The 2020s have started with a brutal display of how climate change is making the world a more hostile place to live. Fueled by soaring temperatures and years of drought, bushfires across Australia have consumed at least 15 million acres since September—an area about the size of West Virginia (see Best columns: International). The blazes have killed at least 15 people and forced thousands more to flee their homes. Some 1 billion animals, many of them members of species found nowhere else on Earth, are thought to have been incinerated. Colossal plumes of smoke are choking Sydney and have turned the sky above New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland—some 1,300 miles away—an apocalyptic orange. This disaster comes after a year in which the warning signs of climate change flashed everywhere: In Brazil, 7 million acres of Amazon rain forest went up in flames; in Japan, 18,000 people were hospitalized during an epic heat wave; across Europe, temperature records were broken and then broken again.
The scientific consensus on what we need to do to reduce the risks of long-term catastrophic climate change is clear: slash greenhouse gas emissions as fast as possible. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon. No major Western economy is yet meeting the modest emission reduction targets set by the 2016 Paris Agreement, a deal the Trump administration pulled out of last year. And emissions levels in developing countries will only rise in the coming years. China’s middle class has grown from 29 million people in 1999 to some 400 million today, and India is expected to add 500 million to its middle class over the next decade. Those people want the same carbon-intensive luxuries that Americans have enjoyed for years: air-conditioning, a family car, a meat-heavy diet. We can hardly demand they curb their appetites when we refuse to do the same. But so long as no one makes any meaningful sacrifices, our planet will continue to burn.