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The Laziska coal-fired power plant near Katowice, Poland, where the U.N. climate change conference was held. The Laziska coal-fired power plant near Katowice, Poland, where the U.N. climate change conference was held, Dec. 12, 2018 (Photo by Monika Skolimowska for dpa via AP Images).

The Uneven Global Response to Climate Change

Friday, May 13, 2022

Recently published climate science ultimately underscores the same points: The impacts of climate change are advancing faster than experts had previously predicted, and they are increasingly irreversible. One blockbuster report, from a United Nations grouping of biodiversity experts in May 2019, found that 1 million species are now in danger of extinction unless dramatic changes are made to everything from fuel sources to agricultural production. Despite these warnings, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most-recent report, released in August 2021, confirmed that the world remains on pace to blow past the goal of restricting the rise in average temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, with likely catastrophic consequences.

Persistent climate skepticism from key global figures, motivated in part by national economic interests, is still slowing diplomatic efforts to systematically address the drivers of climate change. In particular, former U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement upon taking office in 2016 immediately undermined the pact. Despite these hurdles, negotiators made substantive progress during a U.N. climate change conference in December 2018, putting in place an ambitious system of monitoring and reporting on carbon emissions for nations that remain part of the agreement. But the subsequent round of talks in December 2019 ended in abject failure, and the coronavirus pandemic hobbled further diplomatic efforts in 2020. And the outcome of the COP26 climate summit, which took place in Glasgow in November 2021, got decidedly mixed reviews.

The Paris agreement has nevertheless proved more resilient than many initially feared after the U.S. withdrawal. The European Union, Japan and South Korea all pledged to achieve carbon-neutral economies by 2050; China announced a target of achieving carbon neutrality by 2060. And in one of his first moves upon taking office, President Joe Biden issued an executive order returning the U.S. to the Paris agreement. He further signaled his commitment to high-level climate diplomacy by naming former Secretary of State John Kerry as his climate envoy and convening a summit of the leaders of major emitting countries, at which he announced the U.S. would double its emissions reduction target to 50 percent by 2030.

Whether renewed American leadership on the issue will be enough to break through some of the obstacles facing climate diplomacy remains to be seen, as evidenced by the mixed bag of results that came out of the Glasgow summit. In the meantime, frustration with the slow progress and persistent challenges toward achieving increasingly urgent targets has spurred newfound activism, particularly among young people, for whom addressing climate change is a question of intergenerational justice. The Fridays for Future movement, with its coordinated student walkouts to demand action on climate change, has become the face of this wave of protests and may prove a political threat to parties that downplay climate action. The gains made by Green parties in the European Parliament elections in May 2019 as well as in a series of national and local elections in Europe since then—including entering Germany’s coalition government after last year’s elections—show just how potent a voting issue climate change can be.

WPR has covered climate change in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Will youth activism like Fridays for Future upend existing political orders and usher in new, climate-focused leaders? Will climate-friendly initiatives feature prominently in post-pandemic economic recovery plans? And will the Biden administration’s climate diplomacy have a meaningful impact? Below are some of the highlights of WPR's coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

Only Urgent Action Will Save the Oceans Now

Climate change is pushing the world’s oceans toward a mass extinction event. Without swift steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the vast majority of all marine species could vanish over the next three centuries, with dire consequences for the rest of life on Earth. There is still time to limit the damage.

Climate Change Politics and Diplomacy

The global political effort to address climate change moved ahead, despite the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris agreement under Trump. But it is unclear if global leaders will ever agree to measures that rise to the level of what is needed. Success hinges particularly on the continued participation of major emitters, including India and China, which is not guaranteed. The effort received a much-needed boost when Biden moved quickly to recommit U.S. leadership and resources to the effort. But whether the U.S. and the world will match words with actions remains uncertain, especially amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Impact, Mitigation and Adaptation

The developing world is actually leading the way on mitigation and adaption efforts. Morocco has invested heavily in solar power. And Uruguay’s transition to renewables can serve as a global model. It’s no surprise that some of the most ambitious mitigation and adaptation efforts are coming from countries that are most immediately menaced by the effects of climate change. But those efforts are often constrained by limited resources and the unwillingness, for now, of developed countries to help fund them.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2019 and is regularly updated.