No Way to Run a Planet


President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

As I begin my tenure as WHRC’s new president, I feel new hope, but also see reasons for increasing concern about climate change.

The good news is that there is more substantive action on climate change now than ever before. In their recent joint announcement, the US and China—the world’s two biggest emitters—pledged reductions in emissions that are far more than symbolic. At around the same time, the EU made a similarly substantive pledge. Together, these three parties produce more than half of global CO2 emissions today, so the promised reductions will make a real dent in global emissions.

Not only are these pledges important per se, but they give us the moral authority we have so far lacked to encourage other countries to get on board. Recent announcements by India (the 3rd-largest emitter), for example, reversed some long-held positions and clearly show that they are “feeling the heat.” Of course, much, much more will need to be done, but at last we seem to be on the right path.

But will all of this be too little too late? In April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presented results showing that it is only barely possible to meet the goal of keeping the global temperature within 2 degrees C of its “preindustrial” (natural) value. Notwithstanding how widely cited this goal is, it is pretty arbitrary—we don’t know if it is actually the best goal. That said, with the stakes as high as they are, wouldn’t it be smart to leave a bigger safety margin? This is no way to run a planet.

The reason why the work that WHRC scientists are doing in the Arctic is so important is that it will help answer if 2 degrees is the right goal, and if not, what is? And the work we’re doing in the Amazon, by keeping warming as small as possible, will help to meet whatever goal turns out to be best. In both regions, our work is on the forefront of both science and policy, and I am excited to be able to help it move forward.