The Acceleration in Global Renewables

The latest report from the climate front is a doozy. According to a new study, the global warming that has already occurred will cause a sea level rise of more than 10 inches from the melting of the Greenland ice sheet alone. That much is baked in. How much worse can it get? “With continued carbon emissions, the melting of other ice caps and thermal expansion of the ocean,” the Guardian warns, “a multi-metre sea-level rise appears likely.”

Obviously, this is very bad news for the nearly 600 million people who live in coastal zones worldwide.

Aftermath of flooding in Pakistan.

It comes on top of record-breaking heat waves in China and South Asia, the worst drought in Europe in 500 years, the continuing megadrought in the U.S. Southwest, massive wildfires in Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece, France, and Germany, and catastrophic floods in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Evidence of a climate emergency could hardly be clearer. In Bill McKibben’s words, “We live on a different planet than we used to.”

Fortunately, there are solutions at hand that don’t require bleeding edge technologies. They do, however, require political will to implement, and that’s why the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is so important.

Clearly, the IRA doesn’t approach the scale demanded by the current climate crisis, but it sets the ball in motion, creating a dynamic that could very well generate its own momentum. Finally, after years of inaction, the federal government has exerted powerful leadership to deal with a rapidly warming world.

Signed into law by President Biden earlier this month, the IRA commits $369 billion to carrying out climate and clean energy measures, by far the largest such investment in U.S. history. Adopting a carrots rather than stick approach, it represents a major change in policy direction. Instead of calling for carbon taxes to discourage fossil fuel use, it focuses on incentives to spur investments in renewables and energy efficiency, mainly in form of tax credits.

The IRA is far more modest than the Build Back Better Act and it includes significant concessions to the fossil fuel industry. Even so it’s projected to cut U.S. emissions by 40% by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. Economists, furthermore, estimate that Americans will save as much as $200 billion over the next decade on electricity bills thanks to the new law, challenging the belief that the energy transition will mean higher prices.

Perhaps the best thing about the IRA is the fact that it comes right as the adoption of renewables has picked up dramatic speed. As David Wallace-Wells observes, the public investment will benefit from “much broader tailwinds” than just a few years ago. For example, the amount of electricity generated by renewable resources in the U.S., which was only 8.6% in April 2001, hit a record 28% this April.

In fact, wind and solar installations have made up an impressive majority of new power plants added to the national grid in recent years. In the first six months of 2022 wind and solar accounted for two-thirds of the new U.S. electrical generating capacity. The country’s investments in clean energy have grown from $10 billion in 2004 to $105 billion in 2021.

Globally, the picture is similarly positive; renewable energy production has increased 400% in the past decade. The renewable investment of $226 billion worldwide in the first half of 2022 set a new record, jumping 11% in the first six months relative to same period in 2021. Investment in solar was up 33% and 16% in wind. Renewables are now the cheapest form of power in many countries, including the U.S.

So, yes, the sea level is rising and that’s scary. But the shift to renewables is accelerating and that’s exciting. There’s little question that climate chaos is causing great damage and will continue to do so. If we work hard to push the energy transition forward, however, we can limit this destruction and bequeath a better world to the generations that follow us.

Growth & Progress in the Ithaca 2030 District

The Ithaca 2030 District recently released its third annual progress report. As the report shows, the Ithaca 2030 District in 2021 once again surpassed the 2020 reduction target for energy and, for the first time, went beyond the 2030 target for water.

Buildings make up 73% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the City of Ithaca, with commercial buildings accounting for 48 percent, so achieving the city-wide goal of carbon neutrality by 2030 depends in great measure on dramatically reducing the carbon footprint of our buildings.

The flagship program of TCCPI, the Ithaca 2030 District is a voluntary effort by property owners and tenants to improve the energy and water performance of their buildings as well as to bring about cuts in commuter transportation emissions.

District property members, by committing to the goals of the 2030 District, are not only having a positive effect on the environment; they are also saving money on utility costs, improving the well-being of those who live and work in their buildings, and stimulating the local economy.

