Opinion | Humanity Can Still Take a Stand on Climate. It Must.

In June 1988 a NASA scientist, Dr. James Hansen, appeared on a very hot day in Washington and told a group of powerful senators that a grim future lay ahead. Carbon emissions, he said, had raised average global temperatures to the highest levels in recorded human history, bringing heat waves, droughts and other disruptions to people’s lives. “The greenhouse effect has been detected,” he said, “and it is changing our climate now.”

That same year a collection of scientists assembled by the United Nations — known as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — delivered much the same message, warning pointedly of rising seas and threats to biodiversity. Four years later, world leaders meeting in Rio de Janeiro signed a landmark agreement to stabilize “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

We knew, three decades ago, about global warming and its consequences. We suspected, even then, that the potentially catastrophic future forecast in the I.P.C.C.’s latest report, released on Monday — a report the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres, called a “code red for humanity” — could well come to pass.

What have we done with that knowledge? Very little, for lots of reasons. Timid leaders, feckless legislatures. Interminable arguments between rich and poor nations over who bears responsibility. Well-financed disinformation campaigns from big polluters like Exxon Mobil. On a purely human level, there’s the reluctance of people living worry-free in the here and now to make the investments and sacrifices necessary to protect future generations.

All in all, the past 30 years have been a colossal series of missed opportunities. Good ideas squandered. Time lost. The performance of the United States, historically the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases (China is now the biggest annual emitter) and therefore presumed leader of any effort to confront the problem, has been particularly disheartening.

President George H.W. Bush, having boldly promised to counter the “greenhouse effect” with what he called “the White House effect,” had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the Rio conference, where he made sure that the treaty signed there had no real teeth. Similarly blinded by fossil fuel interests, and worried that the United States was being asked to carry a disproportionate share of the burden, Congress in 1997 refused to even consider, much less ratify, the agreement worked out by Vice President Al Gore in Kyoto, Japan, to reduce emissions from industrialized nations.

President George W. Bush — who, like his father, talked a good game in his campaign — was no better. Hypnotized by the fossil fuel enthusiasts around him, notably Karl Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney, he repudiated Kyoto altogether, greatly embarrassing his E.P.A. administrator, Christie Whitman, who eventually quit. Even Barack Obama, who understood the issue and appreciated its gravity, but was fatally detached when it came to legislative infighting, fell short. He failed to persuade a Congress controlled by his own party to cap emissions of carbon dioxide.

Mr. Obama partly compensated for this with an admirable suite of regulatory initiatives aimed at reducing emissions from vehicles, oil and gas wells and power plants, which gave John Kerry, then the secretary of state, the credibility he needed to help forge a new global treaty in Paris in 2015. But these initiatives were always vulnerable to repeal, and were unsurprisingly and expeditiously repudiated by President Donald Trump, who seemed to have no idea what climate change was all about and had no interest in learning.

Such is the weight of history that President Biden bears as he faces an opportunity to assert American leadership in advance of a global summit on climate change in Glasgow in November. There, it is hoped that the 190 or so countries in attendance will greatly improve on the commitments they made in Paris to reduce emissions. The Washington Post has called this meeting a “moment of truth’’ for climate change. To anyone who has read the I.P.C.C. report, that is not journalistic hyperbole.

The report’s main points are these: First, nations have waited so long to curb emissions that a hotter future is essentially locked in, as are more droughts, more forest fires, more crippling heat waves, more sea level rise, more floods. The greenhouse gases that have already been pumped into the atmosphere are going to stay there a long time, inflicting misery for years to come.

This summer has already produced huge floods in Central Europe, Nigeria, Uganda and India, blazes in Greece and Siberia, wildfires erasing entire towns in California and Canada, murderous heat waves in the Pacific Northwest, the drying up of Colorado River reservoirs. “What more can numbers show us that we cannot already see?” asked one U.N. climate official. Fair question. But what the numbers show is that these meteorological calamities will become routine unless the world takes dramatic steps to get a grip on emissions.

In their analysis of the new report, the Times reporters Henry Fountain and Brad Plumer offer this illustration. Humans have already heated the planet by roughly 1.1 degrees Celsius, or 2 degrees Fahrenheit, since the 19th century. If global warming rises to around 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next 20 years, heat waves that would have occurred once every 50 years can be expected to show up once every 10 years. At 4 degrees of warming, they’ll show up every year.

Point two: Humanity can still take a stand. It must. If countries make a coordinated effort to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by, say, midcentury, and undertake through reforestation and other means to remove carbon from the air, global warming might level off at around 1.5 degrees. This in turn means mustering the will to stave off a darker future than the one the world has already locked itself into. It also means, in policy terms, a rapid shift away from fossil fuels; big investments in wind, solar and nuclear power; a rebuilt electric grid; more efficient homes and buildings — in short, a wholly different energy delivery system.

Earlier this month, Mr. Biden announced a strategy to shift Americans from gasoline-powered cars to electric vehicles, thus resurrecting an Obama initiative Mr. Trump had canceled. This is an important step. But Mr. Biden is not going to get the energy transformation he wants via regulation any more than Mr. Obama could. For this, he will need Congress.

Can Congress deliver? No small question. The Senate, split evenly between the parties, took forever to approve an infrastructure bill, which has only modest climate-related measures in it and should not have been all that controversial. Ahead lies something a lot more difficult — winning approval of a giant $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill that can be approved with only 51 votes (all the Democrats and the vice president), thus avoiding a Republican filibuster and opening a legislative pathway for a range of big-ticket social programs and Mr. Biden’s climate policies.

Of these, two are of paramount importance and are essential to honoring Mr. Biden’s campaign promise to cut America’s emissions in half by 2030, eliminate fossil fuel emissions from power plants by 2035 and zero out all greenhouse gases by midcentury — pretty much what the I.P.C.C. wants. One is billions in incentives for electric vehicles and for clean energy sources like wind, solar and nuclear power. The other is a clean electricity standard that, as currently envisioned, would reward power producers that reduce emissions and penalize those that don’t. There are likely to be add-ons from individual senators, like Chris Van Hollen’s proposal, unveiled this month, to tax Exxon, Chevron and a handful of other major oil and gas companies to get them to pay for floods, fires and other disasters linked to the fossil fuels they have produced over the years.

How great would it be if the Senate and then the House approved such a package before the climate summit in Glasgow? One person who would shout to the rafters is John Kerry, once again the White House’s point man on international negotiations. He’ll be the face of America’s resolve in Scotland, and he’ll need tangible evidence to prove that Washington cares. Congress can give it to him.

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