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A tipping point on climate change

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

We’re at the beginning of a make-or-break period to confront global warming. A combination of forces, from dire scientific reports to extreme weather events, have crystallized a movement to action.

The big picture: A rare convergence of science that reveals the urgency of the problem; extreme events that highlight threats almost nationwide; and shifting public views that are fueling support for stronger policies, scientists and polling experts say.

In the past 2 years, a spate of dire scientific reports have been published, each of which has hammered home the urgency of acting on this issue.

  • In October, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the effects of global warming are already evident worldwide.
  • To avoid more severe impacts, the panel said greenhouse gas emissions should be cut by about 45% by 2030, relative to 2010 levels — a Herculean task compared to current global trends.
  • Another report the Trump administration released on Black Friday tied trends in wildfires, sea level rise, and other extreme events to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The collective message from these studies is that the actions we take in the next 10 to 20 years will be crucial to determining the climate for centuries to come.

Public polling shows evidence that these reports, plus extreme weather events such as the deadly, record-shattering California wildfires, are changing some minds.

  • A December poll by the Yale Program on Climate Change and George Mason University found that the "alarmed" segment of the American public is at an all-time high of 29% — double the size in a 2013 survey.
  • The poll also showed a decline in Americans who are classified as in the "dismissive" or "doubtful" camps.
  • The percentage of conservative Republicans who are worried about climate change has also reached an all-time high, according to Yale's Anthony Leiserowitz, who studies public opinion on climate change.
  • "More Americans think that climate change is here and now, affecting them here and now, and poses a risk to them personally than ever before," he tells Axios.
  • Leiserowitz, along with other social scientists and several climate scientists Axios interviewed, said the shift is being driven by a combination of science reports, extreme events and increased media coverage tying such extreme events to climate change.

In a sign of climate science's influence, the Democrats' Green New Deal resolution championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cites both the UN report and the Black Friday report in its intro text.

The recent science findings are also inspiring a new grassroots movement on this issue.

  • For example, citing the UN report, a 16-year-old Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, is inspiring thousands of school kids to stage walkouts in of the lack of climate action. These protests have swept across Europe, and will reach the U.S. and other countries on March 15.

Yes, but: There are other reasons for some of these changes, such as having a climate change denier in the White House — who's now thinking of setting up a panel to scrutinize the recent scientific reports — and the galvanizing effect that is having on the left.

  • Also, there remains a stark partisan divide in public views on climate, with many Republicans remaining skeptical of the science.
  • Even here, though, the ground is shifting, with oil and gas companies increasing investments in clean energy and supporting a push for a carbon tax.

The bottom line: The next few years will show us whether that means there's a window for action, or whether we'll just be more aware of our fate.