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The Guardian view on the climate emergency: we cannot afford to despair | Editorial

The Guardian view on the climate emergency: we cannot afford to despair | Editorial
The Guardian view on the climate emergency: we cannot afford to despair | Editorial

First, the good news. We understand the problem: almost two-thirds of people worldwide believe the climate crisis is an emergency. We know what needs to be done, and should be confident that we will be able to achieve it, thanks to the rapid advance of renewable technologies. Collectively, we can also muster the money to do it.

The scale and speed of global heating make it hard to hang on to these facts. But it is also why we must focus on them rather than throwing up our hands. New research by the Guardian has found that hundreds of the world’s top climate scientists believe global temperatures will rise by at least 2.5C above pre-industrial levels by the century’s end, far above the internationally agreed limit. Only 6% of those surveyed, all from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, thought that the 1.5C target could be met.

We are already seeing soaring temperatures. The European Union’s climate monitoring service says that every month since last June has broken temperature records. And we are already living with – and dying from – the early consequences: deadly floods, wildfires, droughts, heatwaves and an increased risk of new diseases. These will intensify in coming years, spurring social conflicts and displacing huge numbers of people. They will punish poorer nations above all – experts warn of a “semi-dystopian future” for the global south – which helps to explain why richer nations have been slow to act. But they will not be contained there.

This picture of the future can feel overwhelming and unfixable, encouraging people to tune out or accept the worst. For many of the scientists surveyed by the Guardian, those feelings are magnified. Having invested so much in understanding, measuring and informing people about the problem, they find it incomprehensible that so little has been done to tackle the causes and prepare for the consequences. They feel hopeless and infuriated when faced by the failure of governments to act, and the determination of vested corporate interests to block change. Tweaking personal behaviour is not sufficient: systemic change is required.

It is true that what citizens support in theory and what they actually vote for do not always align. Tackling global heating will be cheaper than trying to live with it, but the costs are upfront and the rewards long term – certainly longer than electoral cycles. But politicians have mostly failed to make the case for change, and some experts believe that they often lag behind voters. If you want to make a difference, they say, back leaders who prioritise the climate crisis. A year with so many major elections around the globe offers a critical opportunity.

Scientists also noted that young people care more about the crisis and appear more willing to make lifestyle changes to address it. And in moments of despair, said one expert, Henri Waisman, two things help: “Remembering how much progress has happened since I started to work on the topic in 2005 and that every tenth of a degree matters a lot – this means it is still useful to continue the fight.”

It is not only useful; it is essential. Individual actions can seem futile given the magnitude of the task. But they can also build collective awareness, a sense that change is possible and momentum for wider systemic progress. Just as climate tipping points exist, so do social tipping points. It is imperative to hit the latter as fast as we possibly can.

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