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I’ve been writing this column for almost a year now, trying to shine a light on many of the climate crisis’s facets. Once in a while, it’s important to pull back and try to put it all in perspective. Now is such a time: this month marks the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate summit; we’ve more or less survived the Trump Administration, with an incoming Administration promising a new approach; and we’re less than a year away from what will be the next great global climate meeting, in Glasgow, Scotland. (On a personal note, I’m subsiding into emeritus status at 350.org, the climate campaign I helped found, and I turn sixty this week—since I started writing my first book about all this when I was twenty-seven, this milestone means that I’ve spent four-fifths of my adult life wrestling with the climate problem.) Where do we stand? Take a deep breath.

All discussions of the climate crisis start with science, and the science is grim. Despite a La Niña wave cooling the global temperature in 2020, this year will vie for the hottest on record. It’s already seen what could be the highest temperature ever reliably recorded (a hundred and thirty degrees, in California), and devastating wildfires in Australia, Siberia, the American West, and South America, where about a quarter of the Pantanal, the largest wetland on earth, burned. Thirty named storms formed in the Atlantic, leading to a record hurricane season.

But those dramatic moments obscure the more devastating and silent changes. The Australia-based climatologist Andrew Glikson recently catalogued some of them for Arctic News: over the past four decades, the globe’s tropical zones have expanded by about two degrees latitude. The “shift of climate zones toward the poles,” Glikson writes, “is changing the geography of the planet.” June saw the temperature top a hundred degrees in Verkhoyansk, Siberia, likely the highest ever recorded above the Arctic Circle. As northern sea ice melts, the jet stream weakens, allowing warm air masses to penetrate farther north; one result this year has been the fires in Siberia—which began burning the peatlands that hold huge stores of carbon. In Australia, the tropical zone of the north is pushing farther south, and the coastal population centers are ever hotter and drier. The implacable rise of the oceans is accelerating, and some of the most important physical systems on the planet seem at tipping points: in the Amazon, where deforestation is escalating under Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazilian government, researchers say that a twenty- to twenty-five-per-cent loss of forest cover could trigger large areas of the forest to become savannah; at the moment, the figure is about seventeen per cent.

People caused the climate crisis, of course, but the definition of which people gets more precise over time. Research indicates that the wealthiest ten per cent of the world’s population—those with net incomes above thirty-eight thousand dollars a year—account for more than half of all carbon emissions. The wealthiest one per cent produce more than twice the carbon that the poorest fifty per cent do. But the effects of climate change are unjustly reversed: the less you did to cause it, the sooner and harder you feel its effects. Last month, when Hurricanes Eta and Iota hit Central America, the damage was “beyond compare,” Admiral Craig Faller, of the U.S. Southern Command, which was helping relief efforts, told the Times. “There are some estimates of up to a decade just to recover,” he said. Before then, displaced Hondurans and Guatemalans may trek in large numbers to the southern border of the United States, the Times reports, presenting a test for a Biden Administration that “may find it politically difficult to welcome a surge of migrants.” Those migrants would only be, however, part of an advance guard; estimates for the number of climate migrants around the world by 2050 range between twenty-five million and a billion people.

To put it simply, the temperature is increasing steadily and at a pace scientists had predicted. (The latest figures from Columbia University’s James Hansen and other climate scientists suggest an acceleration of warming over the past few years.) “We have entered a new climate,” the meteorologist Jeff Masters, a contributor to Yale Climate Connections, said last week. “Heat is energy and when everything else comes together,” he added, “things are going to go bonkers.”

Given the pace of physical change, the question becomes how fast societies can move to counter it. So far, the signs are not encouraging: emissions of carbon dioxide and methane continued to rise through 2019. They dipped in 2020, during the pandemic shutdowns, but the curve is now back on the upswing. Still, we do seem to be approaching an inflection point—a peak in the burning of hydrocarbons—that the pandemic may have moved forward a little. For a decade, engineers have been steadily driving down the cost of solar and wind power and of the batteries required to store it. This is now the cheapest power in the world, which opens up possibilities that didn’t previously exist for rapid and mass-scale change; electric cars, to give one example, are quickly transitioning from expensive toys to cheaper, better consumer products. Joe Biden, in other words, has far more scope for decisive action than Barack Obama did, just four years ago, though a Senate left in Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hands would make acting on that opportunity difficult.

You can tell that something’s shifting, because a variety of leaders—in politics and business—have begun making new promises. “2050” has become a rallying cry, as in, “by 2050, we’ll be net zero” or “by 2050, we’ll be carbon-neutral.” China made such a pledge this fall and, though it chose 2060 as its deadline, that was nevertheless a huge change in policy. But both timelines are too slow. Since physics sets the terms of this debate, we need scientists, not politicians, to tell us the pace we need to hit, and here the numbers are stark. In Paris, in 2015, the world committed to trying to hold the increase in global temperature to as close as possible to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Last week, the World Meteorological Organization said that the current rise stands at 1.2 degrees, with at least a one-in-five chance that we will see an annual average above 1.5 degrees before 2024.

Two years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that, to have any chance of meeting that Paris target, we’d need to see a “fundamental societal and systems transitions and transformations” of energy systems by 2030, which it defined as cutting emissions by half. 2030 is now nine years away. That’s thirty-six quarters of a business cycle, one-and-a-half Senate terms in Washington, or nearly two five-year plans for Beijing; new data show that to meet that target our fossil-fuel production has to drop at least six per cent a year. But our leverage over where the earth’s temperature will eventually settle dwindles with each passing year, because feedback loops beyond our control are starting to intervene. For example, America’s emissions from transportation fell sharply during the pandemic, but that entire decline has been erased by the carbon released in the brutal fires in the West.

So the right metaphor for where we are now is a race—one that we are losing. We can’t actually win it, in the sense that we’ve already done so much damage, and far more is locked in for the future. But, if we act with daring and haste in the decade ahead, we can still achieve a world in which the temperature rises by two degrees Celsius or less, instead of by three or four or more—and that could easily make the difference between a civilization that survives and one that collapses.

The key contestants in this race are the fossil-fuel industry and the movements that have arisen to stop it. The balance of power between them determines how bravely politicians will act and how fast investment will switch to renewable energy. There’s no doubt about the eventual outcome: economics will dictate a switch to renewable power. But waiting for economics to take its course guarantees that we will not make our deadlines. That’s precisely why activists have been fighting so many battles on so many fronts. Some of the most important, I think, include the fights to prevent new fossil-fuel infrastructure, such as pipelines. There was a win on that front last week, as Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, joined other officials in opposing the North Brooklyn fracked-gas pipeline. And there was a setback, as the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission gave the go-ahead for the Canadian Line 3 tar-sands pipeline crossing the state; campaigners led by indigenous activists blockaded that work last Friday.

There are also crucial fights to cut off the financing to the fossil-fuel industry: Stop the Money Pipeline (a campaign that I helped launch) has had some initial success in pressuring big banks, asset managers, and insurance companies to cease underwriting coal and oil and gas. (Bank of America just became the last of the major U.S. banks to declare the Arctic off-limits for oil lending.) The fossil-fuel divestment campaign has seen some major victories, too: on Wednesday, the New York State comptroller announced plans to divest the state’s pension fund, one of the largest in the world. There are also campaigns for a “fossil-fuel non-proliferation treaty,” which just last week scored a success, when Denmark announced that it would not license any new drilling in the North Sea. And there are efforts to persuade ad agencies and public-relations firms to stop green-washing the industry. All these campaigns are most pointed in Europe, but they are spreading around the world.

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