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Our shared climate future

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By Derek Larson

· 4 min read

Nov. 6 [marked] the opening of the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or “COP27” as the latest global climate conference is colloquially known. Over the following two weeks world leaders, scientists, policy experts, activists and ordinary citizens will meet in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, to deliberate over our shared climate future. Among their number will be at least a few dozen Minnesotans, ranging from elected officials to business leaders to college students. All of them, presumably, taking the threat of global climate disruption seriously and seeking sustainable solutions to the challenges presented by a warming Earth.

After decades of warnings from scientists Americans finally seem to have grasped the magnitude of the threat climate change presents. The shocking tolls of hurricanes, wildfires, floods, droughts, heat waves, and other such events have drawn increasing media attention in recent years, so projections of substantially more or more extreme events later in the century are being taken more seriously than before. Apprehension about climate change has unsurprisingly grown over the past decade with the headlines; Americans expressing “a great deal” of concern over the issue reached 43% in 2021, with an additional 22% noting a “fair amount.” Among younger Americans — Gen Z specifically — climate change (60%) was ranked second only to terrorism (65%) as a critical threat to the U.S. in a 2019 poll. Awareness of impacts outside the U.S. has risen as well. When a Zogby poll asked Americans last January if “climate change is causing adverse health effects” worldwide, the combined responses of “a great deal” or “a moderate amount” totaled 66%.

American and multinational corporations are also recognizing the risks presented by climate change. Among the top 250 global companies by earnings a majority across all sectors (56%) have directly acknowledged the financial risk it presents to their particular industry. In the oil and gas sector fully 81% have done so, though corporate risk managers in the US only ranked climate change in eighth place among “leading risks to business” in 2022, well behind the immediate problems of supply chain disruptions, cyber-crime, and workforce shortages. Of course, the U.S. Department of Defense long ago recognized climate change as a “critical national security issue” and has generally done far more to prepare for a disrupted climate future than most of the private sector, with each major branch issuing its own updated climate action plan in 2022 — the Navy’s specifically labeling the threat “existential.”

One might think our elected officials would, by this point, recognize the urgency of leading on this issue globally. That is why some of them, of course, are traveling to Egypt for COP27. But such engagement is far from universal. As the midterm elections approached some Republicans in Congress in fact did the opposite, pledging to launch a series of investigations of Wall Street investment firms that see climate change as an economic risk and thus consider investments in industries like oil and coal with uncertain futures imprudent. Labeling the practice of considering ESG (environmental, social, and governance practices) when evaluating investments “woke capitalism,” House GOP members are threatening to somehow sanction private companies that include climate risk among their investment criteria. One congressman, Rep. Andy Barr of Kentucky, went so far as to call ESG investing “a cancer within our capital markets.” This sounds a bit odd coming from a member of a party that once prided itself on keeping government out of private business and letting markets work their magic.

Fortunately, poll after poll in recent years has shown strong majorities of Americans now recognize the growing risks associated with climate change and want something done about it. Younger folks feel the urgency even more strongly, with 77% of Gen Z viewing climate change as either “a crisis” or “a significant problem” in a 2019 poll; Millennial respondents were just a few points lower at 74%. This is why, perhaps, a number of young Minnesotans will make the trek to Egypt this month to participate in COP27: it’s their futures on the line. But we should all be watching, hoping for meaningful action, and demanding our leaders take the challenge just as seriously as they are.

This article is also published by St. Cloud Times. Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Derek Larson is a professor of history and environmental studies at The College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.

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