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Climate change deniers are blocking progress, UN report suggests

For the first time, political ideology is singled out for obstructing changes that would slow global warming.

[NEW YORK] The United Nations' annual assessment of global progress on climate change delivers familiar bad news this year - the problem is getting worse, not better  with a new twist: For the first time, political ideology is singled out for obstructing changes that would slow global warming.

The annual calculation of the "emissions gap," the chasm between global pollution and international efforts to limit it, lays new blame with behaviors and cultures that lead some nations, including the US, to fall short on pollution goals. "There is a tendency for citizens to question problems if policy solutions challenge their world views," the authors write.

The assessment of human psychology, unusual for the otherwise traditional, policy-heavy report, comes five days before negotiators and envoys head to Poland to negotiate the finer details of implementing the 2015 Paris accord. The message is stark: In order to hit the agreement's most ambitious goal, 1.5 deg Celsius, national targets must be made five times more ambitious than those initially pledged.

After a three-year plateau, emissions rose in 2017. "Global emissions are heading in the wrong direction with no sign of peaking," Stephanie Pfeifer, chief executive officer of the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change, said. "The longer we leave it, the more costly and devastating the consequences. This is a wake-up call."

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Along with traditional policy solutions, the 2018 Emission Gap Report says behavioral change is critical to building support for climate policies. When it comes to selling citizens on carbon-pollution pricing, the authors say, policy makers need to confront what's known as solution aversion, the common tendency to pretend a problem doesn't exist if the solutions are particularly unappealing.

For the first time in the nine years the UN has issued this report, the authors acknowledge that climate policy is at risk because people aren't the rational actors assumed by decades of economic research. The new report blames "costs and political behavioral barriers to fiscal reforms" for an outsize influence on the gap between existing carbon prices and what research suggests are optimal for cleaning up the energy sector and industry.

The overall results are consistent with the findings of other recent major studies, including the October report by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on meeting a 1.5 deg Celsius warming goal, and a US assessment of past and future damage associated with warming published last week.

The new Emissions Gap report also quantifies the potential emission reductions from sub-national governments, companies and investors. The most optimistic estimates conclude that these commitments, if met, could save up to 19 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year by 2030  or enough to close the current emissions gap.