The Ithaca 2030 District has grown considerably in the last 16 months, due in part to the reopening of downtown as well as the excitement generated by the City’s building decarbonization campaign.

Currently, there are 30 commercial property owners, 40 buildings, and 522,375 square feet of committed space, compared to 25 property members, 29 buildings, and 375,371 square feet at the end of 2020. This annual report focused on the 27 property members, 33 buildings, and 417,089 square feet that belonged to the District for most of 2021.

The District reduced its energy consumption by 21.8% from the baseline. In addition, it realized savings of 51.4% in water use. The one area where the District lost ground was commuter transportation emissions. The increase in driving to work in 2021 as downtown reopened, along with a decline in the number of remote workers, resulted in a rise in transportation emissions to a level well above the 2020 target, even exceeding the level of emissions generated before the onset of the pandemic in 2020. Clearly, commuter emissions will be a major area of concern as the City of Ithaca works to achieve its goal of community-wide carbon neutrality by 2030.

Besides the annual district-level report, each of the property members is provided access to a confidential interactive, online dashboard that measures the energy and water performance of their individual buildings. These dashboards are regularly updated so that building owners and tenants can monitor their progress towards the individual 2025 and 2030 energy and water targets.

Check out the full 2021 report for details about the growth and progress of the Ithaca 2030 District.

Building Electrification in the Empire State

New York burns more fossil fuels in its residential and commercial buildings than any other state in the country, a fact that underscores the importance of dramatically reducing the carbon footprint of our built environment to avert runaway climate change.As the New York legislature entered the final days of the 2022 session last week, however, prospects for passage of the All-Electric Building Act (AEBA) appeared dim.

Commercial building heat pumpsThe AEBA would have required all new buildings starting in 2024 to be constructed using only electric appliances for heating, cooking, hot water, and drying clothes; in 2027, the standard would have applied to taller buildings as well.

Although other significant environmental and climate legislation did make it through, including the two-year moratorium on cryptocurrency mining produced by fossil fuel power plants, it was lights out for the AEBA when the session ended. The bill had strong support in both houses, but the leadership blocked it from going to the floor for a vote. It was a bitter disappointment for climate activists, especially in light of the Democratic majority in the state legislature.

Similar proposals have fared better elsewhere in the U.S. Washington became the first state in the country in April to effectively ban the use of natural gas in most newly constructed buildings, mandating the installation of all-electric heating and hot water systems. California adopted a new building code in August 2021 that established a strong preference for electric heating in new construction, although it did not impose an explicit ban on natural gas.

Closer to home, the Ithaca Common Council in May 2021 voted unanimously in support of an energy code supplement that required all new construction beginning in 2026 to be net-zero buildings that do not use fossil fuels except for cooking. New York City passed a law in December 2021 prohibiting the use of natural gas and oil burning systems in new construction starting in 2024, when developers would have to design buildings with all-electric heating, hot water, and cooking appliances.

The AEBA would have implemented a key recommendation of the Climate Action Council, which has been charged with developing a plan to achieve the goals established under the state’s 2019 Climate Leadership and Protection Act (CLCPA). The Draft Scoping Plan, released at the end of December 2021 for public comment, calls for the adoption of all-electric state codes that prohibit the use of fossil fuel for heating, cooling, hot water, cooking, and appliances by 2024 for new construction of single-family and low-rise residential buildings and by 2027 for multifamily buildings over four stories and commercial buildings (see pp. 125-28).Gov. Kathy Hochul’s State of the State address in January seemed to signal a green light for building decarbonization, and she included support for a ban on natural gas in new construction after 2027 in her executive budget, a move backed by the State Senate. The General Assembly, however, left it out of its one-house budget.

