UN climate report warns governments are falling short on lowering planet’s temperature

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change laid out its latest report Monday stressing the critical need to implement dramatic cuts in greenhouse gasses to head off the worst impacts of climate change. Dave Roberts writes a newsletter and hosts a podcast called “Volts,” which covers clean energy and the politics of climate policy. He joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to climate change and the U.N. panel's latest report stressing the need for dramatic cuts in greenhouse gases to head off the worst impacts of climate change.

    William Brangham has the details.

  • Antonio Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General:

    The jury has reached the verdict, and it is damning. This report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a litany of broken climate promises.

  • William Brangham:

    In his typically blunt language, U.N. secretary-General Antonio Guterres was withering towards the world's leaders, calling todays U.N. report an indictment of their inaction against climate change.

    The third and final part of the latest IPCC report written by hundreds of scientists from around the world finds that greenhouse gas omissions from 2010 to 2019 were at their highest level in human history. At this pace, the planet will blow past the goal of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius in just eight years.

    The U.N. report argues that, without substantive, sweeping changes, warming will make life on Earth increasingly dangerous and deadly. While the report cited some increase in positive climate policies, it said much more were needed. This report is principally focused on the concrete actions that nations can take to reduce the emissions that are driving climate change.

    Those include a rapid turn to cleaner ways of generating electricity and using it as the principal source of power in our buildings and our vehicles, adapting the infrastructure of our cities, where over half the world's population lives, to make them more efficient, harnessing the ability of the land, forests, waterways, and how we farm to release less carbon and store more of it.

  • Jim Skea, Co-Chair, IPCC Working Group III:

    Human activities got us into this problem. Human agency can get us out of it. It is not all lost. We really have the chance to do something.

  • William Brangham:

    So, given those warnings, how likely is it that world leaders will, in fact, do something?

    I'm joined by someone who looks closely at clean energy technology and broadly at the politics of climate policy. Dave Roberts writes the newsletter called "Volts," which is also a terrific podcast.

    Dave Roberts, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    This U.N. report, again, paints a pretty damming picture. Warming is accelerating. The pledges thus far to do something about it are nowhere near enough. But they try to lay out all of these things that we can do if we really get our act together.

    What do you take away from this most recent warning?

  • Dave Roberts, “Volts”:

    Well, it's interesting.

    There's sort of two parallel paths going on here with each passing IPCC report. On the one hand, we continue running out of time and not acting fast enough. And the sort of cliff, if you will, of 1.5 degrees gets closer and closer.

    But, on the other hand, there's the second story running alongside, which is, the tools we need to solve the problem, to mitigate the problem are growing ever more sophisticated and ever more cheap and ever more plentiful. So ,the need to do something and our ability to do something are both rising alongside one another.

    So it's just a — the intensity of the whole message is cranking up and up and up.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, I know this is one of the things that you have written about, that people don't really appreciate the real revolution that is under way in clean energy technology. We always hear about the doom and gloom side and less about that flowering.

    When you look at that landscape, what are the things that give you some sense of, you know what, this stuff really could work?

  • Dave Roberts:

    Sure.

    Well, I'd say the biggest chunk of decarbonization, the biggest single item on the list is clean electrification, which means cleaning up the electricity sector, generating electricity without carbon, and then hooking up the transportation sector to electricity by electrifying vehicles, and then hooking up the building sector to the electricity sector by electrifying building, heating and cooling, and then, to the extent you can, hooking up the industrial sector, to use electricity for industrial heat and process heat and stuff like that.

    So electrification is the big menu item. And the tools for electrification, which are mainly wind and solar power, batteries, and then electrolysis to create green hydrogen, all four of those technologies are on what are called learning curves, which means, every time the deployment, the global deployment of those technologies doubles, their price drops by a predictable amount.

    This has been going on for decades now. It's very predictable going forward. And if they just stay on those learning curves that they're on now, they are going to dominate the landscape within a few decades, purely because they will be so much cheaper than the alternatives that no one will — the sort of political argument around them will fade. They will just be the obvious option.

    It's all just a matter of speed, trying to nudge that process along faster. But it's under way already.

  • William Brangham:

    So what are the levers to nudge those things along? Are they happening at a pace, though, that is fast enough? Or does this require the lever of, say, a state, a government, a nation, to push them in the right direction?

  • Dave Roberts:

    Well, yes, they require policy.

    To get — to hit our target, to hit our temperature targets that we're talking about, we definitely need public policy to accelerate them, because we're at the point now where no sort of market — purely market-driven substitution could ever work fast enough.

    We're talking about completely transforming several sectors of the economy, the global economy, within 10 years. And that's just not something that will ever just happen, no matter how cheap they get. So they have got to be pushed along by government policy, and it's been very frustrating.

    Government policy has not kept up, has not pushed hard enough.

  • William Brangham:

    On the U.S. policy front, I mean, President Biden surprised many with the Build Back Better legislation, which had a lot of very substantive climate change policies. But that has thus far been shelved, as far as I can tell.

    And doesn't that make it very difficult for the president both to meet America's goals, but also cajole other nations to try to do the right thing?

  • Dave Roberts:

    Yes, absolutely.

    If the U.S. does not — if the Congress does not pass the climate and energy provisions of the Build Back Better, which Manchin says he's OK with and everyone says they support, if we don't do that, it will be a failure, a complete failure on climate change, and we will lose credibility in front of other nations.

    And, conversely, if we pass those provisions, we will be almost very close to the trajectory we need to be on and it will be an enormous boost for our credibility on the international stage.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dave Roberts of the "Volts" newsletter and podcast, thanks so much for being here.

  • Dave Roberts:

    Thanks, William.

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