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UN: Avoiding climate disaster is tough but feasible

A new report from the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Solutions Network says humanity can still avoid a 2 degree Celsius rise in the global temperature.
Fishermen at Seal Beach, California
Fishermen cast their lines from the rocks at Seal Beach, California, on June 28, 2014. Summer in California this year is expected to be the hottest and driest on record.

It's still possible for humanity to avoid catastrophic levels of climate change, but "the window of opportunity is closing fast," according to a report released Tuesday by the United Nations' Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).

The report, which examines how various U.N. member states can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, calls for dramatic climate action to be taken before 2050 in order to avert "catastrophic" rising temperatures.

“The world has committed to limit warming to below 2 degrees C, but it has not committed to the practical ways to achieve that goal,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the SDSN and of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, in a statement. “This report is all about the practicalities.  Success will be tough – the needed transformation is enormous – but is feasible, and is needed to keep the world safe for us and for future generations."

In order to stay beneath a global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius -- the commonly accepted benchmark for avoiding disastrous global warming -- human civilization needs to reduce the carbon intensity of GDP -- the ratio of carbon dioxide to GDP -- by 90% between 2010 and 2050, according to the report.

In order to meet that goal, the authors of the report suggest a variety of tactics, including greater reliance on nuclear power, "accelerated development of low-carbon technologies" and carbon sequestration. The United States, which the report identifies as the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, must decrease its per-person carbon dioxide emissions "by an order of magnitude."

President Obama has made reducing carbon emissions a key goal for his second term agenda. Last month, his Environmental Protection Agency released an ambitious draft proposal that would cut power plant emissions by 30% by the year 2030.

But the targets set by the U.N. report would require even more dramatic action. It's unclear how quickly U.S. politics can catch up with the urgency of the problem as the United Nations and the general scientific community perceive it.

Case in point, conservative think tank The Heartland Institute is currently hosting a conference in Las Vegas, Nev. intended to promote climate change denialism. Keynote speakers include Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, R-Calif., and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who will address the conference on Wednesday by video.

Although Inhofe is one of the most outspoken climate change deniers in Congress, the Republican Party in general has taken a stance of firm opposition to the president's climate change mitigation strategies. As a result, the odds that any aggressive movement will occur in the legislature remain dim for the foreseeable future.