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World leaders are currently meeting in Glasgow for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, also known as COP26. The conference, which began on October 31 and runs through November 12, comes at a pivotal time: According to the latest scientific consensus report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), immediate, large-scale reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions are necessary in order to avoid catastrophic effects of climate change in the near future.
What is COP26?
COP stands for "Conference of the Parties" and in the case of COP26, refers to the 26th annual meeting of the nearly 200 nations that agreed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. At this year's event, more than 20,000 people, including world leaders, diplomats and activists, are in attendance.
The goal of this year's meeting is for countries around the world to strengthen national commitments to drastically lower carbon emissions that are heating up our planet, atmosphere and ocean at a rapid and dangerous rate.
It's imperative that the countries attending COP26 commit to implementing targets that will keep the global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius in coming decades. This is the threshold that scientists have determined will allow life on our planet as we know it to continue; beyond that limit, climate change will have devastating, irreversible consequences.
Why do we need urgent climate action?
Without sweeping, immediate change and bold steps to set emissions limits, it will be impossible to avoid the most dire consequences of climate change. Human activity, primarily through the production and use of fossil fuels, has directly caused the warming of the planet, which has led to more frequent and extreme weather events, including fires, droughts, floods and hurricanes; more intense heat waves; longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons; dangerous sea level rise; biodiversity loss; and ocean acidification. These effects are not only harmful for the planet—they also have a severe, negative impact on human health, agriculture and food production.
How does climate change impact the ocean?
The ocean has helped to slow climate change by storing approximately 90% of excess heat and 25% of carbon dioxide generated by humans, but these services come at a cost—namely, the warming and acidification of the ocean, which has devastating impacts on ocean health and countless ecosystems. A healthy ocean regulates our weather and climate and is necessary in keeping global temperatures from rising beyond the 1.5 degree threshold. Protecting ocean health must be at the forefront of climate solution discussions like those being held at COP26; a healthy ocean can not only better adapt to the effects of climate change, but also will continue to provide the food and oxygen we depend on to support all life on Earth.
What can you do?
The systemic changes needed to curb global carbon emissions and safeguard quality of life for future generations must be implemented by countries and large businesses. As the largest source of cumulative carbon dioxide emissions in the world, the United States has a responsibility to lead—and two-thirds of voters in the United States think the country should be doing more. However, that doesn't mean that your individual actions don't make a difference, too. Here's what you can do:
- Contact your representatives in Congress. The actions of wealthy countries like the United States and their governments will be decisive in the future of climate change and how it will impact our planet. Contact your representatives in Congress to make your voice heard. Your first step can be sending a message to Congress to show your support for the America the Beautiful campaign—an initiative that includes a new national goal of conserving at least 30% of our lands and waters by 2030. This 30x30 goal will help safeguard critical ecosystems needed to stabilize our climate.
- Talk about climate change. Perhaps you're already well-versed in climate science facts, and that's a great start—but these facts are of little use if you're not sharing them with others. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 72% of Americans think climate change is happening, but only a third talk about it. It's imperative that we close that gap. Informed, productive discussions are key to turning the tide on climate-related misconceptions, creating public awareness and empowering others to act. Check out these helpful tips for avoiding climate jargon to make the most of your climate change-focused conversations.
- Shrink your footprint. Incorporating more plant-based meals into your diet, buying energy-saving appliances, opting for an electric vehicle when buying a new car, traveling by train instead of plane when possible, and walking, biking or taking public transportation instead of driving all lower your individual carbon emissions.
There's no doubt that the climate challenges ahead of us are daunting, but there's still hope that we can turn the tide. The key is immediate action from all of us—from powerful world leaders at COP26 to individuals like you.