First published in The Washington Post on Thursday, January 24, 2013.
The weather in Washington has been like a roller coaster this January. Yes, there has been a deep freeze this week, but it was the sudden warmth earlier in the month that was truly alarming. Flocks of birds — robins, wrens, cardinals and even blue jays – swarmed bushes with berries, eating as much as they could. Runners and bikers wore shorts and T-shirts. People worked in their gardens as if it were spring.
The signs of global warming are becoming more obvious and more frequent. A glut of extreme weather conditions is appearing globally. And the average temperature in the United States last year was the highest ever recorded.
As economic leaders gathered in Davos this week for the World Economic Forum, much of the conversation was about finances. But climate change should also be at the top of our agendas, because global warming imperils all of the development gains we have made.
If there is no action soon, the future will become bleak. The World Bank Group released a report in November that concluded that the world could warm by 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) by the end of this century if concerted action is not taken now.
A world that warm means seas would rise 1.5 to 3 feet, putting at risk hundreds of millions of city dwellers globally. It would mean that storms once dubbed “once in a century” would become common, perhaps occurring every year. And it would mean that much of the United States, from Los Angeles to Kansas to the nation’s capital, would feel like an unbearable oven in the summer.
My wife and I have two sons, ages 12 and 3. When they grow old, this could be the world they inherit. That thought alone makes me want to be part of a global movement that acts now.
Even as global climate negotiations continue, there is a need for urgent action outside the conventions. People everywhere must focus on where we will get the most impact to reduce emissions and build resilience in cities, communities and countries.
Strong leadership must come from the six big economies that account for two-thirds of the energy sector’s global carbon dioxide emissions. President Obama’s reference in his inaugural address this week to addressing climate and energy could help reignite this critical conversation domestically and abroad.
The world’s top priority must be to get finance flowing and get prices right on all aspects of energy costs to support low-carbon growth. Achieving a predictable price on carbon that accurately reflects real environmental costs is key to delivering emission reductions at scale. Correct energy pricing can also provide incentives for investments in energy efficiency and cleaner energy technologies.
A second immediate step is to end harmful fuel subsidies globally, which could lead to a 5 percent fall in emissions by 2020. Countries spend more than $500 billion annually in fossil-fuel subsidies and an additional $500 billion in other subsidies, often related to agriculture and water, that are, ultimately, environmentally harmful. That trillion dollars could be put to better use for the jobs of the future, social safety nets or vaccines.
A third focus is on cities. The largest 100 cities that contribute 67 percent of energy-related emissions are both the center of innovation for green growth and the most vulnerable to climate change. We have seen great leadership, for example, in New York and Rio de Janeiro on low-carbon growth and tackling practices that fuel climate change.
At the World Bank Group, through the $7 billion-plus Climate Investment Funds, we are managing forests, spreading solar energy and promoting green expansion for cities, all with a goal of stopping global warming. We also are in the midst of a major reexamination of our own practices and policies.
Just as the Bretton Woods institutions were created to prevent a third world war, the world needs a bold global approach to help avoid the climate catastrophe it faces today. The World Bank Group is ready to work with others to meet this challenge. With every investment we make and every action we take, we should have in mind the threat of an even warmer world and the opportunity of inclusive green growth.
After the hottest year on record in the United States, a year in which Hurricane Sandy caused billions of dollars in damage, record droughts scorched farmland in the Midwest and our organization reported that the planet could become more than 7 degrees warmer, what are we waiting for? We need to get serious fast. The planet, our home, can’t wait.
Jim Yong Kim is president of the World Bank Group.