Our planet is in crisis. Wildfires are ravaging Europe and bringing tragedy to Hawaii. Sea temperatures are climbing more rapidly than expected, baffling scientists. July became the hottest month on record. We are, as UN Secretary General António Guterres said, entering the era of “global boiling”.
This raises the stakes for world leaders, as they prepare for crucial intergovernmental meetings – the G20 summit in India in September, a Climate Ambition Summit at the UN in New York later in the month, and the critical COP28 climate talks in Dubai in December.
Yet, around the world, we are failing to act with the urgency required to tackle the crisis before our eyes. Worse, many governments are taking decisions that will actively make the problem worse. In the UK, for example, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is to award hundreds of new oil and gas licences to North Sea operators. Earlier this year, the Biden administration in the US allowed the Willow oil project in Alaska to move forward, even as it implements the largest legislative commitment to climate action ever made in that country.
This absence of leadership from the Global North gives cover to developing countries to scramble to exploit their fossil reserves – trading near-term profit for longer-term costs. Across Africa, many countries are looking to develop their oil and gas reserves. The Central African Pipeline System, a proposed 4,000-mile gas network, would lock that part of Africa into decades of gas use. In South America, at a regional summit in Belém, Brazil, in August, proposals to commit to zero deforestation of the Amazon by 2030 were blocked. Under the Bolsonaro government, there was rampant deforestation as it expanded agriculture at the expense of the rainforest.
Incredibly, politicians in many countries are ignoring the crisis – or are even seeking to derive political advantage from inaction. In the recent Spanish elections, the far-right party had in its electoral program to abandon the Paris Agreement and repeal the Climate Change and Energy Transition Law, even as the country sweltered in a record-breaking heatwave. In the UK, the Conservative government is turning the potential cost of moving to net-zero into a wedge issue as it struggles to overcome a huge polling deficit. And in the US, what should be a unifying challenge continues to be marked by stubborn partisanship, with wild swings in climate policy depending on which party controls the White House and Congress.
Such politicking around an existential global crisis is foolhardy, short-sighted and, indeed, is likely to fail on its own terms: electorates around the world are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of climate change on their lives. Three in four people across 19 countries around the world described global climate change as “a major threat”. More than three-quarters of Europeans think climate change is a “very serious problem”. Large majorities of Americans support taking action on climate.
But, in the teeth of a global cost of living crisis, finding money for climate action is difficult. In the face of competing priorities, how can governments convince their electorates of the urgent need for spending on climate change?
They need to demonstrate a single-minded determination to recognize the science and make the case for action. They should take inspiration from US political strategist James Carville’s famous advice to Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign: that the campaign message should be, “it’s the economy, stupid”. Political leaders must stress that “it’s the planet, stupid”, as they seek support for a whole-of-society response to the challenge of our age.
What, then, does this mean for the next round of international negotiations, which build towards COP28 in Dubai? Most action to address climate change will take place at the national level, but international agreements will underpin and enable much of that action.
Here, national-level political dysfunction has undermined international consensus. We thought that, with the forging of the Paris Agreement in 2015, we had achieved that consensus and had the tools we needed to drive ambitious action on climate change. The rise of populism has fractured that consensus and has weakened many of the mechanisms that Paris had put in place.
So, in the run-up to COP28, and at the G20 and UN General Assembly before then, these mechanisms need to be reinforced, and momentum restored. To this end, WWF has produced our climate and energy manifesto, which calls for “everything, everywhere, all at once” in terms of climate action.
Specifically, it sets out six action points, calling on leaders to:
- Agree a global plan to phase out all fossil fuels in a just and equitable manner, including supporting the call to have a global goal for renewable energy agreed at COP28;
- Transform sectors and systems through strong climate action, especially in cities, ecosystems, and food systems;
- Agree on a solidarity package for the Loss and Damage Fund for adaptation and for early warning systems to protect the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change;
- Include nature in national implementation plans, in partnership with Indigenous Peoples and local communities;
- Encourage non-state actors to commit to more credible net-zero pledges, and ensure that developed countries reach net-zero by 2040;
- Require multilateral financial institutions to direct their resources towards climate action, by ending funding for fossil fuels, increasing climate finance and by encouraging private sector participation in decarbonization.
We do not underestimate the scale of the challenge we face. Those interests that profit from the status quo are working hard to sow division, to play on fears around affordability, and advocate delay in the name of pragmatism.
We have to forcefully and repeatedly make the case that swift, ambitious climate action is the pragmatic response to a planetary emergency. That avoiding costs now will mean greater costs in the future. That ending our addiction to fossil fuels will bring benefits that far outweigh the near-term challenges.