The failure of the state legislature to take action on the AEBA makes it very difficult for New York to meet the legal climate targets stipulated in the CLCPA. All the more reason, then, that concerned citizens should make their voices heard in support of the Draft Scoping Plan recommendations. Fortunately, there is still time to do so now that the public comment period has been extended to July 1. Comments may be submitted via the online public comment form, via email at scopingplan@nyserda.ny.gov, and via U.S. mail to Attention: Draft Scoping Plan Comments, NYSERDA, 17 Columbia Circle, Albany, NY 12203-6399. The Climate Action Council will issue a final draft of the climate plan by the end of the year.

Crunch Time on Climate Action in Albany

The future of climate action in New York State is at a critical inflection point. The new budget has been approved and the remaining weeks of the legislative session are now focused on policy proposals. At the same time, the draft Scoping Plan issued by the Climate Action Council at the end of 2021 has been undergoing scrutiny at public hearings around the state and only a handful more of these hearings remain.

When the New York Legislature convened in January, environmentalists and climate activists were hopeful that dramatic headway could be made on such issues as reducing the consumption of natural gas, building electrification, cryptocurrency mining, fossil fuel divestment, and investments in renewable energy development.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the oil and gas industry and its supporters have stepped up their opposition to these measures in recent weeks, spending millions of dollars on ad campaigns and lobbying, money that could be put towards a clean energy future.

The pushback has revealed the obstacles to phasing out fossil fuels even in a relatively progressive state such as New York. A recent Washington Post article highlighted the challenges faced by those who take the ambitious goals of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act seriously, focusing on the fight over banning natural gas use in new construction.

Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) included a ban on gas use in new construction by 2027 in her executive budget for the next fiscal year. But, by the time the negotiations came to a close, the proposal was absent from the final budget deal. The ostensible reason for its exclusion, according to a spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, was that policy measures don’t belong in the proposed budget.

Climate advocates are now pressing state lawmakers to pass the measure as a stand-alone bill before the legislative session ends on June 2. The Renewable Heat Now coalition, in particular, is pushing for passage of the All-Electric Building Act as part of a package of proposals to reduce demand for fossil fuels and compel utilities to plan for a transition to renewable heat.

An organization called New Yorkers for Affordable Energy, essentially a front group for fossil fuel and utility companies and corporate lobbying interests, is mounting a well-oiled campaign to defeat the measure. It contends that banning gas use in new buildings would harm consumers. Among those behind the organization are National Grid, the American Petroleum Institute, the pipeline company Enbridge, and the Business Council of New York State. A recent investigative report concludes that “New Yorkers for Affordable Energy smacks as a classic industry-funded astroturf effort.”

The lines couldn’t be drawn more distinctly: on one side, the backward-looking oil and gas companies, utilities, and other corporate defenders of the fossil-fuel status quo, and on the other, citizens, activists, and other members of the public who want a decent, bright future where runaway climate change has been averted, mass species extinction avoided, and clean air and water acknowledged as fundamental human rights.

The next few weeks will tell us unambiguously where Gov. Hochul and the state legislature stand. In the meantime, we must make our voices heard in Albany as loudly and clearly as possible.

Cryptocurrency Mining and Climate Change

When political leaders demonstrate the courage of their convictions, it’s immediately evident. Perhaps it’s because the authenticity shines through the usual political fog so brightly. All pretense drops, the language becomes direct and straightforward, and the clear meaning of their words rings out.

The most striking example recently of such leadership, one that has been both inspiring and breathtaking, is that of President Volodymyr Zelensky. He has not shied away from acknowledging the immense military odds stacked against Ukraine or downplayed the difficulty ordinary Ukrainians face. He has invoked a deep sense of common purpose and brought his country together.

Kathy Hochul sworn in as the 57th governor of New York. Photo by NY Senate licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In a different way and at a very different level, NY Gov. Kathy Hochul has a similar opportunity to demonstrate the courage of her convictions. The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), signed into law in 2019, laid out aggressive benchmarks for New York to reduce its carbon emissions. Gov. Hochul has emphatically expressed her support for the CLCPA, proclaiming in her recent State of the State address that climate change is “a threat to our way of life, here and now.” She boldly called for a ban on the use of natural gas in new construction after 2027, the rapid development of offshore wind, and the phasing out of peaker plants—only used when excess energy is needed by the grid—as well as older fossil-fuel power plants.

