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.

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.”