When is it Time to Confront Climate Change?

UN report out this week on the causes and impacts of climate change makes a conclusion we’ve all heard before. Without urgent action—meaning within the next 15 years—the world will reach a point of no return. The drastic effects of climate change will be impossible to reverse with existing technologies. Unsurprisingly, the report keeps with the long tradition of climate change reports, each more dire than the one before, each defining the problem as bigger in its risk and quicker to arrive.

One genuinely surprising point it makes, however, is the extent to which the world’s governments subsidize fossil fuels. While some countries have committed money to new forms of energy, the effort has been long eclipsed by the production of fossil fuels. Those are the fuels, particularly coal, oil, and gas, that are directly implicated in warming. The world’s governments spent $544 billion on fossil fuel consumption subsidies in 2012, which was an increase from the year before ($523 billion).

What comes next is the harder judgment, and above the pay grade of the United Nations, which has retained its credibility on climate change research largely by staying out of the advocacy game.  The old conventional wisdom was that when governments, including big ones like the U.S. and China, realize that spewing fossil fuels was not in long-term interest of their coastlines and economies, they’d tone it down. Considering the futility of that wishing-and-hoping strategy, I wonder if it’ll eventually require ever-more-damaging weather events—more polar vortexes and Hurricane Sandys—to make the case that an entire planet’s climate is not a reckonable force. But waiting for leaders and governments can’t take forever. In the collective judgment of the UN’s scientists, a decade and a half from now, time’s up.