The Hottest Topic of Our Time

On sunny days, the solar panels on our roof return more power to the grid than we consume. My daughter and I shifted to a more sustainable vegetarian diet. I use reusable bags at the supermarket. I try to do my part. But I recognize that there is so much more we all must do as a society — not just as individuals — to mitigate the devastating effects of climate change.

When visiting Alaska a few years ago, the magnitude of recent changes became shockingly apparent. Areas that were once covered by thick ice fields are now green and lush. Alaska’s glaciers are retreating, shedding billions of tons of ice each year and contributing to rising sea levels.

The science behind this is clear: Human activity since the Industrial Revolution has led to the release of large quantities of greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere. These greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, trap heat and drive up the temperature at the Earth’s surface. (Fun fact: Evidence of this phenomenon was first identified by little-known female scientist Eunice Newton Foote in her 1856 paper, “On the Heat of the Sun’s Rays.”) The higher temperatures lead to more frequent and severe weather events, causing dramatic physical and biological changes to the Earth and resulting in wide-ranging human socio-economic impacts.

Historically, carbon dioxide levels fluctuated but never exceeded 300 parts per million; since 1950, levels have increased steadily and today are at 415 parts per million. The year 2020 tied for the warmest year on record; in fact, 19 of the warmest years have occurred since 2000. Multi-billion-dollar disasters like winter storms, wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, and drought are happening more often all over the world. We are witnessing dramatic and unrecoverable physical changes to the Earth. The perennial sea ice area has been reduced by two and a half miles just in my lifetime. The rate of species extinction is higher than ever. We’re seeing changes in disease transmission, the creation of climate migrants, and much much more.

There is urgency to climate action. We must act now to both mitigate and adapt to the changing climate. This requires collaborative innovation at many levels: scientific advancements, corporate responsibility, governmental policy, and individual actions. At IBM Research, we’ve been driving a Future of Climate initiative to help solve complex climate-related challenges. In one effort, we’re applying artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies to accelerate the discovery of materials for carbon capture, research we just shared at the United Nations Science-Policy-Business Forum on the Environment.

Recently, this crisis has attracted much-needed attention and action by scientists, business leaders, investors, and politicians. In just the last few weeks, 20 new member companies signed The Climate Pledge committing to net zero carbon emissions by 2040. The United States re-joined the Paris Agreement. MIT launched a Climate and Sustainability Consortium. The Biden Administration established a White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy and a National Climate Task Force. BlackRock built energy transition into their capital market assumptions. The European Commission adopted a new strategy on adaptation to climate change. IBM committed to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. I applaud these important steps and urge us to continue to prioritize climate action. We all must do our part. Our planet, our children, our health, and our future depend on it.

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