The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

At COP26 (and everywhere) the pace of climate action is the problem

Talking about how much to limit global heating without talking about how soon to do so is a dangerously incomplete way to frame climate action. It overlooks the dimension that does the most to make climate change deadly: speed. Too much of the discussion in and around the UN climate conference COP26 misses this point. 

Our planet is overheating, but worse, it’s overheating too fast for people, plants and animals to keep up. Although COP26 has seen some encouraging new pledges and initiatives to reduce future carbon pollution, we’re already experiencing an unprecedented proliferation of extreme heat, flooding, drought, bigger wildfires and worse storms.

Keeping our world from heating up more than 1.5 degrees Celsius can prevent a stunning amount of loss and suffering — but to ease the pain and disruption that would come even with that accomplishment, we need to buy time. The question we face isn’t whether we can adapt — it’s whether we can adapt fast enough, recognizing that some profound impacts are already unavoidable. Countless plant and animal species will be much slower to respond: the faster the change, the greater the threat of extinction.

When we talk about ambitions at COP26 — code for what nations are willing to do to leave a livable climate to future generations — we should talk about timeframes. Slowing the climb to peak global temperature by even a few decades could mean slowing sea-level rise to a pace that allows many coastal cities to transform instead of abandoning their waterfronts. It could mean stalling temperature increases long enough for farming regions to implement resilient approaches that let them survive severe droughts and infestations, and for a host of other adaptation measures to take the worst edges off increasingly inhospitable conditions. And it could give that much more chance for non-human species to adapt and survive, and for us to find other ways to help.

A world of regional food and water shortages brought on by rapid climate change threatens to produce a nightmare of mass migration, war and increasingly severe and frequent disasters that cripple economies, all happening at once. It’s already begun in nations around the world, including in the United States. Only 40 years ago, we averaged 82 days between billion-dollar disasters (adjusting for inflation); today that recovery time averages just 18 days. Agencies and emergency response systems are still dealing with one disaster while gearing up for the next, and the public insurance system is deep in debt.

The biggest step that can most quickly slow the pace of global heating is curtailing emissions of methane. Methane hasn’t been as widely highlighted as carbon dioxide because its total influence is smaller. This is because methane released into the atmosphere breaks down comparatively quickly — into carbon dioxide, which stays there warming the planet like a blanket for hundreds or even thousands of years.

But methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas per unit, contributing more than 80 times more warming than CO2 over the first two decades after it is first released. Indeed, it’s responsible for an estimated 30 percent of the warming now being experienced. Cutting worldwide methane emissions 30 percent within the next ten years, as the U.S. and other signatories to the new Global Methane Pledge have promised, can slow our planet’s temperature rise and buy more time to prepare for survival on a hotter planet. And scores of companies from the oil and gas industry, whose leakage is a chief source of human-caused methane emissions, agree that it makes sense to curtail those leaks —not least because they can sell what they capture as natural gas —which is comprised largely of methane.

Beyond directly slowing the pace of global heating, initiatives like the Global Methane Pledge can also expand the climate solutions narrative to how soon we can take meaningful action, how much that action can slow down our soaring temperatures, and how much time we can buy to protect communities and economies around the world. Because the pace is the problem.

Karen Florini is vice president for programs at Climate Central. She previously served as deputy special envoy for climate change at the State Department.

Tags Climate change COP26 Fossil fuels Global warming Karen Florini Natural gas

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Regular the hill posts

See all Hill.TV See all Video

main area bottom custom html

MAIN Area bottom

Main area bottom

Top Stories

See All

Most Popular

Load more