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The United Nations is expected to issue a major new climate change report


Presidents making decisions often get a decision memo. The memo boils down an issue to a single question and the president says yes or no. Today, the United Nations offers a kind of decision memo to leaders around the world on how to address climate change. Rebecca Hersher from NPR's climate desk is here. Good morning.


INSKEEP: OK, so what makes this memo a big deal?

HERSHER: You know, there have been a lot of these, but this one is important. It's sort of where the rubber hits the road. So to understand why, we need to go back to the Paris Climate Agreement - that's from 2015. Remember, that agreement, it kicked off the current efforts by world leaders to cut climate pollution and to reduce how much fossil fuels we use. And the ultimate goal of that agreement was to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. That's compared to the mid-1800s. That number, it came from one of these reports, one of these memos. Yeah, so later this year, there's this big international meeting coming to discuss the progress on meeting that goal. This report will be that sort of shared understanding for that meeting.

INSKEEP: So this is boiling down what people know about climate science and climate change so that leaders can make some kind of decision. Is that right?

HERSHER: Yeah, exactly. And, you know, the key to this report is that it's extremely short. The idea is that it's so simple that world leaders might actually use it...

INSKEEP: (Laughter) And actually read it.

HERSHER: ...Like a cheat sheet.

INSKEEP: OK. Good, good.

HERSHER: Yeah. Amazing. So, for example, we expect that the report will have reminders that despite all of the Paris Agreement promises, global greenhouse gas emissions are not decreasing and that emissions need to fall by about half in the next decade. That's to avoid some really dangerous changes, like massive sea level rise and extinction of lots of animals and plants, which is really scary, obviously.


HERSHER: The report will also spell out all the ways that climate change is affecting people's lives right now - you know, more severe droughts and heavy rain and heat waves and disappearing ice - things that people see in their daily lives. And the U.S. has experienced both severe floods and severe drought in just the last few months. So that kind of extreme weather, we're seeing it in the headlines; it's happening around the world.

INSKEEP: What does the report say about what to do?

HERSHER: Well, this is where the science has actually really matured. And you'll get my science geekery. It used to be that scientists were really focused on how global warming works, but now there's actually a lot of science about how to reduce emissions, you know, how to prepare for the changes that we know are coming, who is most vulnerable to climate change, social science, all different kinds of fields. So this report will focus on all of that work. So you can sort of think of it - going back to your decision memo metaphor - it's like a menu. It will lay out all the ways that we might reduce emissions. But there are things that are already happening - you know, renewable energy or changing the way we farm - but the menu will also include, like, more aspirational or theoretical ideas, like figuring out how to suck carbon out of the atmosphere - you know, technologies that don't yet exist, at least at scale. And the goal is to give policymakers reliable, broad-based information so they can take next steps.

INSKEEP: Look at the menu and say, I'll have the Impossible burger.

HERSHER: (Laughter) Truly, the literally impossible burger.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Rebecca Hersher from NPR's climate desk. Thanks so much.

HERSHER: Thanks.


Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.