“We are Running Out of Time”

In rare foray into politics, the editors-in-chief of the American Geophysical Union’s 22 journals urged world leaders to take immediate action to check “devastating impacts” of climate change.
November 2, 2021

About 200 world leaders have assembled in Glasgow, Scotland for a climate conference that could decide the fate of the world’s future, and scientists are urging them to take action now.

In an editorial, the geoscientists in charge of 22 science journals of the American Geophysical Union, including two from Indiana, urged world leaders at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties summit, known as COP26, to take immediate collective action to lessen the impacts of climate change that threatens “humanity itself.”

“For decades, we've been publishing papers documenting the train wreck of climate change and how bad it is and how much worse it’s going to get,” said Gabriel Filippelli, Chancellor’s Professor at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis and director of the Center for Urban Health. “It really is a sort of wake-up call to the Western countries. Although the U.S. arguably emits less carbon than China, for example, the lion's share of the carbon that's already up there is from us. So, if anyone takes leadership, it should be us. And it's the simple things like getting off of fossil fuels, that's the most important fix that we can do.”

The conference has been held yearly since 1995. It has resulted in several major emissions agreements over the decades, like the Kyoto Protocol and the 2015 Paris Agreement, that have formed the foundation for governmental climate action across the globe.

The agreements have yielded some positive results. The Kyoto Protocol resulted in reduced overall carbon dioxide emissions, which, along with other greenhouse gases, trap heat in the atmosphere and subsequently change the Earth’s climate.

The Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, is meeting with much less success.

A U.N. Framework on Climate Change report found that the emissions reductions plans for the next decade from the U.S. and other countries would result in the world becoming 2.7 degrees warmer by the end of the century.

The report did not include an analysis of major polluters China, South Africa or Japan, which could result in the warming rate being even higher.

As a result of these and other steps backward in addressing the climate crisis, scientists have stepped outside their traditional roles and into the world of politics to ask world leaders to take action to address the climate crisis.

“We are trained to be dispassionate observers and cautious thinkers, yet the alarming rate of recent climate change impels us to turn our attention directly toward mitigating this impending crisis,” the scientists wrote.

“We are scientists, but we also have families and loved ones alongside our fellow citizens on this planet. The time to bridge the divide between scientist and citizen, head and heart, is now. The lead-up to the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, being held in Glasgow in November, is our ‘last best chance’ to urge world leaders to come together and commit to keeping climate change and its devastating impacts in check.”

Filippelli is editor-in-chief of GeoHealth, an AGU journal that publishes scientific articles on the interactions between the environment and human health. He said that he and other AGU journal editors decided to call for action after a U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released in August that declared a “code red for humanity.”

The report, authored by 234 scientists from 66 countries, found that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were higher than at any time in at least 2 million years, and methane and nitrous oxide concentrations were higher than they have been in 800,000 years.

The report warned that unless “rapid and deep” reductions in greenhouse gas emissions happen in coming decades, the Paris Agreement goals would be “beyond reach.”

The efforts to decarbonize and take climate action in the U.S. are being stymied by the fossil fuel industry and lawmakers with financial ties to fossil fuel.

The leaders of the four major oil and gas companies were called to testify at a six-hour hearing of the House Oversight Committee after an industry lobbyist revealed one company used third-party organizations to fight against legislative action on climate change and used “shadow groups” to maximize profits for the company by opposing efforts to transition to renewable energy.

A 2015 investigation by Inside Climate News revealed that top executives at Exxon Mobil Corp. knew fossil fuels were changing the Earth’s climate as early as 1977 and led efforts to stop government efforts to curb fossil fuel emissions.

The investigation found Exxon used the American Petroleum Institute, a trade organization representing all of the oil and gas industry, right-wing think tanks, campaign contributions and other lobbying efforts to cast doubts on climate science and delay government action for decades.

In Indiana, groups with ties to the fossil fuel industry were found to stir up efforts against wind and solar energy systems, and groups without fossil fuel affiliations were found to base some of their concerns on misinformation spread by groups with fossil fuel ties.

Democratic lawmakers recently cut a major climate provision from a $3.5 trillion spending bill at the behest of Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia. The clean energy performance program would have rewarded energy suppliers who transition away from greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels like coal and natural gas and impose fines on those who did not.

Manchin has made millions of dollars from a private coal brokerage he founded and has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry.

The once-ambitious plan was reduced to $1.75 trillion, with approximately $550 billion in tax cuts and incentives for electrification the only climate provisions remaining.

Republicans have resolved to defeat the bill by targeting the remaining provisions on procedural grounds and reviving dormant concerns about balanced budgets and government overreach.

“My sense is, that we largely have all the tools we need right now. What we don't have much of is time,” Filippelli said. “We now know that with the proper balance of renewables and distributed storage, we can actually fuel the country. We can turn on lights all over the country. We can fuel and power vehicles and all that with electrons, not with gasoline. If we rolled up our sleeves and if corporations weren't in our way, we could probably be 90% toward that goal of significant reduction by 2030.”

Despite difficulties with the legislative branch of the government, President Joe Biden said he remains committed to tackling the climate crisis.

“This is the challenge of our collective lifetimes, the existential threat to human existence as we know it, and every day we delay the cost of inaction increases. So let this be the moment that we answer history's call here in Glasgow. Let this be the start of a decade of transformative action that preserves our planet and raises the quality of life for people everywhere,” Biden said at COP26 Monday. “We can do this. We just have to make a choice to do it. So, let's get to work.”

Other world leaders, like Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson and Pope Francis, have urged action during COP26, but leaders from heavy pollution nations like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia were absent from the conference.

More than 100 leading countries, accounting for 86% of the world’s forests, including the U.S., have signed an agreement to “halt and reverse” forest loss and land degradation by 2030, a measure which could sequester more carbon dioxide and have other positive effects.

World leaders from 100 countries, including some involved in the forest agreement, signed the Global Methane Pledge, a goal to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030.

Methane is a greenhouse gas at least 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere.

President Biden announced the U.S. would heavily regulate methane through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a move that could reduce 41 million tons of methane, the equivalent of 920 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, between 2023 and 2035.

The move would set policy for the Biden administration but could be scrapped by subsequent administrations.

“We are Running Out of Time”