The Earth is at a tipping point. Here’s what’s at stake if we don’t act on climate change

In his remarks to global leaders, President Joe Biden said climate change is "ravaging the world" — a message that is likely to be repeated at the U.N. summit on climate change. World leaders, researchers and activists all say we are at a tipping point to reduce emissions. But getting commitments that translate to real change is no small lift. William Brangham reports on the stakes of the summit.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In his remarks to global leaders today, President Biden said that climate change is — quote — "ravaging the world."

    That message is likely to be delivered repeatedly at the U.N. summit on climate change. Leaders, researchers and activists all say that humans are at a tipping point to reduce emissions and pressed the need for meaningful action. But getting commitments that translate to real change is no small lift.

    William Brangham reports on the stakes of this summit.

  • William Brangham:

    In the small Belgian town of Pepinster, heavy machinery finishes what the floodwaters started.

  • Camille Brisbois, Belgium (through translator):

    This situation, it's difficult for me.

  • William Brangham:

    Camille Brisbois knows his home is next. It's the only house he's ever known.

  • Camille Brisbois (through translator):

    I'm sentimental and emotional. I was born in this house on December 5, 1946.

  • William Brangham:

    It's pain that was shared across Belgium and Germany this summer, where catastrophic floods killed more than 200.

    Six thousand miles away, in the Philippines, 61-year-old Luzviminda Tayson fears she and her family will face a similar fate, their home swept away in a flood.

  • Luzviminda Tayson, Flood Evacuee (through translator):

    The monsoon rains are terrifying, so we decided to evacuate early. In the last typhoon, it was difficult to get out. This time, we didn't want the waters to rise and be caught in it again.

  • William Brangham:

    Across the Pacific Ocean, that same month, friends gathered in Olympia, Washington, to mourn the death of Barnett Moss, one of the hundreds who died in a brutal heat wave.

    Mary Van Verst, Friend of Barnett Moss: I brought extra water and implored him to drink it. I could tell he was gravely affected by the heat.

  • William Brangham:

    Just south of them, on the same coast, in the same summer, the Caldor Fire took Chris Sheean's home.

  • Chris Sheann, Fire Victim:

    Everything that we owned, everything that we have built is gone. The only thing that's left standing is a chimney.

  • William Brangham:

    Four lives among millions more distorted and lost this year alone from the impacts of climate change.

    A warming atmosphere isn't the sole cause of these disasters, but the evidence grows clearer every day that fossil fuel emissions make these calamities more frequent, more severe, more deadly.

  • Man:

    I'm delighted that so many of you have joined us here in Glasgow.

  • William Brangham:

    This is what's facing leaders and negotiators from nearly 200 countries over the next two weeks in Glasgow. Can those emissions be curtailed? And can it be done in time to avoid the worst outcomes of climate change?

    Dr. Kim Cobb, Climate Scientist, Georgia Institute of Technology: There's just a huge amount at stake this fall. It's almost hard to put into words, because the burden on these policy-makers could not be any greater.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Kim Cobb is a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She was one of the lead authors on a recent U.N. climate report, which showed emissions rising much faster than previously known. She says these COP 26 negotiations could be historic.

  • Dr. Kim Cobb:

    This is something that is a clarion call for our generation and future generations for centuries to come. Really, we're going to be deciding what futures we're bringing down upon ourselves, largely over the next decade.

    And, in part, that can be distilled to this most historic year of international ambition, or lack thereof.

  • William Brangham:

    Back in 2015, in the Paris agreement, 196 nations pledged to reduce their emissions enough to keep warming below an additional 2 degrees Celsius compared to the preindustrial era.

    The planet has already warmed over one degree since the 19th century. The hope in Paris was to keep warming to just 1.5 degrees. Beyond that threshold, scientists say the punishing and lethal effects of climate change will only get worse.

    Here's how, back in 2015, Princeton University's Michael Oppenheimer stressed the urgency:

    Michael Oppenheimer, Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs, Princeton University: If we don't start with rapid emissions reductions and substantial emissions reductions, that we will pass a danger point, beyond which the consequences for many people and countries on Earth will simply become unacceptable and eventually disastrous.

  • William Brangham:

    At the conclusion of the Paris talks, President Obama expressed optimism that the world understood the severity of the crisis and was acting.

    Barack Obama, Former President of the United States: I think we're going to solve it. I think the issue is just going to be the pace, and how much damage is done before we are able to fully apply the brakes.

