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Climate summit aims to convince nations to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to go to Egypt now, where the COP27 climate summit is taking place, and join Rachel Cleetus. She's a policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Rachel, thank you so much for being with us.

RACHEL CLEETUS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: She joins us from Sharm el-Sheikh. So the U.N. secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, said today - and I'm going to quote here - "we are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator." It is hard to define the urgency any more clearly than that. But are we at a point where the language around the dangers of climate change has just exceeded its power to change anything?

CLEETUS: Yeah. You know, as world leaders are gathering here in Sharm el-Sheikh, it couldn't be clearer that around the world, we're seeing devastating, costly climate impacts. So this crisis, it's here and now. Wherever you live, you're seeing it. Here in the United States, we've got the Mississippi River at record lows. We've seen hurricanes, heatwaves, wildfires. And of course, right here where we are in COP, we're not so far away from the Horn of Africa, where millions of people are facing the prospect of famine after a prolonged drought. So yes, there is no hyperbole here. We have been propelled into an era of a climate crisis and loss and damage that's affecting people and ecosystems everywhere.

MARTIN: Then why can't nation-states make the cuts to greenhouse gas emissions that are required in this moment?

CLEETUS: Yeah. So this is a human-caused, fossil fuel-driven crisis. And the people who are letting us down are policymakers and the fossil fuel industry that has a stranglehold over the politics and the policymaking process. They are here in full force at this COP, too, trying to affect the outcome here. So these are all human-caused obstacles. And they can be met. They can be defeated. They can be taken down. We have to put pressure on our policymakers to do better and do more.

MARTIN: So what are the leverages - what are the points of leverage for change? Because as I understand it, they're going to come up with new goals at this summit. But what are - how do you get nations to carry those promises out when they haven't fulfilled previous commitments?

CLEETUS: This is in all our collective self-interest. And the three top issues here at COP are the fact that the global emissions trajectory is far off track from where it needs to be. We are headed for well north of two degrees Celsius, as much as 2.8 degrees Celsius increase in temperature. And that would really trigger some catastrophic climate tipping points - multi-century sea level rise, feedback loops like the release of methane as permafrost melts. We cannot take those kind of risks. So it's in our collective self-interest to do the right thing here. The other piece is making sure there's enough climate finance on the table so that low-income countries can also make this jump to clean energy and adapt to climate change.

And finally, the burning issue of loss and damage - those climate extremes that are affecting low-income, climate-vulnerable countries, beyond the scale of adaptation measures right now and must be addressed immediately by richer countries that bear the lion's share of the responsibility for emissions. And we can do this because we do have the solutions at hand. And that is a very important piece to keep remembering. We have the solutions to cut our emissions. We need to get them deployed as quickly as possible - renewable energy, energy efficiency, electrifying every piece of our economy that we can. And we can do this if we take on the power of the fossil fuel industry, which even now is expanding its profits as the world is burning.

MARTIN: What's America's record on all this?

CLEETUS: The United States comes to this COP with one really important contribution, the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which will put us on track to cut our emissions about 40% below 2005 levels by 2030. But that's not enough on the global stage because the U.S. is also the single largest contributor on a cumulative basis to heat-trapping emissions. We have to provide climate finance that we've promised and that Congress has failed to deliver. And we have to address loss and damage, which here at COP means agreeing to setting up a fund for loss and damage.

MARTIN: Is that likely?

CLEETUS: It's on the agenda here at COP. We have - it's a hard-fought agenda item. We do have loss and damage on the agenda. But now the fight is for a good, solid, fair outcome, getting the fund here at COP so that it can then be resourced over the next few years for all the people on the front lines of this climate crisis.

MARTIN: Rachel Cleetus is policy director with the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Thanks for your time this morning. We appreciate it.

CLEETUS: Thank you so much, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.