Another closely related issue offers Hochul a similar chance to display bold leadership: imposing a statewide moratorium on proof-of-work bitcoin mining, a practice that poses a profound threat to the climate. Assemblymember Anna Kelles has introduced a bill that would place a three-year moratorium on proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining. The bill is currently making its way through the legislative process and has gained the support of 41 co-sponsors and 15 key committee chairs in the Assembly.

So far the governor has said very little about bitcoin mining, its environmental impact, or whether she supports a moratorium. It’s time she stepped forward.

Why is this action so critical?

Proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining consumes a tremendous amount of energy to operate the multiple, high-powered computers that validate the exchange of bitcoins as well as the cooling technology needed to keep the machines from overheating. In fact, a Cambridge University study concluded that bitcoin mining uses more electricity annually than the entire country of Argentina.

What is especially galling is that proof-of-work is only one way to mine cryptocurrency. “Proof-of-stake, another popular method, uses far less energy,” points out Yvonne Taylor, co-founder and vice president of Seneca Lake Guardian. But, she notes, proof-of-work’s energy use in the U.S. has grown 320% in just the past five years. New York, moreover, hosts nearly 20% of that.

Thanks to the work of Taylor and other environmentalists, attention in New York has focused on Greenidge Generation, a recently revived operation located on Seneca Lake. Formerly a coal-fired power station, it turned to natural gas when it reopened its doors. Originally intended to be a peaker plant, no one knew it would become a private bitcoin mining operation that ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Greenidge’s Title V air permit is currently up for renewal, as discussed in our last issue. The decision on the renewal was due Jan. 31 but has been postponed to March 31 so that the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) could “complete its ongoing review” of about 4,000 public comments on the case. As Peter Mantius reports, however, the delay provides Greenidge with the ability to expand its operations.

Under the CLCPA, the state is required to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2030. The importance of doing so was underscored by today’s release of a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning that the pace of global warming threatens to overcome our ability to adapt to it. Greenidge is just one of many fossil-fuel power plants retired in upstate New York that could potentially be reopened for proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining; the possibility of Cayuga Power Plant going down this road punctuates the point.

If the bitcoin mining industry is allowed to continue growing without any oversight or regulation, the ability to achieve the CLCPA goals will be put in serious jeopardy. For the governor to be true to her word that climate change is a threat to our way of life, it’s clear what her next move must be: declare a moratorium on bitcoin mining.

Next Steps for the NYS Draft Climate Plan

The Climate Action Council, headed up by Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) President and CEO Doreen M. Harris, has just issued its draft scoping plan. Now it’s our job to review it carefully and respond. Beginning on Jan. 1, the public will have 120 days to offer comments and make sure their voices are heard.

The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), signed into law in 2019, calls for New York to achieve a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and 70 percent renewable energy generation by 2030, establish a zero-emission electricity sector by 2040, and create a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. The CLCPA established the Climate Action Council, a 22-member committee charged with determining how to meet these statutory goals. The Council also consulted with a wide range of advisory panels and working groups over the past two years to address issues in areas such as transportation, solid waste, energy generation, workforce development, and climate justice.

A December 30 wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes in suburban Denver, the latest dramatic sign of climate change. Photo by Tristantech licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The release of the draft scoping plan is the crucial first step in reaching the ambitious but necessary climate goals laid out in the CLCPA. There is certainly plenty of material for New Yorkers to wade through. The body of the report itself is 330 pages, followed by 520 pages of appendices. The Climate Action Council’s seven advisory panels – Transportation, Agriculture and Forestry, Land Use and Local Government, Power Generation, Energy Efficiency and Housing, Energy Intensive and Trade Exposed Industries, and Waste – submitted recommendations for the Climate Action Council to consider in the draft scoping plan, all of which can be found in the appendices.

