This Is the Year Humans Finally Got Serious About Saving Themselves From Themselves

By: Jonathan Chait
Published: 9-7-2015
New York Magazine

Here on planet Earth, things could be going better. The rise in atmospheric temperatures from greenhouse gases poses the most dire threat to humanity, measured on a scale of potential suffering, since Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany launched near-simultaneous wars of conquest. And the problem has turned out to be much harder to solve. It’s not the money. The cost of transitioning away from fossil fuels, measured as a share of the economy, may amount to a fraction of the cost of defeating the Axis powers. Rather, it is the politics that have proved so fiendish. Fighting a war is relatively straightforward: You spend all the money you can to build a giant military and send it off to do battle. Climate change is a problem that politics is almost designed not to solve. Its costs lie mostly in the distant future, whereas politics is built to respond to immediate conditions. (And of the wonders the internet has brought us, a lengthening of mental time horizons is not among them.) Its solution requires coordination not of a handful of allies but of scores of countries with wildly disparate economies and political structures. There has not yet been a galvanizing Pearl Harbor moment, when the urgency of action becomes instantly clear and isolationists melt away. Instead, it breeds counterproductive mental reactions: denial, fatalism, and depression.

This fall, as world leaders prepare to gather in Paris for the United Nations climate-change conference in December and bureaucrats bureaucratize, onlookers could be excused for treating the whole affair with weariness. As early as the 19th century, scientists had observed that the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere trapped heat that would otherwise have escaped into outer space. It took until 1997 for the U.N. to draw up a rough deal, in Kyoto, Japan, designed to arrest what was by then obviously a crisis. The agreement failed on the international stage, which didn’t stop the Republicans in the U.S. Senate, who hoped to use the treaty as fodder for attack ads, from bringing the moribund issue up for a vote — where it failed again, 95-0.

It was another decade until the next major attempt to coordinate international action, in Copenhagen, Denmark. That failed too. Then, in 2010, President Obama, temporarily enjoying swollen Democratic majorities in both houses, tried to pass a cap-and-trade law that would bring the U.S. into compliance with the reductions it had pledged in Copenhagen. A handful of Democrats from fossil-fuel states joined with nearly every Republican to filibuster it.

In the intervening years, the crisis has become rapidly less theoretical, as mountain snows have permanently disappeared, jungles have been burned for cropland, ice sheets have crumbled. Rather than galvanizing action, this merely depressed us. This July, as the planet endured its hottest month in recorded history, the former NASA climate scientist James Hansen revised his predictions and issued preliminary conclusions that, while controversial among other scientists, were terrifying: Sea levels might be rising three times faster than estimated, and within a few decades, “forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.” The philosopher Dale Jamieson has a recent book titled Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed — And What It Means for Our Future. Jonathan Franzen recently wrote an ostentatiously morbid essay in The New Yorker positing that “drastic planetary overheating is a done deal.” The drama has taken on an air of inevitability, of a tragedy at the outset of its final scene — the tension so unbearable, and the weight of looming catastrophe so soul-crushing, that some people seek the release of final defeat rather than endless struggle in the face of hopeless odds. Working for change, or even hoping for it, has felt like a sucker’s game. It is hard even to conceive of good global-warming news when bad news is the only kind that has ever existed.

But guess what everyone’s been missing in the middle of their keening for the dear, soon-to-be-departed Earth? There is good news. And not just incremental good news but transformational good news, developments that have the potential to mitigate the worst effects of climate change to a degree many had feared impossible. Those who have consigned the world to its doom should reconsider. The technological and political underpinnings are at last in place to actually consummate the first global pact to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. The world is suddenly responding to the climate emergency with — by the standards of its previous behavior — astonishing speed. The game is not over. And the good guys are starting to win.

