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The Washington Post: We live in an age of climate disaster. Now what?

By Ishaan Tharoor with Ruby Mellen

This week, U.S. scientists confirmed what anyone who has been paying attention would probably already know. The 2010s were the hottest decade ever recorded on the planet. 2019 was the second-hottest year ever measured, and the evidence was brutally on show: We saw swaths of Greenland’s ice cap melt into the sea, heat waves blaze through northern Europe, extreme storms and floods batter vulnerable islands and coasts, and epic wildfires scorch vast drought-ridden stretches of the globe.

As my colleagues reported, “19 of the hottest 20 years have occurred during the past two decades. The warming trend also bears the unmistakable sign of human activity, which emits tens of billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.”

The findings were jointly released by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. federal agencies in a government led by a president who is a notorious climate skeptic. But a huge body of data and scientific analysis undercuts the White House’s political posturing. According to NOAA, my colleagues reported, global warming has sped up over the past 40 years compared with earlier in the 20th century.

“No individual hot year — or hot day or hot season, for that matter — is by itself evidence for climate change. But this hot year is just one of many hot years in this decade,” Kate Marvel, a research scientist at NASA, told my colleagues. “The planet is statistically, detectably warmer than before the Industrial Revolution. We know why. We know what it means. And we can do something about it.”

“The moment of crisis has come,” David Attenborough, a famed environmental campaigner, told the BBC on Thursday. This year alone, we’ve been bombarded with peer-reviewed study after study that demonstrated both that the planet is warming at astonishing rates because of human activity and that sweeping governmental action has to happen now to at least try to stave off the planetary disaster that awaits.

“Virtually every important climate record has been broken and re-broken over the past few years: The past five years are the five warmest years on record, the past six the warmest six, the past nine the warmest nine,” noted the Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer. “Since Donald Trump rode down his gilded escalator and announced he was running for president, the world has experienced its hottest recorded version of each individual month, according to NOAA.”

It’s thanks to politicians like Trump — and he’s hardly alone among global leaders dragging their feet through a world on fire — that a kind of ennui has set in in the face of catastrophe.

The latest round of U.N.-shepherded climate talks ended in disappointment, with activists lamenting the narrow ambitions of various national governments. As much as the peril of climate change has been discussed for more than a decade, it has been accompanied by parallel concerns over “apocalypse fatigue” — the sense that, for many people, the enormity of what is happening to the planet is still too imperceptible to drive them to action.

Now, though, there are clear signs of change. Ahead of next week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the summit’s conveners put out their annual Global Risks Report, a survey of hundreds of leading global CEOs and policymakers. For the first time in the 15-year history of the report, it noted, “environmental concerns dominate the top long-term risks” projected by those surveyed, eclipsing jitters over possible economic turmoiland widening social inequity.

These include fears over the damage caused by increasing extreme weather events; the potential inadequacy or failure of climate mitigation measures taken by governments and businesses; the growing toll of man-made environmental disasters, such as oil spills; and the collapse of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity — grimly illustrated by the animal body count amid the fires in Australia.

“The political landscape is polarized, sea levels are rising, and climate fires are burning,” Borge Brende, the president of the World Economic Forum, said at a news conference. “This is the year when world leaders must work with all sectors of society to repair and reinvigorate our systems of cooperation, not just for short-term benefit but for tackling our deep-rooted risks.”

Next week in Davos — where Today’s WorldView will be on the ground — climate change will loom large over proceedings. The Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg is expected to speak the same day as Trump, and probably will use her platform to once more scold the global elite. “The world of finance has a responsibility to the planet, the people and all other species living on it,” she wrote in a column last week. “In fact, it ought to be in every company and stakeholder’s interest to make sure the planet they live on will thrive. But history has not shown the corporate world’s willingness to hold themselves accountable.”

Numerous titans of industry and corporate executives may try to prove Thunberg wrong, with the forum working to coordinate private-sector efforts to help the world meet the goals set by the 2015 Paris agreement. Representatives of the world’s four big accounting firms are slated to sit down with other corporate leaders “to thrash out green audit standards,” noted the Financial Times — what it suggests would be a significant step toward creating “a common framework” for companies to track their compliance with U.N.-mandated climate goals.

Still, there’s a huge gulf between a corporate sector that’s increasingly aware of how climate change may be impacting its bottom line and the activists that have been clamoring for radical action all along. Many of the major banks whose executives will convene in Davos continue to invest hundreds of billions of dollars into the fossil fuel industry.

“Anything less than immediately ceasing these investments in the fossil fuel industry would be a betrayal of life itself,” Thunberg wrote. “Today’s business as usual is turning into a crime against humanity.”


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