In addition, the Climate Justice Working Group and Just Transition Working Group played key roles in the development of the draft scoping plan. The Disadvantaged Communities Barriers and Opportunities Report examines why some communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change and air pollution and have unequal access to clean energy, and recommends ways to rectify these problems using a climate justice lens. The Just Transition Working Group Jobs Study explores the consequences of climate change mitigation for the job market as well as actions required to provide adequate training, education, and workforce development.

The release of the draft scoping plan takes place against an increasingly dire climate crisis. The latest manifestation of this crisis is the Colorado wildfire that raced through suburbs between Denver and Boulder on Dec. 30, destroying at least 500 homes and forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents. Needless to say, December wildfires are not a common occurrence in Colorado, but a severe drought combined with high winds to fuel the most destructive blaze in the state’s history. Elsewhere, a new report has found unsettling evidence that the so-called “Doomsday Glacier” in Antarctica could collapse in as little as five years, raising the world’s sea level by several feet. The Thwaites glacier already loses 50 billion tons of ice each year and makes up about four percent of the planet’s annual sea rise.

The need to take dramatic and immediate climate action, then, is obvious. Although one of the most sweeping plans issued by any state or country, the NYS draft report leaves many specifics to be worked out. The broad outlines of any effective climate plan must include, as this one does, calls for the electrification of buildings, a shift to electric vehicles, the expansion of renewables such as solar and wind power, the development of feasible energy storage strategies, the decommissioning of natural gas, and the implementation of a carbon tax. But still unclear are the details and timing involved with setting these steps in motion, and how to do so in a way that takes into account historic inequities and brings about a just transition.

The draft scoping plan is now in the hands of Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state legislature. It remains to be seen to what extent public input will influence the final shape of the plan, but it’s critical that New Yorkers weigh in. The final report will be issued on Jan. 1, 2023 and the DEC will then announce legally binding regulations by Jan. 1, 2024 to ensure that the state achieves the CLCPA’s required targets.

Information about how to participate in the public hearings on the draft scoping plan will be disclosed in early 2022, according to the press release issued by the Climate Action Council. There will be at least six hearings held across the state. In addition, comments can be submitted via the online public comment form, by email at scopingplan@nyserda.ny.gov, and by U.S. mail to Attention: Draft Scoping Plan Comments, NYSERDA, 17 Columbia Circle, Albany, NY 12203-6399. Stay tuned!

COP26, Youth, and the Failure of Governments

As international leaders gather in Glasgow, Scotland for the COP26 climate summit, which U.S. climate envoy John Kerry calls “the last best hope for the world to get its act together,” perhaps the most important thing they can keep in mind is a landmark study issued in September that underscores the deep anxiety, distress, and anger that young people are experiencing about climate change and government inaction to deal with it. 

In New York City, ahead of COP26, activists unfurled a giant banner in front of the United Nations headquarters. Photo by Rainforest Action Network licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The survey—the largest global investigation of its kind—asked 1,000 16- to 25-year-olds in each of ten countries how they felt about the climate crisis and government responses to it. The results found that 59% of respondents said they felt “very worried” or “extremely worried” about climate change and over 45% of them said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily lives. Thirty-nine percent indicated they were “hesitant to have children.” Underlying the distress of young people was the perception, in the words of the report, “that they have no future, that humanity is doomed, that governments are failing to respond adequately, and with feelings of betrayal and abandonment by governments and adults.

Caroline Hickman, a researcher in climate psychology at the University of Bath and one of the authors, acknowledged in an NPR interview ​that they were aware children and young people around the world were upset about climate change. “What we didn’t realize was quite how frightened they were,” she said. “We didn’t realize the depth of the feeling. And we didn’t realize how that was impacting on their thinking and their daily functioning.”

