Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The Realist Guide to Solving Climate Change

| Aug. 13, 2021

Put aside all your idealistic fantasies about the world's biggest crisis, and here's what's left.

As you probably already know, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just issued its latest report detailing what the world's leading experts think is happening to our planet. Drawing on hundreds of rigorous scientific studies, it deals solely with the sources and physical effects of global warming. Subsequent reports—to be released next year—will address the social, economic, and political consequences. If you were hoping for reassuring news from this report, however, you’re going to be massively disappointed. For a sobering assessment of what it means, see this overview from the Economist or this quick explainer from Foreign Policy's Christina Lu.

The IPCC has now concluded that average global temperatures will continue to increase until at least 2050 and the pace is accelerating. In its words: "Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered. Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades."

It also says the evidence is "unequivocal" that this increased temperature is due to human activity (mostly the burning of fossil fuels) and not to natural variation. In the unlikely event that humanity drastically reduces greenhouse gas emissions and gets to net zero by midcentury, then the increase could be limited to only 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the target adopted by the G-7 countries back in May. That would be a remarkable achievement, but it would still mean more extreme weather events—droughts, fires, floods, etc.—of the sorts we've experienced this year.

That target is probably too optimistic, however, because efforts to address this problem have consistently fallen short in the past. Thus far, the nations of the world have set inadequate targets and then failed to meet them. It takes little imagination to foresee the likely social, economic, and political consequences of this failure, and none of them are good. The Financial Times editorial board got it right: "Time is running short to avert 'hell on earth.'"

The bottom line: We are currently losing the battle to prevent catastrophic human-made changes to the environment on which all life depends. And it is the major powers—the advanced industrial states that have the biggest economies and that produce the most greenhouse gases—that are primarily responsible....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“The Realist Guide to Solving Climate Change.” Foreign Policy, August 13, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt