Making Sense of the Climate Impasse

NEW YORK – All signs suggest that the planet is still hurtling headlong toward climatic disaster. The United States’ National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has issued its “State of the Climate Report” covering January-May. The first five months of this year were the warmest on record going back to 1880. May was the warmest month ever. Intense heat waves are currently hitting many parts of the world. Yet still we fail to act.

There are several reasons for this, and we should understand them in order to break today’s deadlock. First, the economic challenge of controlling human-induced climate change is truly complex. Human-induced climate change stems from two principal sources of emissions of greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide): fossil-fuel use for energy and agriculture (including deforestation to create new farmland and pastureland).

Changing the world’s energy and agricultural systems is no small matter. It is not enough to just wave our hands and declare that climate change is an emergency. We need a practical strategy for overhauling two economic sectors that stand at the center of the global economy and involve the entire world’s population.

The second major challenge in addressing climate change is the complexity of the science itself. Today’s understanding of Earth’s climate and the human-induced component of climate change is the result of extremely difficult scientific work involving many thousands of scientists in all parts of the world. This scientific understanding is incomplete, and there remain significant uncertainties about the precise magnitudes, timing, and dangers of climate change.