Sleepwalking Toward Climate Catastrophe

Progressive Policy Institute
5 min readFeb 5, 2024

By Paul Bledsoe

The last few weeks have brought unprecedented high temperatures in the U.S. and globally, including the four hottest days in a row worldwide ever in recorded history. More than 100 million Americans in 15 states were under extreme heat last week, with similar conditions expected for this week for most of the country, causing increased rates of asthma, heat stroke and a spike in emergency room visits. Already, new research finds more than 60,000 people died in Europe last summer due to extreme heat.

Scientists have been warning us of these climate impacts for decades — and that if left unchecked, emissions will cause feedback loops and tipping points in natural systems that will greatly accelerate global warming and its deadly impacts.

We are, in fact, far closer to disastrous, runaway climate change than our leaders are willing to admit. Collectively, we are sleepwalking toward catastrophe, willfully ignoring the signs of impending calamity much as monarchs and heads of state did in Europe in 1914 and 1939 on the precipice of the 20th century’s world wars.

Yet, despite this gathering storm, our national and international policies have barely responded at all. Only within the last two years under President Biden has the U.S. really begun to develop clean energy policies and goals to dramatically cut our carbon dioxide emissions. Even so, the U.S. is not yet on track to meet the deep reductions in greenhouse gases policy experts and scientists say are needed to prevent runaway global warming.

Other polluting nations are even further: China is now responsible for one-third of all annual emissions — greater than every developed country combined — and its emissions are still growing due to the continued building of new coal power plants.

Presidential climate envoy John Kerry recently traveled to Beijing, attempting without immediate success to convince the Chinese to begin reducing emissions. But China’s President Xi Jinping seems to have used the recent decline in Sino-U.S. relations as an excuse to backslide on climate promises, while coddling other climate scofflaws like Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Yet, China itself is tremendously vulnerable to climate impacts, especially coastal and inland flooding: Just last week, China set its all-time high temperature of 126 degrees Fahrenheit.

Climate activists are increasingly frustrated not only by China’s lack of action but also by the less than forceful Biden administration and European Union response. The U.S. and EU must become far bolder and more creative in offering a mix of carrots and sticks toward China and other high-emitting nations. These include developing trade policies with our allies that restrict our markets to Chinese imports in certain sectors until their emissions are curbed and deploying carbon capture technologies. The irony is the U.S. and its allies must still work with China and other major emitters to some extent to help cut their own emissions dramatically, even as we fiercely compete with these nations over clean energy market share.

Meanwhile, America’s Republican politicians continue to undermine climate action. Former President Donald Trump is still selling his noxious brand of cultural warfare in which climate policy rollbacks appear to be nothing but political pawns. Not to be outdone, Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis absurdly claimed U.S. emissions don’t have to be reduced at all, dismissing mitigation as “left-wing stuff” — even as Florida homeowner insurance has become effectively unaffordable due to climate impacts. Meanwhile, House Republicans are still attempting to overturn the most important clean energy law in U.S. history, the Inflation Reduction Act — despite the fact that it has begun spurring hundreds of billions of dollars of new investment in a huge range of innovative clean energy technologies, creating jobs and growth while cutting emissions.

But many on the far left have also made serious strategic mistakes — trying to demonize sources that will be needed globally to phase out higher emitting coal, as well as making perfect solutions the enemy of the good options in ways that further polarize our politics.

Instead, we need politically smart strategies that unify America as a nation around effective policy approaches to preventing climate disasters rather than focusing on scoring political points. Voting out politicians who stand in the way of real climate solutions is essential to our continued economic strength and national security.

Ultimately, the goal is for the U.S. to be united, as we were during the Cold War, around gaining climate protection. Once we are unified, we can use our economic, political and technological power together with that of our allies to act ourselves, compel others like China to act, and protect all of us against the worst of climate impacts. In this battle, fatalism and complacency are the enemies. Every degree of global temperature increase that we avoid will end up saving lives, trillions of dollars of extreme weather damages and incalculable human suffering.

The good news is that, unlike even a decade ago, we now have most of the technologies we need to cut emissions deeply while continuing economic growth. But protections will require innovative policy and uniquely ambitious political efforts. In addition to renewable energy sources like wind and solar, many other technologies — like large-scale electricity storage, advanced geothermal energy, next-generation nuclear power, hydrogen, carbon capture and direct air capture and solid-state electric vehicle batteries — will need commercial-scale deployment for global emissions to fall rapidly.

Internationally, we must prioritize limiting greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide, especially cutting methane emissions, which are key to preventing a faster rise in near-term temperatures. The current voluntary Global Methane Pledge created by President Biden and U.S. allies is not enough since the largest methane emitters — China, Russia and India — won’t accept it. A global methane treaty of all nations is urgently needed and should be debated at the upcoming COP28 climate change negotiations in the United Arab Emirates in December. We must reduce super pollutants like methane to prevent near-term temperature increases most effectively over the next 15 to 20 years.

It’s also time to leverage the full power of capitalism to deal with the crisis on a global basis, using trade policies along with our allies to compel high-emissions nations like China to rapidly limit emissions or be denied open access to lucrative U.S., EU other markets of our allies. And, as the U.S. and EU recently suggested for the first time, it’s time for us look seriously at geoengineering of sunlight away from the planet as potentially necessary to prevent the worst climate impacts if it can be done safely.

Once again, this moment in time is similar to the complacency that existed before the first World War, or the dangerously wishful thinking by American and other isolationists and appeasers in the 1930s before WWII. Arrogant elites ignored obvious signs of the pending disaster. What followed was global calamity and unprecedented destruction.

Make no mistake. We are in danger of undermining the quality of human life for centuries and perhaps millennia. But we can still prevent the worst disasters if we choose to act urgently at this twilight moment.

Paul Bledsoe is a professorial lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy and a strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute. He worked in the U.S. House, Senate, Interior Department, and the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.

This story originally ran in The Messenger on July 25, 2023.



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