The sad fact is that young people have substantial cause to be worried. Greenhouse gas emissions reached a new record high last year and a U.N. emissions gap analysis—what U.N. secretary general Antonio Guterres called a “thundering wake-up call”—released just before the opening of COP26 demonstrated that commitments made under the Paris Agreement will fail to keep the global warming under 1.5C this century. Indeed, it concluded that the world was on track to heat up about 2.7C, which would have disastrous consequences. Another U.N. report found that fossil fuel production planned by the world’s governments “vastly exceeds” the limit needed to keep the rise in global temperature to 1.5C.

As might be expected, the survey of young people revealed some variation from country to country. The largest proportion of respondents who felt “very worried” or “extremely worried” lived in countries extremely vulnerable to climate destabilization: the Philippines (84%), India (68%) and Brazil (67%). But even young people from the wealthier nations included in the survey (Australia, Finland, France, Portugal, the U.K., and the U.S.) expressed a great deal of concern. Sixty-five percent of young Portuguese, for example, indicated high degrees of climate anxiety.

Especially troubling is the revelation that an overwhelming majority of those surveyed believed their governments were not telling them the truth about the effectiveness of the measures they were undertaking on climate change. A news report in Nature succinctly summarized the findings: “65% of respondents agreed with the statement that governments are failing young people, 64% agreed that they are lying about the impact of actions taken, and 60% agreed they were dismissing people’s distress. Only 36% agreed that governments are acting according to science.”

Pause for a moment to consider the meaning of these data: most young people in the world believe that their governments are deceiving them about the most critical issue of our time, an unprecedented crisis that threatens the very future of human civilization. Don’t be surprised if a lot of these youth show up in Glasgow to express their frustration and anger about this situation. In fact, let’s hope they do. It may be the only way to finally get politicians and policymakers to pay attention and take the steps necessary to head off runaway climate chaos.

A Bit of Good News: The Media & Climate Change

This summer has been full of disaster. James Taylor had no idea what was coming when he first sang the words “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain” back in 1970. The wildfires in the West, especially in California and Oregon, have been unprecedented, fueled by a drought that has gripped the region for several years. The floods in July in Germany and Belgium as well as China, where rivers overflowing their banks is not at all uncommon, have been record breaking.

And let’s not forget that it rained in mid-August on the summit of the Greenland ice cap, two miles up, for the first time ever. The event was so unexpected that scientists at the research station there didn’t have a gauge to measure the precipitation, which has always come frozen before.

Louisiana National Guardsmen rescue people in LaPlace, Louisiana, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. Photo by Louisiana National Guard licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The one element missing from Taylor’s classic song was wind. The catastrophic arrival of Hurricane Ida on the coast of Louisiana on August 29 – the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – marked the first time the state had category 4 landfalls in back-to-back hurricane seasons. Intensifying with horrifying rapidity, Ida thrashed southwest Louisiana with 150 mph winds as it crashed ashore. It tied last year’s Hurricane Laura and the Last Island Hurricane of 1856 as the state’s most powerful storm ever.

Ready for some good news? Well, admittedly it’s not a very high bar, but it does appear that media coverage of extreme weather events has improved. Increasingly, news reports are connecting these events with climate change more effectively than in past years. In part this is because their numbers, scale, and intensity have outpaced the predictions of climate scientists and caught them off balance. The resulting dramatic tension makes for a more suspenseful and engaging narrative.

The striking progress in the field of attribution science has also contributed to the better coverage, making it possible to show how these are not isolated occurrences but instead are linked to global warming trends. As the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes, “On a case-by-case basis, scientists can now quantify the contribution of human influences to the magnitude and probability of many extreme events.” This ability to pinpoint the extent to which human-induced climate change amplifies the weather disasters we’re experiencing represents a major breakthrough.

