As Biden prepares for climate summit, U.N. says the world is 'on the verge of the abyss'

David Knowles
·Senior Editor
·4-min read

Just days before President Biden kicks off a climate summit with world leaders, the United Nations World Meteorological Organization released a report Monday warning that “time is fast running out” to keep global temperatures in check. 

Titled “State of the Global Climate 2020,” the report finds that concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continued to climb in 2020 despite lockdowns imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

Last year, the report notes, was the third warmest on record, worsening the melting of glaciers and sea ice, the acidification of the world’s oceans and the severity of wildfires and hurricanes. 

Smoky skies from the Northern California wildfires
Smoke from Northern California wildfires casts a reddish aura in San Francisco, September 2020. (Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/Mercury News via Getty Images)

A key goal of the Paris Agreement on climate change is to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius, and the U.N. report warns that doing so will require a massive effort from the governments of the world. 

“The data in this report show that the global mean temperature for 2020 was around 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial times, meaning that time is fast running out to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a foreword to the report. “We need to do more, and faster, now.”

In an interview with Reuters, Guterres was even more direct, saying, “We are on the verge of the abyss.”

On Thursday, Biden will host leaders from around the world for a virtual summit, which is expected to include representatives from 40 countries who are responsible for the overwhelming majority of global carbon emissions. Among the leaders invited to the summit are Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. 

“The Leaders Summit on Climate will underscore the urgency — and the economic benefits — of stronger climate action. It will be a key milestone on the road to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) this November in Glasgow,” the White House said in a statement. 

Icebergs near Ilulissat, Greenland
Climate change is having a profound effect in Greenland. (Ulrik Pedersen/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

With greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane continuing to build up in the Earth’s atmosphere, the planet has begun to experience the ravages of climate change predicted for decades. Sea levels continue to rise as polar ice caps and glaciers continue to melt. In the U.S. in 2020, wildfires set records, as did the number of hurricanes making landfall. Heat waves on land, as well as in the oceans, increasingly threaten life on Earth. If a concerted global effort isn’t mounted to bend the current trend line, an estimated one-third of all plants and animals on the planet will be at risk of mass extinction in the next 50 years, according to a 2020 study conducted by the University of Arizona. 

“In recent years, scientists have underscored the need to limit planetary warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius in order to stave off the worst impacts of climate change,” the White House said in its statement. “A key goal of both the Leaders Summit and COP26 will be to catalyze that effort to keep that 1.5-degree goal within reach.”

At the summit, Biden is expected to announce that the U.S. will seek to cut emissions by at least 50 percent from 2005 levels. He will also pressure other world leaders to sign on to similar pledges, though those will be nonbinding. 

While 200 nations signed onto the Paris accord, the U.S. pulled out of the agreement under former President Donald Trump, a strident climate-change skeptic. The U.S. and China produce the largest carbon emissions of any nation on Earth, and Biden was quick to rejoin the Paris Agreement upon being sworn in to office. But scientists have been warning that the nonbinding commitments made under the agreement will not be enough in order to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

“The worst risk is that we don’t reach 1.5 degrees as a limit, that we go over it, and that we precipitate the world into a catastrophic situation,” Guterres told Reuters. 

But the World Meteorological Organization itself acknowledged last year that keeping temperatures below the 1.5 degree threshold was increasingly unlikely. A report it issued in July stated that there was a 20 percent chance the world could see global average yearly temperatures rise above that mark in the next five years. 

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