughts and our more brutal hurricanes and raging, hyper-destructive wildfires. And with that comes a new urgency, and a new opportunity, to act. The world is drifting steadily toward a climate catastrophe. For many of us, that’s been clear for a few years or maybe a decade or even a few decades.
It is late — terribly late — for action, but with some luck, perhaps it is not too late to avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change. In nations across the world, people finally recognize climate change as a top or very serious threat, according to the Pew Research Center. In the U.S., even Republican voters — and especially younger ones — are waking up to the realities and dangers of a warming planet.
Fewer and fewer people today doubt the overwhelming scientific evidence: By burning fossil fuels for energy, humans have added so much carbon (and other greenhouse gases) to the atmosphere that we are changing nature itself, imperiling the delicate interdependence among species and putting our own survival at risk. Scientists say with certainty that we must radically transform how we make and use energy within a decade if we are to have any chance of mitigating the damage.
Year to the next, you cannot feel the difference. As the decades stack up, though, the story becomes clear. The stripes on our cover represent the world’s average temperature in every year since the mid-19th century. The changing climate of the planet and the remarkable growth in human numbers and riches both stem from the combustion of billions of tonnes of fossil fuel to produce industrial power, electricity, transport, heating and, more recently, computation.
Now figuring out what must be done at this late stage is complicated. There are a wide range of emissions sources and many ways to approach them, ranging from the microsteps that can be taken by individuals — Do you have to take that car trip? That airline flight? — to the much more important macro-policies that must be adopted by nations.
Globally, 25% of greenhouse gas emissions today comes from burning fossil fuels to create heat and electricity, mostly for residential and commercial buildings; another 23% is the result of burning fuel for industrial uses. And 14% comes from transportation.
All that burning of carbon fuels needs to end; yet unless policies and politics change dramatically, it won’t end. Even in this time of heightened clarity, two-thirds of new passenger vehicles bought in the U.S. last year were gas-guzzling pickup trucks and SUVs. Those SUVs will be on the road an average of eight years, and the pickups for more than 13 years, as the time to address the climate problem slips away.
Fighting the rise in temperature and sea levels will be tough. And we humans are understandably disinclined to live differently or to make sacrifices. But we must stop dawdling and forge ahead if we are to protect ourselves and our planet.