The case against despair on climate change
The world faces a climate catastrophe. Don't panic.
Human society is on a path to self-immolation. But don't give in to despair.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is out with an interim report, and the predictions are terrifying. If current trends continue, average global atmospheric temperatures will increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius (or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) on a 10-year averaged basis by roughly 2040. What's more, the latest science has generally found that even 1.5 degrees is going to be worse than previously thought, with high risk of murderous heat waves, flooding, drought, and sea level rise that threatens tens of millions of people around the world — and as Gavin Schmidt writes, the sheer arithmetic of keeping warming that low is virtually impossible.
Many are reacting to this report with despondency. Climate science denier Donald Trump is president, after all, and he just got another anti-climate policy guy on the Supreme Court. It is pretty hard to imagine world politics shifting to become even slightly sensible on the biggest problem facing human civilization.
However, despair is not warranted. Saving humanity from our own mistakes is not impossible.
The Republican Party and its brand of ultra-conservatism is obviously an impediment, saturated as it is with foaming science deniers throughout the entire party leadership and bureaucratic apparatus that is in charge of the world's most powerful nation.
This style of loopy extreme right-wing politics has spread throughout much of the Anglosphere, especially where there are large fossil fuel interests. Canada, with its enormous tar sands export sector, has dragged its feet for years, and recent plans to institute a carbon tax have inspired a Trump-style right-wing backlash. Meanwhile, the right-wing coalition running Australia — which has been deeply infected by American-style conservatism — is even worse. The Liberal Party (conservative in an Australian context) has repealed the country's carbon tax, abandoned emissions targets, and refused to stop using coal. Emissions from there are rising strongly as a result.
However, it's bizarrely also true that under Trump, U.S. emissions have been falling moderately, and renewable investment has been chugging along, reaching a peak in the second quarter of 2018 not seen since the stimulus-driven highs of 2011. As this Rhodium Group report explains, this is largely in spite of Trump's pro-coal policy agenda, driven by pre-existing energy price trends and remaining fragments of Obama-era policy. Wind and especially solar have become so cheap that they are continuing to displace coal from the energy market — though by 2025, they are projected to start to displace legacy nuclear, which will be bad for emissions.
This is an important point: In favorable locations, renewable energy is now able to stand without subsidies. The technology is largely where it needs to be, and it's getting better all the time. Deployment will be a huge pain in the neck, to be sure, but that poses no insurmountable problem. As a corollary, it means that America itself is not the biggest immediate problem on climate. American conservatism is. The U.S. is not pulling its weight, but Australians and Canadians could also join the U.K. in making decent progress by mobilizing politically within their far superior constitutional structures.
The second-biggest political-ideological problem is neoliberalism. An under-noticed development of the past several years is the collapse of continental European forward progress on climate change. As part of elite-forced austerity, renewable investment all but halted in sunny, windy Mediterranean countries like Spain, Italy, and Greece. But even in Germany — which accounts for over a fifth of all EU emissions — renewable investment has fallen to almost nothing, and their emission progress has also stalled. No matter what they say about science, neoliberalism means recurrent financial crises, unemployment, austerity, and slow growth, and thus less space to spend heavily on climate projects.
It's worth noting that in some parts of the world, even right-wing parties aren't out to lunch on climate change. Most notably, the quasi-fascist Narendra Modi in India has called climate change the "greatest threat to the survival and human civilization as we know it," and pledged to install a massive 100 gigawatts of renewable power (roughly 10 percent of the whole U.S power supply) by 2022. So far efforts are not at scale with that goal, but renewables do account for a fifth of India's power capacity. Indeed, as queasy as it may be to consider, it's pretty easy to make a case for climate policy on conservative nationalist grounds. It means both protecting the homeland from devastating climate disasters (which are likely going to hit India worse than any other large country), and reducing dependence on foreign energy imports.
At any rate, this brings me to the biggest priority for climate policy: trying to ensure India — whoever is in charge — can leapfrog carbon-based energy and go straight to renewables as it develops.
The second-biggest priority is decarbonizing China, which now emits over twice as much carbon dioxide as the United States. The Communist Party leadership has piled tremendous investment into renewables over the last decade, but has run into efficiency problems, and has scaled back its subsidies somewhat. It has nearly two and a half times the installed renewable capacity of the United States, but only produces about 38 percent more actual electricity, probably due to cheap materials and poor siting.
What India (and the rest of the developing world) needs is help staying away from coal. What China needs is help getting the most out of its investment dollar. Both nations are committed to doing so — it is objectively in their best interest. But it is also in the world's best interests, as either nation could destroy humanity and itself with unchecked emissions. If Europe or the United States can escape from its political sandpit and resume their own necessary decarbonization efforts, either one could serve as a catalyst to get world climate policy back where it needs to be.
Make no mistake, humanity is still careening in the wrong direction. Limiting warming to even 2 degrees is probably out of the question, let alone 1.5 degrees (absent totally untried carbon capture technology). But there is no win-lose state on climate change. Every tenth of a degree means things get worse; but conversely every tenth of a degree prevented means untold disasters averted. It will always be wisest and moral to fight to the last breath.