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  1. If we are to meet the Paris climate goals, the use of fossil-based materials must be quickly reduced and replaced with renewable materials.
  2. If we were to meet the Paris climate goals, the use of fossil-based materials must be quickly reduced and replaced with renewable materials.

I have seen usage of both "if we are to" and "if we were to", and I am not sure which is correct. Since it is a subjunctive mood, I thought past tense may be a better on.

Where am I wrong?

  • 1
    Either is fine, but if you are talking about something that's possible, then in your were construction you should say materials would be quickly reduced. (If it were something to happen, this would be the result.) Note that in the first sentence, it's not a result in the second half of the sentence, it's an action. – Jason Bassford Nov 22 '18 at 14:30
  • Note that you can also say if we meet the Paris climate goals . . .materials will be quickly reduced . . . – Jason Bassford Nov 22 '18 at 14:34
  • @JasonBassford I think the context demands that the if-clause carry the meaning of "intend to", which I think can't be carried by "were to". Am I missing something here? – listeneva Jan 7 at 3:19
  • @listeneva If-then clauses are frequently hypothetical rather than intentional. If aliens were to land, we would be very surprised. If I were to cut off one my arms, it would be difficult to type. – Jason Bassford Jan 7 at 4:35
  • @JasonBassford In your examples, the if-clauses are causes and the main clauses are the results. But in the OP's second example it's the other way around, unless "were to" could mean "intended to", which I don't think it can. – listeneva Jan 7 at 4:41
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+50

Your two sentences have different meanings.

If we are to meet the Paris climate goals, the use of fossil-based materials must be quickly reduced and replaced with renewable materials.

This means the following:

In order to meet the Paris climate goals, the use of fossil-based material will have to be quickly reduced and replaced with renewable materials.

In other words, to accomplish that goal those actions must be taken.

This is the same things as:

If I am to make it to work on time, I must leave the house now.


I need to rephrase your second sentence slightly, because its current form doesn't work with the subjunctive:

If we were to meet the Paris climate goals, the use of fossil-based materials would be quickly reduced and replaced with renewable materials.

This means the following:

Should the Paris climate goals be met, it would result in the use of fossil-based materials being quickly reduced and replaced with renewable materials.

Unlike the first sentence, the second half of this sentence isn't spelling out actions that must be taken to accomplish the goal. Instead, it's spelling out the results of the goal should it be met. The actions required to meet it are not being stated.

This is the same thing as:

If I were to stay at home, I would be late to work.

  • That's enlightening. Talking about intention, my intention is to express a conditional relationship. The happening of B relies on the occurrence of A. I believe the structure of "if we are, we must..." should be the structure I go for. Am i right? – Mike Philip Jan 7 at 8:29
  • @MikePhilip Yes, that sounds right. You need to do one thing in order to accomplish another thing. – Jason Bassford Jan 7 at 14:37
  • I don't think the causality in the second construct is correct. What the sentence says is, "Should the Paris climate goals have to be met, it would require the use of fossil-based materials to be reduced..." I agree with the rest of your. The first sentence is prescriptive: if you want to achieve X, do Y. The second sentence is hypothetical: if you wanted to achieve X, you would Y. – urnonav Jan 7 at 16:48
  • I agree the second example doesn't work as is. But your amended second example doesn't make sense. How could the reducing the use of fossil-based materials and the replacing them with renewable materials really be the "result" of the meeting the Paris climate goals? I think it's the other way around. – listeneva Jan 11 at 2:02
  • @listeneva Because that's how the sentence is constructed. If I were to follow the diet, my intake of carbohydrates would be reduced. If I were to drive better, I would use less gasoline. If I were to watch that horror movie, I would have problems sleeping. If a certain course of action, then a result. Before and after. – Jason Bassford Jan 11 at 7:39
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Can we meet those goals? 

The subjunctive "if we were" suggests that we won't.  The indicative "if we are" suggests that we might. 

 

If we are to meet the Paris climate goals, the use of fossil-based materials must be quickly reduced and replaced with renewable materials.

Here, both the condition and its consequence are represented as possible.  The window of opportunity is open. 

 

If we were to meet the Paris climate goals, the use of fossil-based materials would have needed to be quickly reduced and replaced with renewable materials.

Here, neither the condition nor its consequence is represented as possible.  The window of opportunity has been closed. 

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I suspect the answer is "Neither of them". There are three possible clauses in this situation, and they have subtly different meanings.

If we were to agree, do you think we could start next month? is a remote hypothetical ('I know it's unlikely, but just suppose').

If we are to agree... would normally preface some sort of demand, like ...you will have to start by raising the price. Technically, it's imposing a condition that must be fulfilled before any agreement can be considered. (This condition might, of course, be that 'you agree to start next month', in which case your second example would be correct; but even then it isn't the best way to express it.)

The normal wording in your sentence is just If we agree on this deal, can we start next month?

Quotation

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