Hope and Despair as 2015 Draws to a Close

Things can feel pretty bleak on a gray, rainy afternoon in late December as one considers the impact our greenhouse gas emissions will have on the planet for the generations ahead. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that we are making progress.

Although it certainly has its flaws, including the lack of any legally binding commitments, the climate agreement reached in Paris earlier this month by nearly 200 countries is historic, marking the most significant progress yet made in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

After years of obstructionism, the U.S. actually played a positive role in the Paris talks. In the run up to COP 21, President Obama set the tone for the negotiations by exercising his executive authority to reject the Keystone XL pipeline and announcing the Clean Power Plan, a crucial step to reduce carbon pollution from power plants

At the same time, China is moving forward decisively to reduce emissions from coal and renewable energy has become an economically viable alternative to fossil fuels. Government investigations into Exxon’s cover up of its own climate research have clearly put the oil industry on the defensive and the divestment movement gathers increasing momentum.

Closer to home, as the talks in Paris got underway, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a directive that 50 percent of electricity generated in our state come from renewable technologies by 2030. This mandate sends a strong signal that New York needs to accelerate its transition to renewable energy.

In the last 10 years, New York’s renewable energy has increased from about 19 percent to 25 percent of total electricity use. The state’s renewable portfolio standard, which expires today, helped make this possible. Now the challenge is clear: we need double the share of renewable energy to 50 percent in the next 15 years.

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The Road to and from Paris

All eyes are on the upcoming climate talks in Paris. Set to begin November 30, the UN Climate Change Conference is widely viewed as the last chance for a substantive international agreement to head off runaway climate destabilization. It seems likely that a deal will be struck, but the real question is whether it will be enough to do the trick.

Over the past several months, about 150 countries — including China, the United States, the European Union, and India — have made voluntary pledges to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions after 2020, when the deal is supposed to take effect. Negotiations in Paris will seek to build upon those commitments and create a structure to monitor and strengthen them.

The major problem facing negotiators is that the commitments made so far are not sufficient to hold the world under 2 degrees C of warming. The general scientific consensus is that anything over 2 degrees C runs the risk of triggering dangerous changes that could cause global havoc.

This news comes as a flurry of new reports remind us that the road we are on currently will lead to disaster and that changes already underway will have terrible consequences, especially for the world’s most vulnerable populations, the poor, young, old, and sick, to say nothing of other nonhuman species, many of which are vital to the health of the world’s ecosystems.

A study issued just days ago by the National Academy of Sciences, for example, warned that greenhouse gas emissions will cause a dramatic collapse of the ocean’s marine life unless we reverse course. A massive coral bleaching event that is sweeping across oceans from Hawaii to India to the Caribbean is among several developments underscoring the report’s findings.

Another recently published analysis estimates that, given carbon emissions to date, the world has probably committed to at least 1.6 meters of long-term sea-level rise, more than five feet. This level of locked-in increase will submerge most of the homes in over 400 U.S. towns and cities, including New Orleans and Miami. Among cities tbat will experience similar fates if they do not take drastic action soon are New York City, Philadelphia, and Jacksonville.

Even as scientists point out that we have already experienced a global temperature rise of almost 1 degree C since the Industrial Revolution, many of them maintain that the worst effects of global warming can still be avoided. “The climate change problem is one that can be solved,” insists climate expert Professor Chris Field of Stanford University. “We have the technologies, the resources – we just need to make the commitment.”

The rapid drop in the cost of producing wind and solar energy is certainly among the most hopeful developments. As a result, the International Energy Agency earlier this month projected that by 2020, 26 percent of the world’s energy will be generated by renewable sources. That’s definitely good news.

The talks in Paris will make it clear whether we can avoid pushing the temperature up another 1 degree C. If not, the road from Paris will be much more difficult than anything we have had to deal with on the road to Paris. Let’s hope that our leaders recognize this and act accordingly.

The Pope Speaks Out on Climate Change

Earlier this week Pope Francis convened a major conference in Rome on climate disruption. It is one of several events planned by the Vatican ahead of his much-anticipated encyclical on global warming and the environment. The conference included speeches by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and leaders of the pontifical academies, along with panels on the relevant scientific, moral, and economic issues.

Pope Francis

The Vatican did not pull its punches In the run up to the conference or at the conference itself, signaling its determination to move the conversation to a new level of urgency.

Last month Cardinal Peter Turkson, who helped write the first draft of the encyclical, declared that global inequality and the destruction of the environment “are the greatest threats we face as a human family today.” “A changing of human hearts in which the good of the human person, and not the pursuit of profit, is the key value,” he insisted, would be required to meet these threats.

Striking a similarly resolute tone, the Vatican issued a statement at the close of the conference on Tuesday, emphasizing that “human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity.” Pointing out that the climate summit in Paris later this year “may be the last effective opportunity to negotiate arrangements that keep human-induced warming below 2-degrees C,” it called for a rapid transition “to a world powered by renewable and other low-carbon energy and the sustainable management of ecosystems.”

The Pope’s encyclical on climate change will not be the first time that the Church has addressed this issue. But it is the first time that it will be the subject of an encyclical, which carries great authoritative weight for Roman Catholics.

The Vatican’s sustained engagement with the threat of global warming underscores the fact that science and technology can only take the discussion so far. They can explain the causes and consequences of climate destabilization and pose technical solutions. But it is values, especially a commitment to the generations that come after us, that will provide the motivation to implement the solutions, which are likely to be expensive and politically fraught.

Building a sustainable world, in short, is as much a cultural and ethical project as it is a scientific and engineering endeavor. It is a task that requires imagination, compassion, collaboration, and creativity, a willingness to live our lives differently. In Pope Francis’s words, “We need to care for the earth so that it may continue, as God willed, to be a source of life for the entire human family.”