  • William Brangham:

    But in the six years since, the world has only stepped on the gas. Apart from a brief dip during the early days of the pandemic, global emissions have continued to set records.

    More than half of all the carbon that's been put in the atmosphere was done in just the last 30 years. Global temperatures have also continued to rise. The last seven years have been the warmest seven years on record.

  • Antonia Gutierres, United Nations Secretary-General:

    It's time to say, enough. Enough of brutalizing biodiversity. Enough of killing ourselves with carbon. Enough of treating nature like a toilet. Enough of burning and drilling and mining our way deeper. We are digging our own graves.

  • William Brangham:

    A report released by the U.N. last week said that, at this pace, the world will blow past those Paris targets and hit 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century.

  • Dr. Kim Cobb:

    It's really important to realize just how little we have tipped the scales in our global climate system, and how these have translated into the devastating effects we're seeing today.

    We have warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius since the preindustrial era. To double or triple the kinds of impacts that we're seeing, that's a 2 or 3 degree Celsius world, and that is not a world that would be remotely recognizable to those of us sitting here today, already reeling from the effects of a 1.1 degree Celsius world.

  • William Brangham:

    Unrecognizable to us?

  • Dr. Kim Cobb:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    Right now, climate change is forcing massive migrations. One recent analysis said climate-related events drive twice as many people from their homes as war and violence.

    Two weeks ago, the Pentagon, the White House, DHS, and the director of national intelligence all echoed this concern that — quote — "The climate crisis is reshaping our world" and that these migrations could trigger political instability and conflict.

    Providing aid to these vulnerable nations will be another main topic in Glasgow. The world's major polluters have failed to fully deliver a promised $100 billion yearly fund to help these countries adapt and survive in a warming world.

  • Greta Thunberg, Climate Activist:

    Build back better, blah, blah, blah. Green economy, blah, blah, blah. Net zero by 2050, blah, blah, blah.

  • William Brangham:

    In the lead-up to Glasgow, the global climate movement has continued to press for action, including Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who's been excoriating world leaders for unkept promises.

  • Greta Thunberg:

    This is all we hear from our so-called leaders, words, words that sound great, but so far have led to no action.

  • Woman:

    We have to get strong commitments to reduce emissions by 2030.

  • William Brangham:

    As negotiators in Glasgow hope to forge the safest possible future, those on the front lines continue to suffer the very ugly present of a warming world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And William joins me now.

    And what a stark picture that report is painting, William.

    So these meetings, a huge gathering of leaders and activists, it goes for two weeks. What is expected is going to come out of this in practical terms?

  • William Brangham:

    Well, it is important to know Glasgow is a continuation of this process.

    Paris, as we heard, set this it goal of, let's do everything we can to keep warming of the planet from going above an additional 1.5 degrees Celsius. This meeting in Glasgow is sort of a check-in of sorts for all the nations to come together and say, are we cutting emissions enough to stay under that threshold?

    It's sort of a way to stiffen the global spine for more action. One complication on all of this, though, is that all of these pledges are voluntary. There is no built-in enforcement mechanism. No one should be waiting for a treaty or pact to be signed at the end of all of this.

    But it is really what happens after Glasgow, in the weeks and months and year after yard afterwards, that we will know whether these countries took themselves seriously.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, how likely is it that we are going to see some measure of success, some semblance of real success?

  • William Brangham:

    Well, there is real hope, but there are a lot of dark clouds on the horizon.

    The U.S.' position in particular, there is no doubt that Joe Biden is in Glasgow right now with a weakened hand. Last week, a major climate tool was taken out of his toolbox by Joe Manchin. The Build Back Better has some elements that are still potent climate tools. But we know that Manchin is still dubious about that.

    So it's very difficult for the United States to cajole other nations and say, act boldly on this issue, when we have a hard time doing it here in the U.S.

    Same issue also applies to the other major emitters, China, India, Brazil. Their leaders are either not at Glasgow or their pledges thus far have not gotten us anywhere near where we need to be.

    The important thing to take away from all of this is that the gulf between what we know needs to be done and what nations have pledged to do is unbelievably vast. And narrowing that chasm is the whole goal.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we are going to be watching it.

    You are going to Glasgow next week. You're going to be reporting from there for us through the end of the two-week period.

    Thank you, William.

  • William Brangham:

    You're welcome, Judy.

Listen to this Segment