Make no mistake, though, there’s an even more fundamental force at work: the media – at least a large part of it – has finally accepted the scientific consensus on climate change as fact. That may be the biggest change of all

study released two weeks ago underscores this shift. It found that 90% of print media coverage now accurately represents what has become indisputable: human activity is driving global warming. The analysis examined thousands of articles from 2005 to 2019 in 17 major newspapers in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

As an excellent article in Grist points out, these findings are a sharp departure from the last comparable study in 2004, which concluded that more than half of the articles it surveyed “treated dissenting opinions as equally valid.” In this earlier investigation, researchers looking at articles from 1988 to 2002 discovered that only 35% of them accurately reflected the scientific consensus on climate change. So, at long last, there’s been a significant retreat from the “both sides” approach.

The print media, of course, is just one of the places people find information about climate change, and it’s far from the most popular source. Clearly, television (especially Fox News) and social media – where the majority of people get their news – still have a long way to go.

Even in these arenas, however, the tone has changed. As Max Boykoff, director of the Environmental Studies program at the University of Colorado Boulder and co-author of both studies, observes, “The terrain of climate debates has largely shifted in recent years away from mere denial of human contributions to climate change to a more subtle and ongoing undermining of support for specific policies meant to substantially address climate change.”

In short, the climate disasters will keep coming, bigger and badder than ever, but at least we’ll be getting the facts straight a lot more than previously about how we’ve helped make them happen.

Buckling Roads Ahead

A historic heat wave has the Pacific Northwest caught in its grip. One of the few places that many believed would largely escape the worst of climate change has seen temperatures reach triple digits this past weekend. Portland, Oregon, hit 112 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday, breaking the all-time high of 108 degrees Fahrenheit, which had been set just the day before. Seattle, for the first time since records started being kept in 1897, experienced two consecutive triple-digit days. Despite the Northwest’s reputation for moderate weather, it’s so hot that roads are buckling, even the interstate highways.

One of the roads in Washington State buckling in the recent historic heat wave. Twitter: @wspd7pio.

Other areas of the West face even worse conditions. “The Southwest is getting hammered by climate change harder than almost any other part of the country, apart from perhaps coastal cities,” points out Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan. “And as bad as it might seem today, this is about as good as it’s going to get if we don’t get global warming under control.”

According to a hair-raising report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a draft of which was obtained recently by Agence France-Presse (AFP), the outlook is unrelievedly grim if we don’t change direction immediately. Pulling no punches, the report bluntly declares that “the worst is yet to come.”

Entire societies and ecosystems will begin to come apart under the stress. “Species extinction, more widespread disease, unlivable heat, ecosystem collapse, cities menaced by rising seas – these and other devastating climate impacts are accelerating and bound to become painfully obvious before a child born today turns 30,” according to the AFP account.

The 4000-page IPCC draft report, not scheduled for release until February 2022, constitutes the most comprehensive assessment so far of how climate change is disrupting our world. As have numerous other studies, the IPCC analysis makes clear that those least responsible for climate destabilization are suffering disproportionately. In particular, indigenous communities struggle to preserve their cultural practices, traditions, and livelihoods in the face of rapid global warming that they did little to set off.

Perhaps the most urgent point made in the IPCC report is that current levels of adaptation are not nearly sufficient to meet the moment. Even under an optimistic scenario of two degrees Celsius of warming by mid-century, the projections are startling. Billions of people will endure coastal destruction, drought, famine, wildfire, and extreme poverty.

The IPCC emphasizes that the foreboding picture it paints doesn’t relieve us of the obligation to do everything we can to keep the situation from completely unraveling. It notes that there are still significant steps we can take to mitigate the worst consequences of climate change. But, as the AFP dispatch puts it, “simply swapping a gas guzzler for a Tesla or planting billions of trees to offset business-as-usual isn’t going to cut it.”

“We need transformational change operating on processes and behaviours at all levels: individual, communities, business, institutions and governments,” insists the IPCC report. “We must redefine our way of life and consumption.”

The question, of course, is whether we can pull off this kind of sweeping makeover. What will it take to convince people and their governments that this is the only viable way forward? The answer remains to be seen but, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the question hangs over us, warning of a dire end if we fail to pay attention.

