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The message from a U.N. climate report is dire: Humans must cut pollution quickly

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Humans can and must cut climate pollution as quickly as possible. That is the message from the United Nations. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the release of a major climate science report earlier today.

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ANTONIO GUTERRES: We have never been better equipped to solve the climate challenge, but we must move into warp speed climate action now. We don't have a moment to lose.

CHANG: Rebecca Hersher from NPR's Climate Desk has more.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: The report doesn't mince words. The Earth is on track for catastrophic warming, and world leaders need to slash greenhouse gas emissions immediately. Here's Dr. Hoesung Lee, who led the writing of the report.

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HOESUNG LEE: We are walking when we should be sprinting.

HERSHER: Here's what sprinting would look like, according to the report - no new power plants that burn coal, oil or gas; no more subsidies to extract fossil fuels from the ground; lots of investment in solar and wind; and big changes to how we farm, how and where we build homes and how we warn people about extreme weather. Patricia Romero-Lankao is a climate scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. She says the main message for world leaders is that there are already lots of practical options to tackle climate change.

PATRICIA ROMERO-LANKAO: There are many available, cost-effective and affordable solutions to reduce emissions in transport, in industry, in housing, in our daily activities.

HERSHER: The new report is really short - just 36 pages - which is the whole point. It's meant to be like a cheat sheet if the first question on the pop quiz for world leaders was how will you prevent catastrophic climate change and the second question was how will you protect your most vulnerable citizens?

ROMERO-LANKAO: The poorest and most marginalized communities are the most vulnerable in all cities and in all regions.

HERSHER: That includes in the U.S., where poor people, Indigenous people and people of color are more vulnerable to rising seas, to stronger storms and deadly heat waves. And the report points out that, globally, the people who are most at risk don't release a lot of greenhouse gases. Here's Inger Andersen, the head of the U.N. Environment Program.

INGER ANDERSEN: Climate change is throwing its hardest punches at the most vulnerable communities who bear the least responsibility.

HERSHER: The authors stopped short of suggesting specific policies to address that inequity, but the clear implication is that richer, more industrialized countries who are responsible for most of the climate pollution need to foot the bill to protect those on the front lines. The details of how that would work were the topic at last year's climate negotiations and will likely be a big focus again at this year's negotiations. Scientists hope this report will help leaders agree on a path forward.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.