What if we can’t fix climate change?

Brandon Pytel
Mar 11 · 3 min read

No matter how you look at it, we’re losing the fight against climate change.

To limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the target set at the Paris Agreement, the world must halve emissions by 2030 and hit net zero around 2050. But that looks further out of reach every day.

A new report finds that countries’ most-recent medium-term climate targets would cut global emissions a mere 1% by 2030. Another report finds that pandemic-related emission drops are surging back. Meanwhile, 2020 tied for the hottest year on record.

So, yeah. It’s not going too great. If a pandemic, which literally grinds the economy to a halt, can’t change things, maybe nothing can. Which begs the question: What if we can’t fix climate change?

A helicopter is called in to contain the Bobcat fire in Littlerock, California, in September 2020. Photo credit: @trommelkopf/Unsplash

That wording, of course, is a little misleading. We’re never going to fix climate change. Because of the lag between emissions in the atmosphere and the warming of the Planet, enough warming is already baked in to heat the world 2.7 degrees Celsius, catapulting us past any climate goals.

The real question then isn’t how can we fix climate change, but rather how much worse will it get and what can we do about it? Fortunately, that is something we have control over. Though we’re struggling to rise to the occasion.

New research finds that 150 countries have increased their emissions since the Paris Agreement. The 64 countries that made cuts, did so marginally, well short of what’s needed to hit climate goals.

The problem here isn’t lack of knowledge — we know exactly what targets we need to hit to avoid a climate catastrophe. Nor is it lack of ambition — the biggest economies are making climate pledges like they’re going out of style. It’s turning all that talk into action.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic gave some of us cautious optimism — in that it presented an opportunity, albeit a far from ideal one, to turn things around — it’s now obvious that countries are largely failing to incorporate climate action into recovery plans.

“[N]ot enough is being done to accelerate clean energy transitions worldwide,” Fatih Birol, International Energy Agency executive director, said in a statement. “If governments don’t move quickly with the right energy policies, this could put at risk the world’s historic opportunity to make 2019 the definitive peak in global emissions.”

China is symbolic of that missed opportunity. Despite pledging to hit net zero emissions by 2060, China saw emissions surge 4% in the second half of 2020, largely due to stimulating the economy with dirty industries like steel and concrete. That pushed the country’s total emissions for 2020 above 2019, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

We are a collective Sisyphus, forever pushing our climate burden up a hill. But in our case, we’ve been taking a break ever since we were fated with the burden, which is growing heavier each day. If we don’t get off our asses, no matter all the plans we tell people we have for the boulder, we’re not going to move it at all.

I don’t mean this to sound Franzen-esque, but giving up and doing nothing isn’t the answer, either. Being doom and gloom and giving up is a cop-out. The real way to go out is kicking and screaming — or at the very least, rolling up our sleeves and figuring out what we still can do.

Knowing that, we must dramatically increase adaptation plans, while also revving up mitigation efforts. To acknowledge this is not accepting defeat, but rather admitting reality. And a climate-ravaged future is our reality.

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Brandon Pytel

Written by

Environmental writer living in Washington, DC. Opinions are his own.

Planet Days

An environmental newsroom with a flair for drama and a fanfare for Earth, informing and empowering people who prefer the planet liveable.

Brandon Pytel

Written by

Environmental writer living in Washington, DC. Opinions are his own.

Planet Days

An environmental newsroom with a flair for drama and a fanfare for Earth, informing and empowering people who prefer the planet liveable.

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