Modern humans generally think panic is futile, triggering stampedes at concerts, meltdowns at cookouts, and endless hours of therapy. But our species has evolved panic as a kind of superpower to avoid being eaten. Under certain circumstances, and in measured doses, a little existential fear can still be helpful.

Take our rapidly changing climate. The planet could easily set a record average temperature in 2023, especially with an El Nio weather model taking effect later this year. We have already suffered through the warmest start of June on record, with global land temperatures briefly touching 1.5°C above the pre-industrial average. Ocean temperatures this spring were the warmest on record this time of year, with records dating back 174 years.

Many people, myself included, have warned against panicking for such jaw-dropping new highs given the temporary nature of the El Nios push. Even if we temporarily achieve 1.5°C of warming this year, it will still be theoretically possible to avoid long-term warming beyond that level and all the catastrophic consequences that would ensue.

But first we need to kick our dependence on fossil fuels and stop emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And judging by how little world politicians seem interested in taking such steps, perhaps just a little panic could help.

Scientists agree that the world must have its emissions net to zero by 2050 to keep warming to 1.5C, a target set by the Paris climate accords in 2015. And so far 95 countries have committed to zero.

This is the good news. The bad news is that the vast majority of these promises are not credible. Current policies and practices have the world on track to achieve nearly 3°C of warming by the end of the century. Even the most reliable net zero pledges would still lead to warming close to 2.5C, according to a recent study.

The outlook is even worse in the short term. The world needs to cut emissions by 43% by 2030 to keep warming to 1.5C, according to one estimate. Only three G20 members, the US, UK and Australia, have even committed to such a goal, according to BloombergNEFsZero-Carbon Policy Scoreboard. And nobody has actually implemented policies to make it happen.

A big problem is that a significant number of net-zero countries have no plans to stop burning oil, gas and coal, according to a new study from the Stockholm Environment Institute. Forty-five of the 95 pledged countries, in fact, talk about continuing or expanding fossil fuel production right there in their net-zero pledges, according to the study. Two countries, Lebanon and Senegal, do not currently produce oil and gas but have listed it as an ambition. What is the opposite of aiming high?

Only five of the 95 countries, by contrast, discuss transitioning away from fossil fuel production as part of their net zero pledges.

This daunting lack of ambition looks likely to lead to the next UN climate conference later this year, COP28 in Dubai, to be hosted by the CEO of an oil company. At a two-week preliminary conference in Bonn where negotiators met to draft statements for consideration at the COP, the countries failed even to agree on minutiae such as whether to say based on or informed by, reported Victoria Cuming of BloombergNEF. This was a warning sign, she wrote, that COP28 could generate the same level of noise as previous climate summits, but result in little substantial progress towards implementing the Paris climate accord.

Even the fact that the repercussions of climate change are literally hitting our faces doesn’t seem to inspire much action. After a week in which toxic smoke from Canadian wildfires descended on Washington, DC, lawmakers are pushing some bills to address forest management, fire evacuation and resilience planning, and to help establish public centers for clean air and distribute air filter units to some households, Axios reported this week. All are worthy efforts, but none come close to the root of the problem, which is that continuing to warm the planet will only make wildfires more frequent and destructive.

To imagine the effects of the 2°C or 3°C of warming that will follow if we don’t respond much more aggressively, consider how chaotic the climate has already become after just 1.2°C of warming from pre-industrial levels. Deadly heatwaves, droughts and wildfires are more common. Storms and floods are more intense. Millions of people have died, been displaced or suffered long-term health effects as a result of these disasters. Species are dying out en masse. This is just a taste of what could happen.

This sad course need not be our lot. Governments right now may decide not only to make more aggressive climate pledges at this year’s COP, but also to adopt the policies that will give those pledges concrete results. Individuals can put more pressure on policy makers to act by reminding them that this is what the majority of voters want.

Outright panic is not an appropriate response, especially if it leads to paralysis. But apathy is not currently on display either. Whatever the motivation, if we get stuck as the planet changes rapidly, then we are rapidly receding.

More from Bloomberg’s opinion:

Get ready for the second coming of Carbon Captures: David Fickling

What we don’t know about fires could kill us: Mark Gongloff

Africa could become a climate savior, not a victim: Lara Williams

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mark Gongloff is a Bloomberg Opinion editor and columnist covering climate change. A former managing editor of, he handled the business and technology coverage of HuffPosts and was a reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal.

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