Here on planet Earth, things could be going better. The rise in atmospheric temperatures from greenhouse gases poses the most dire threat to humanity, measured on a scale of potential suffering, since Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany launched near-simultaneous wars of conquest. And the problem has turned out to be much harder to solve. It’s not the money. The cost of transitioning away from fossil fuels, measured as a share of the economy, may amount to a fraction of the cost of defeating the Axis powers. Rather, it is the politics that have proved so fiendish. Fighting a war is relatively straightforward: You spend all the money you can to build a giant military and send it off to do battle. Climate change is a problem that politics is almost designed not to solve. Its costs lie mostly in the distant future, whereas politics is built to respond to immediate conditions. (And of the wonders the internet has brought us, a lengthening of mental time horizons is not among them.) Its solution requires coordination not of a handful of allies but of scores of countries with wildly disparate economies and political structures. There has not yet been a galvanizing Pearl Harbor moment, when the urgency of action becomes instantly clear and isolationists melt away. Instead, it breeds counterproductive mental reactions: denial, fatalism, and depression.

Related Stories How the President’s Longtime Confidant Became His Greatest Adversary on Climate Change Sea Levels Might Be Rising Much Faster Than Expected. What Should New York Do to Avoid Being Swamped? This fall, as world leaders prepare to gather in Paris for the United Nations climate-change conference in December and bureaucrats bureaucratize, onlookers could be excused for treating the whole affair with weariness. As early as the 19th century, scientists had observed that the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere trapped heat that would otherwise have escaped into outer space. It took until 1997 for the U.N. to draw up a rough deal, in Kyoto, Japan, designed to arrest what was by then obviously a crisis. The agreement failed on the international stage, which didn’t stop the Republicans in the U.S. Senate, who hoped to use the treaty as fodder for attack ads, from bringing the moribund issue up for a vote — where it failed again, 95-0.

It was another decade until the next major attempt to coordinate international action, in Copenhagen, Denmark. That failed too. Then, in 2010, President Obama, temporarily enjoying swollen Democratic majorities in both houses, tried to pass a cap-and-trade law that would bring the U.S. into compliance with the reductions it had pledged in Copenhagen. A handful of Democrats from fossil-fuel states joined with nearly every Republican to filibuster it.

In the intervening years, the crisis has become rapidly less theoretical, as mountain snows have permanently disappeared, jungles have been burned for cropland, ice sheets have crumbled. Rather than galvanizing action, this merely depressed us. This July, as the planet endured its hottest month in recorded history, the former NASA climate scientist James Hansen revised his predictions and issued preliminary conclusions that, while controversial among other scientists, were terrifying: Sea levels might be rising three times faster than estimated, and within a few decades, “forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.” The philosopher Dale Jamieson has a recent book titled Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed — And What It Means for Our Future. Jonathan Franzen recently wrote an ostentatiously morbid essay in The New Yorker positing that “drastic planetary overheating is a done deal.” The drama has taken on an air of inevitability, of a tragedy at the outset of its final scene — the tension so unbearable, and the weight of looming catastrophe so soul-crushing, that some people seek the release of final defeat rather than endless struggle in the face of hopeless odds. Working for change, or even hoping for it, has felt like a sucker’s game. It is hard even to conceive of good global-warming news when bad news is the only kind that has ever existed.

But guess what everyone’s been missing in the middle of their keening for the dear, soon-to-be-departed Earth? There is good news. And not just incremental good news but transformational good news, developments that have the potential to mitigate the worst effects of climate change to a degree many had feared impossible. Those who have consigned the world to its doom should reconsider. The technological and political underpinnings are at last in place to actually consummate the first global pact to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. The world is suddenly responding to the climate emergency with — by the standards of its previous behavior — astonishing speed. The game is not over. And the good guys are starting to win.

Photo: Ralph Smith For human to wean ourselves off carbon-emitting fossil fuel, we will have to use some combination of edict and invention — there is no other plausible way around it. The task before the world is best envisioned not as a singular event but as two distinct but interrelated revolutions, one in political willpower and the other in technological innovation. It has taken a long time for each to materialize, in part because the absence of one has compounded the difficulty of the other. It is extremely hard to force a shift to clean energy when dirty energy is much cheaper, and it is extremely hard to achieve economies of scale in new energy technologies when the political system has not yet nudged you to do so.

