Reposted from my Substack newsletter Just Two Things

Image: WWF

I know that it’s ridiculous to be even slightly optimistic about climate change. We still look as if we’re heading for two degrees warming, with all that that means for climate induced catastrophe. But that is the thrust of a long and probably must-read article by David Wallace-Wells in New York magazine.

Wallace-Wells wrote the New York article “The Uninhabitable Earth” about climate change in 2017, which became a grim book of the same name in 2019, so it means something that he’s seeing some glimmerings of hope now. And he does put this into perspective early on:

A turning point isn’t an endgame, or a victory, or a cessation of the need to struggle — for speedier decarbonization, for a sturdier future, for climate justice. Already, a future without profound climate suffering has been almost certainly foreclosed by decades of inaction.

I’m not going to try to summarise his latest article, but he gives a few grounds for optimism that we might at least have hit a turning point.

Climate denial is done

The first is that we have seen a torrent of announcements from countries across the globe: UK, Italy, Canada, Denmark, Japan, South Korea, and, perhaps most significantly, China, have all announced significant decarbonisation commitments. There are others as well. Biden’s position on climate change notably hardened during his campaign.

Second: the age of climate denial is over. Obviously, visibly, in the US, but more widely this has been one of the stories of 2020. Partly that’s down to extreme weather, partly down to the work of a wide range of activists, but there have been other signs as well. Exxon, for example, has fallen out of the Dow Jones Industrial Average: “The cultural cachet of oil companies is quickly approaching that of tobacco companies.”

Climate self interest

Third: we have reached the point of climate self-interest. Until recently, dealing with climate change was regarded as too expensive (as people queued up to tell Nick Stern in 2006, despite the story he laid out then to the contrary). Now it’s too good a deal to miss out on. Wallace-Wells notes a recent McKinsey report along these lines. There is, he says, “growing consensus in almost every part of the globe, and at almost every level of society and governance, that the world will be made better through decarbonization.”

Actually, there’s more to this. We’ve spent years wrestling with climate change as a collective action problem, and hence the endless COP meetings. But most of the progress and commitments of the past year have been made outside of the shared agreements. And research by Matto Mildenberger and Michaël Alkin “found that, despite much consternation about designing climate policy to prevent countries from “cheating,” there was basically no evidence of any country ever pulling back from mitigation efforts to take a free ride on the good-faith efforts of others.” There’s not a collective action problem after all.

But, but, but

Finally—and this is strictly relative—while we’re certain to hit 1.5 degrees (we run out of carbon budget on that in just seven years) we’ve got longer to avoid two degrees—assuming, that is, that some of the negative feedback loops don’t kick in.

And this is against a background of rapidly falling prices for solar, batteries, and so on.

Of course, the gap between what we should be doing, and what we are doing, is still growing. Although the relevant curves are now bending in the right direction, they’re not bending fast enough. A two degree world is still an ugly outcome:

It won’t be enough. It can’t be, because we are too far along. There is no solution to global warming, no going back. Achieving a two-degree goal, by rates of decarbonization only dreamed of a decade ago, would deliver a world that looked then quite unforgivably brutal…African diplomats have wept at climate conferences at what it would mean for the fate of their continent, calling it “certain death”; island nations have called it “genocide.” 

Worth taking the time to read it.