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The writer is a former senior vice-president at the World Bank
The UN COP28 climate talks in Dubai, which begin at the end of November, will take place amid a confluence of geopolitical, health and economic emergencies. The UN’s greatest strength lies in its access to the enormous quantity of scientific knowledge on global warming that is out there. But to shift public opinion and generate political will for climate action amid competing priorities, communication of that science needs traction.
COP28 will rightly stress the commitments countries need to make in order to decarbonize economies and slow global warming. However, the summit should also launch a global campaign to inform the public and rally political support, particularly among the big emitters. After all, political backing was vital for the US, the EU and other high-income countries to mobilize rescue and stimulus packages in the wake of the global financial crisis. And high-income countries raised more than $20tn to fight Covid-19.
It is not that most people deny that the climate is changing, but views are divided on its cause and the costs countries should bear to fight it. Developing countries are lukewarm over energy security fears. Several leaders of developed countries, responding to worries about decarbonization costs, are backtracking. The UK reversed its decision to pause new oil drilling platforms in the North Sea. And in New York state, utility regulators rejected inflation adjustment for renewable power, and the governor vetoed offshore wind projects connecting to the power grid on Long Island.
Even more reason, then, for COP28 to generate a groundswell of public opinion for urgent steps. With public backing, financing and technology will follow, whether from governments, as in the financial crises, or from businesses and society, as has happened during the digital revolution.
First, the scientific knowledge at COP’s disposal must be mobilized to help people connect the dots when climate disasters strike. It has not helped communication that, unlike the direct link between smoking and lung cancer, climate change involves complex causality: from greenhouse gases to higher temperatures and more precipitation, and to the extreme wildfires and floods that have dominated the news in the Americas and everywhere . People must, in real time, attribute the damage to fossil fuels, and not just poor disaster management — be it the failure this year of sirens before the fires in Hawaii or evacuation during the floods in South Korea.
This year is on course to be the hottest on record and has breached the dreaded 1.5C global warming threshold several times. The Earth faces 16 climatic tipping points. In such a context, COP28’s communication campaign should make it crystal clear how growth and poverty reduction are predicted on cutting carbon emissions. For example, the US economy could cease to grow in the coming decades because of mortality and loss in labor productivity due to climate change if emissions continue unabated. Or when a third of Pakistan is submerged by floods, as it was in 2022, causing $30bn (or 9 per cent of gross domestic product) in asset losses, it is not climate action that impoverishes; it is climate inaction.
Second, to improve the political appeal for a response, the climate danger must be seen to be here and now, just like Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Accordingly, COP targets need to be more about 2030 than 2050 and beyond. With global warming overshooting scientific projections, the bar for emission cuts has been rising with mostly “highly insufficient” steps taken by the big polluters. At COP28, world leaders need to make a binding commitment to a 50 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2030, rather than the softer goal of 45 per cent.
To this end, it would help to put front and center the top 20 countries that account for four-fifths of all emissions, starting with China, the US and India. The past approach of negotiating targets among almost 200 nations has had negligible results. Although China, the US, and India have greatly expanded solar and wind capacity, they have also increased the use of fossil fuels — which is what matters to the atmosphere. The big emitters need to stop new coal, oil and gas projects. The signal sent by the chair of COP28, the United Arab Emirates, in approving a massive gas pipeline in July, is alarming.
Geopolitical turmoil makes focusing on climate harder. But with the planet’s vital signs heading the wrong way, climate mitigation through decarbonization needs to be prioritized, as everything else depends on it. Action will follow, even in the face of competing priorities, if — but only if — people see that their prosperity and well-being is endangered by global warming. If COP28 can launch a worldwide campaign to get public backing for the resources needed to avert catastrophe, then the Dubai meeting will have made meaningful headway.