And yet, if you formed a viewpoint about the cost effectiveness of green energy a generation ago (when, for instance, Ronald Reagan tore the costly solar panels installed by his predecessor off the White House roof), or even just a few years ago, your beliefs are out of date. That technological revolution is well under way.

For one thing, the price of solar is falling, and rapidly. In a March 2011 post for Scientific American’s website, Ramez Naam, a computer scientist and technological enthusiast, compared the rapid progress of solar power to Moore’s Law, the famous dictum that described the process by which microchips grew steadily more useful over time, doubling in efficiency every two years. The price of solar power had fallen in two decades from nearly $10 a watt to about $3. By 2030, he predicted, the price could drop to just 50 cents a watt.

Four years later, in the spring of this year, Naam revisited his post and admitted his prediction had been wrong. It was far too conservative. The price of solar power had already hit the 50-cent threshold. In the sunniest locations in the world, building a new solar-power plant now costs less than coal or natural gas, even without subsidies, and within six years, this will be true of places with average sunlight, too. Taller turbines, with longer and more powerful blades, have made wind power competitive in a growing swath of the country (the windy parts). By 2023, new wind power is expected to cost less than new power plants burning natural gas.

Meanwhile, the coal industry has gone into free fall. In 2009, 523 coal plants operated in the United States. More than 200 of them have since shut down, displaced mostly by natural-gas plants, which emit half as much carbon dioxide. (The most common process of drilling for gas, fracking, does release methane, a super-powerful greenhouse gas, but the Obama administration’s just-released regulation will address those leaks for the first time.) Only one coal-fired plant has been green-lit since 2008, and new regulations make it virtually certain that no coal plant will break ground in the United States ever again.

The energy revolution has rippled widely through the economy. In the first half of this year, renewable-energy installations accounted for 70 percent of new electrical power. As the energy mix has grown cleaner, people have found ways to use less of it, too. Incandescent bulbs have been replaced with efficient LEDs, in what Prajit Ghosh, director of power and renewables research at energy company Wood Mackenzie, refers to as a “total bulb revolution.” Tesla has introduced a new home battery, the “Powerwall,” and broken ground on a plant in Nevada, called the Gigafactory, with the capacity to churn out 500,000 lithium-ion battery packs per year, which will allow it to cut battery costs by a third and sell less expensive electric cars. And these are only today’s technologies. Laboratories from Cambridge to Silicon Valley are racing to develop next-generation batteries, as well as ultra­efficient solar cells, vehicles, kitchen appliances. For more than a century, everything that consumed energy was designed without a thought to the carbon dioxide that would be released into the air. Now everything from buildings to refrigerators is being designed anew to account for scientific reality.

This is a story of ingenuity, but it is not, as Jeb Bush has suggested, thanks simply to “a person in a garage somewhere that’s going to come up with a disruptive technology that’s going to solve these problems.” The energy market has been disrupted because governments disrupted it; progress came not in spite of our government but because of it. The private sector developed LED bulbs because Washington required higher-efficiency lighting. The post-crash stimulus package pumped $90 billion into green-energy subsidies, as China and Germany made similar public investments. The Obama administration churned out regulations forcing higher energy standards on the automobile industry, buildings, agriculture, and oil and drilling. Its Clean Power Plan, which will require for the first time that states reduce emissions from their power plants, is the capstone of the first major response to climate change in American history.

This full-court press was Obama’s goal in 2009, when he tried to persuade Congress to pass a law creating a cap-and-trade market for carbon. After the bill failed the following year, environmentalists sank into despair — where many of them have stayed slumped ever since, having decided the battle is lost. When the first signs emerged, shortly after the 2012 election, that the Obama administration might use its regulatory authority to limit power-plant emissions, dejected liberals waved away the prospect as a fairy tale. Now it is a fait accompli, and the main argument environmentalists make to dismiss Obama’s climate plan is not that he will never have the guts to do it but that it merely ratifies a clean-energy revolution driven by market forces. The overall direction of American carbon use is no longer in doubt. American carbon emissions peaked in 2007 and have fallen since, with the main question now being how far and fast they will plummet.

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