The World Gathers at an Inflection Point
July 24, 2023
COP28 and the Urgency of the Moment
“The climate is changing, and if we don’t collaborate to stem the tide, we may not recognize the world we’re inhabiting for much longer.”
That’s the refrain we’ve heard for decades, as climate scientists and concerned citizens have sounded the alarm over global warming and climate change. However, the world writ large has remained stubborn and static despite alarming evidence. There are various reasons for that kind of inaction. Still, one primary one is the psychological phenomenon observed and named by the mathematician and author Nassib Nicholas Taleb as the Lucretius Problem — we assume and thus prepare as if the worst thing that has happened is the worst thing that can happen.
We have had climate change-driven disasters before, but they’ve typically been on a scale small enough or in a location remote enough that the general population has been able to turn a disinterested, if not entirely blind eye to what’s happening. From Hurricane Katrina to California wildfires, from Superstorm Sandy to the disappearance of ice from the North Pole, the catastrophic consequences of our collective inaction are all around us, but still, net-zero targets have remained variably suggestions or marks so far off in the future as to be functionally irrelevant to our current plight.
COP28: On the Heels of Climate Crises
However, with COP28 on the horizon, the winds seem to be shifting. Because of recent, overwhelming, impossible-to-ignore events, there may be a chance at the global gathering of activists, businesses, and governments to make meaningful progress. The consequences of inaction are crystallizing before our eyes.
Consider the following events, all of which took place in just June and July of 2023:
- In early June, out-of-control wildfires raged across Canada. Though such burns are a natural and important part of the renewal of wilderness across the continent, these fires were unique in their intensity and scope. Smoke from the fires surged into the atmosphere, and, carried by winds and weather systems, descended in an orange haze over much of the Northeast United States, including New York City. The churn on traditional and social media was intense, as New York’s air quality was rated the worst on the planet for the days it lay under the particulate-filled air.
- In mid-July, the wet-bulb temperature (temperature of a thermometer cooled by evaporating water, similar to human sweating) reached 94 degrees Fahrenheit in Florida, or 34.4 degrees Celsius. The survivability limit for humans exposed for six hours is a wet bulb temperature of 35 degrees Celsius.
- In the American southwest, primarily Arizona, a July heatwave killed at least 18 people in Maricopa County alone. Phoenix’s temperature topped 110 degrees Fahrenheit for 23 straight days, including a stretch where it hit at least 115 degrees for six days consecutively.
- Also in July, the sea’s surface temperature in the North Atlantic reached record levels. The two northernmost climate measurement outposts in the United States registered an ocean temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit 320 miles North of the Arctic Circle.
- In June, NOAA reported that Antarctic sea ice was at record-low levels, nearly 1 million square miles below the 1980–2010 average.
- Several insurance companies, including AAA and Farmer’s, announced that they would be pulling out of Florida due to the risk of extreme weather. That followed an announcement from State Farm and others that they would no longer sell home insurance policies in California due to the risk of wildfires. This trend is becoming widespread, in those states and elsewhere as risk-averse insurance carriers grapple with the realities of climate change-fueled natural disasters.
Approaching a Point of ‘No Recognition’, if not ‘No Return’
There is now a critical mass of never-before-seen climate events happening with regularity such that the world cannot help but take notice. With luck, the public, business community, and governments worldwide are beginning to overcome our collective experiential blindness and see events for what they are; the escalation of the climate crisis before our very eyes. With all that’s happening globally in the background, COP28 in November takes center stage as the potentially pivotal moment when we can come together as a global community and take the drastic action that’s now necessary to stave off a truly unrecognizable world.
We have not been entirely reckless in the face of the evidence. Still, global action to stem the tide of climate disaster has been lukewarm at best in the absence of real attention on the examples around us. With those examples in ready supply and a new headline seemingly every day, the need for decisive action could not be more obvious.
Activists often say about climate change that “the planet is dying.” The sentiment is understandable but ultimately inaccurate. The planet will survive. No matter how badly humanity sullies it, it will keep spinning on its axis and circling the sun. Tragically, some varieties of flora and fauna may disappear forever, but others will adapt and even thrive. Nature always finds a way. It’s closer to the truth to say that what’s dying is the life we’ve become accustomed to. If we want to maintain some semblance of the comfort, convenience, and relative safety that the vast majority of humanity enjoys, we to must act decisively now.
At COP28, the world will gather. Hard and fast, enforceable commitments must come out of that meeting. We may not have much time left before good intentions combined with just tepid action won’t be enough.