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UN report predicts climate catastrophe, absent major action

A United Nations report released Thursday compiles the latest scientific findings on climate change and shows a gathering disaster unless nations take swift, dramatic action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Overarchingly, the UN’s takeaway is that global warming is occurring more rapidly, and with more quickly-worsening impacts, than most past models had predicted. Within the next five years, there is a 40% chance that the world may breach the threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming previously identified by scientists and world governments as the hoped-for limit.

“We have reached a tipping point on the need for climate action. The disruption to our climate and our planet is already worse than we thought, and it is moving faster than predicted,” UN Secretary General António Guterres said in a video message that accompanied the release of the report. “This report shows just how far off course we are.”

Already, the UN reports, “the global average mean surface temperature for the period from 2017–2021 is among the warmest on record, estimated at 1.06 °C to 1.27 °C above pre-industrial (1850–1900) levels.”

Vapor rises from a chimney at the Belchatow coal powered power plant, operated by PGE SE, in Belchatow, Poland, on Thursday, July 8, 2021. (Piotr Malecki/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Vapor rises from a chimney at the Belchatow coal powered power plant, operated by PGE SE, in Belchatow, Poland, on Thursday, July 8, 2021. (Piotr Malecki/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The impact is already being felt, even sooner than many expected, with more frequent and severe extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts and hurricanes.

The measures promised by countries at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris are insufficient, according to the new report and to other recent studies by non-governmental organizations, as they would leave the world on a pathway towards at least 2.7C of warming by the century’s end.

Moreover, global greenhouse gas emissions keep rising. Carbon dioxide, which is by far the most prevalent greenhouse gas, peaked in 2019 and only dropped in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other greenhouse gas emissions such as methane and nitrous oxide are rapidly increasing, more so than past climate models had even anticipated.

The report is intended to encourage more ambitious pledges of national actions to combat climate at the UN climate conference in November in Glasgow, Scotland. Heads of state are also appearing at the UN General Assembly next week, in which climate change is sure to be a major topic of discussion.

But just as important as making those commitments is that governments actually follow through and start implementing the policies that will get them to those targets for emissions cuts. As a UN summary of the conclusions put it, “Although the increasing number of countries committing to net-zero emission goals is encouraging, to remain feasible and credible, these goals urgently need to be reflected in near-term policy and in significantly more ambitious actions.”

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