Pointing to past major climate shocks, the IPCC report observes that they upended the environment and wiped out the vast majority of species. “Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems,” it cautions. “Humans cannot.”

P.S. It hit 116 Degrees Fahrenheit in Portland, OR yesterday. Three days, three records in a row. Oh, and it was another triple-digit day in Seattle. So that’s the first time that we know of that Seattle had three triple-digit days in a row.

A Tale of Competing Tipping Points

We occupy a peculiar moment in history. On the one hand, the climate teeters on the edge of catastrophic destabilization. It’s become clear that we’re not on track to stay under 1.5 degrees Celsius, the point at which scientists consider runaway climate change to become highly likely, and even 2 degrees might be slipping out of our reach.

Other worrisome trends abound. There is increasing evidence that the West Antarctic ice sheets are heading towards irreversible melting. The Gulf Stream is slowing down noticeably, in part due to the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, a development that will have a profound impact on the weather systems and sea levels on both sides of the Atlantic. As a result of hotter and drier weather and deforestation in the Amazon, one of the planet’s most important carbon sinks is disappearing as the rain forest transitions into a savannah.

President Biden kicks off the Virtual Leaders Summit on Climate on April 22, 2021. White House photo by Adam Schultz/Public Domain.

These are only three of the seven climate tipping points that scientists have identified as posing the greatest threats. They constitute key elements of an earth system in which reinforcing loops, known as positive feedbacks, could send the world into an entirely different state. Seemingly small planetary changes, we’re beginning to grasp, can rapidly snowball into very big ones.

These climate tipping points have occurred before. There is compelling evidence of such abrupt shifts in the paleoclimate record. For example, sudden warming episodes during the last glacial period caused temperature changes of several degrees Celsius over short time spans in large parts of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Faced with the gravity of the current climate situation, it’s difficult not to be overcome by a growing sense of despair and even resignation. All around us signs of a dangerous, unfamiliar world are emerging: megadroughts, wildfires, rising sea levels, extreme weather events unprecedented in their scale and frequency. As Alex Steffens observes, “To look at this moment clearly is to see that the planetary crisis isn’t an issue, it’s an era.” It’s no longer a question, in other words, of saving the earth for our grandchildren; the alarming, alien world set in motion by global warming has already showed up on our doorstep.

The question is, what are we going to do about it? Both climate denialism and climate doomism are morally unacceptable options. There is another pathway. Juxtaposed against the array of runaway climate tipping points is what Gabbi Mocatta and Rebecca Harris call “a tipping point for climate action.” It’s the extraordinary tension between the tipping points for climate destabilization and collective action that makes the present moment so fraught. The probability of catastrophe versus the possibility of hope: which will win out in the end? Will the tipping point for broad-based climate action take place before the climate tipping points? The stakes have never been higher.

The case for hope rests, oddly enough, on the fact that we know more about the science of climate change than ever before. As Mocatta and Harris put it, “Although much of [this science] is devastating, it’s also resoundingly clear.” The incontrovertible nature of the climate data means that policy makers have a stronger obligation than ever before to act on its findings. The reentry of the U.S. into the Paris Agreement and the announcement at the recent White House virtual summit that the nation is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 50%-52% below its 2005 emissions levels by 2030 are just two indications that policy makers understand the need to respond to the latest research.

At the same time, public support for action has grown dramatically. The largest global opinion survey on climate change ever conducted, The People’s Climate Vote, found that even in the midst of the 2020 pandemic 64% of people considered climate change to be “a global emergency.” Of the people who viewed climate change in this light, 59% said that “the world should do everything necessary and urgently in response.”

The sense of peril reflected in this survey is perhaps the best news of all. It suggests that we may be ready to abandon the “business as usual” approach and move beyond the gradualism that has characterized much of climate policy action up to now. It raises the possibility that we can finally engage in the debate that truly matters: how do we transform our way of life for the benefit of all to meet the existential challenge before us? “Urgency and agency,” as Michael Mann reminds us, “make a winning combination in our fight against climate change.”