UN climate summit: Scientists’ messages to world leaders

By Adam Vaughan A giant piece of Ice breaks off the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia, ArgentinaDurkTalsma/GettyNext week, around 60 heads of state are expected at a major UN summit designed to spark greater ambition on climate change. As it stands, governments’ emissions-curbing plans will see the world warm by far more than the 1.5°C…

By Adam Vaughan

A giant piece of Ice breaks off the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia, Argentina

A giant piece of Ice breaks off the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia, Argentina

DurkTalsma/Getty

Next week, around 60 heads of state are expected at a major UN summit designed to spark greater ambition on climate change. As it stands, governments’ emissions-curbing plans will see the world warm by far more than the 1.5°C agreed in Paris in 2015, so the stakes are high. Swedish campaigner Greta Thunberg urged US congress this week to “listen to the scientists”. Here’s what 11 of the world’s top climate scientists have to say ahead of the summit.

Hannah Cloake, University of Reading


As a scientist, I look at the facts. I examine the evidence. Political leaders have a more difficult job because they often have to make choices that affect many people, without knowing what will happen. This is not one of those occasions. This generation of leaders is the first and only in human history to know the impact we are having on our natural world, while also having a chance to take a different path. Our current direction leads to disaster. History will judge whether our generation took the better option.

Peter Stott, Met Office


World leaders should be shocked by the scientific findings I have helped produce over twenty years of research. The climate projections if greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked are terrifying to contemplate. Already, humanity’s emissions are intensifying storms, super-charging heatwaves and de-stabilising the polar ice sheets. I want world leaders to make me feel optimistic that sustainable development on our planet is possible. But to do so, they are going to have to drive down emissions fast. Time is almost out.

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Naomi Oreskes, Harvard University


My message to world leaders is that you are not representing your people. In the United States, more than three quarters of Americans believe that climate change is a major problem or crisis and a majority want strong action. Elsewhere in the world, the desire for action is generally even stronger.  Despite all the criticism of scientists – that they don’t communicate clearly and so on – the scientific message has got through.  But scientists are not in charge.  Governments and business leaders are. The time to act is now.  History will judge you harshly if you don’t.

Corrine le Querre, University of East Anglia


Blunt evidence of deadly and costly climate impacts is emerging by the day. The gap between ambition and reality now needs to be filled. Global emissions are still rising, current actions are too weak. Climate responses need to be at the heart of government decisions, with ambitious plans for electric mobility, renewable power generation, food production, and for preserving and restoring our forests and soils.

Michael Mann, Pennsylvania State University


The sobering reality is that even if every country meets their commitments under Paris that gets us less than half way to where we need to be, i.e., on a path to limiting warming below 2°C, let alone the more stringent 1.5°C many are now calling for. So I would say this to the heads of state: our children are demanding urgent, immediate action to limit warming below dangerous levels, to preserve this planet for them and future generations. Heed their call!

Mike Hume, University of Cambridge


Leave behind the rhetoric of trying to ‘save the climate’ by offering aspirational pledges for 2050 or beyond.  Much more important are specific short-term policy measures that can be implemented, and their success monitored, over the next five years. The single most important of these measures is to incentivise R&D investment in new clean energy technologies whilst reducing fossil fuel subsidies.

Dave Reay, University of Edinburgh


Be brave. Your nation, like all nations, is threatened by devastating climate change. Your people, like all people, will have to its endure impacts. The time for procrastination and blame games is over. You have a chance to change the course of history, to steer civilisation away from a climate future that robs our children and grandchildren of the very rights and opportunities you have sworn to protect. For decades the world’s scientists have warned of the fire we are playing with. You are world leaders. Please. Lead the world out of this climate emergency.

Mike Berners-Lee, Lancaster University


We need renewables to replace, rather than augment energy from fossil fuels. This is only feasible with a reduction in global energy use and very high renewables growth. National pledges won’t deliver a low carbon world unless they are both made and met by almost every nation. So we need a global arrangement to reduce the extraction of fossil fuel. It doesn’t matter how hard you think this is to achieve, you must focus on the challenge because nothing else can deliver the low carbon world that we need.

Catherine Mitchell, University of Exter


We know what to do in the global north: reduce our total energy use and use the energy we do use much more efficiently, and from renewables. The UN climate summit has to agree a way to transfer resources from the richer to the poorer countries, so people do not have to mine in the Amazon or log Indonesia’s forests. And governments have to confront private interests, which do well out of pollution and environmental destruction, in favour of society’s longer term interests.

Friederike Otto, University of Oxford


Keeping global-mean-temperature well below 2°C above pre-industrial level, and adapting to climate change already happening, requires systemic change on all levels of politics, industry, economy, and society. Current national climate laws focusing on incentivising consumers to increase energy efficiency and lower their carbon footprint dramatically fails to recognise this systemic challenge and is deeply unfair.

Mark Maslin at University College London


Climate change is an opportunity for leaders to make a safer, healthier, and happier world for all.  They need to implement win-win solutions such as supporting renewable energy and the green economy – increasing energy security, job creation and growth. They also need to cut fossil fuel subsidies and tax fossil fuel use (including aviation fuel) – saving public money and incentivizing alternatives. Other win-wins include promoting low emission farming and diets, and reforesting and rewilding.

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