The world has been talking about lowering CO2 emissions below 2C (3.6F) since the 2015 Paris Agreement. It was then that world governments agreed a 1.5C (2.7F) increase in global temperatures would be an irreversible tipping point from which we could not come back.
As the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) gets underway in Egypt, we are still having the same conversation, with the 1.5C tipping point a certainty probably before midcentury because of global inaction to reduce fossil fuel emissions.
So, it is not at all surprising that the dialogue has changed to discussing adaptations, how to pay for them and who should foot the bill.
Natural adaptations include restoring barriers against flooding, like mangroves and wetlands; developing drought resilient crops and protecting forests that absorb CO2.
Infrastructure adaptations include building dikes, levees and sea walls to keep out rising seas and flood waters. They also include climate resilient building materials, building codes preventing new construction in wildfire- and flood-prone areas, and water conservation polices.
Ominously, they include building cooling structures as temperatures soar (more than 100 million Americans will experience at least one 125-degree day each summer by 2050).
The costs of adapting to our warming Earth will be enormous. They have already cost trillions of dollars.
For example, Galveston, Texas, is constructing a $31 billion dike to protect its harbor. New York is considering a $52 billion system of storm-surge gates.
These adaptations are no longer debatable; they are a necessity. Whether governments will pay for them depends on who’s in power and the political will of the people. What I don’t think COP27 will resolve is financing adaptations for low-income nations.
COP26 in Glasgow ended with a commitment by richer nations to provide low-income countries with $100 billion annually to finance adaptations. Nevertheless, in 2020 adaptation and mitigation funding fell billions short of the pledged money.
All of the United Nations conferences have been long on talk and short on follow-through. What has become crystal clear is that we are going over the tipping point; it is now up to us, we the people of the world; and that we have an unlikely ally, the private sector.
The cost of solar power has fallen by more than 85% and wind power by more than 55%. Indeed, the International Energy Agency is predicting solar power will become the cheapest source of electricity in history.
In the United States, planned solar energy would exceed total worldwide solar operations. And, the U.S. government has set a goal of expanding offshore wind power a thousand-fold by 2030.
All of this a few years ago would have depended solely on politics. Now, the urgency of our changing climate and the ability of the private sector to financially profit from it is hopeful.
While this is good news, it should not be comforting. In reality, greenhouse gas emissions are still rising. Levels of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide all reached new highs in 2021. At the least, our planet will warm by 2C midcentury.
A 2C increase will cause extreme heat throughout the United States. Globally, more severe wildfires, droughts, sea-level rise and flooding will become the “new normal.” Animal species will shift their habitats pole ward.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, humans, too, will be on the move escaping the heat and droughts, with some studies suggesting there will be tens of millions of climate migrants by the end of the century.
I understand this is all overwhelming, that there are still climate deniers, and that climate change was not high on voters’ minds during the 2022 midterm elections.
I also understand there is an army of us worldwide who understand the existential threat of an overheating climate. If we band together, act politically and support companies building the green infrastructure we can still make the difference. It’s up to us.
— Environmental lawyer Robert Sulnick represented the community of Casmalia in litigation against the Casmalia Resources Hazardous Waste Landfill, co-founded the American Oceans Campaign with Ted Danson, and is a partner in the Santa Barbara environmental consulting firm Environmental Problem Solving Enterprises. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.