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Hope For the Best, Prepare for the West

March 15, 2024
Est. Reading: 4 minutes

Reflections by a long-time climate activist

LNG terminal Canvey Island UK.
LNG terminal Canvey Island UK; photo credit Alnitak3

Signs of accelerating climate change are all around us, some dramatic like the largest wildfire in Texas history and warnings massive glaciers are rapidly melting, others noteworthy but inoffensive, like seeing local cherry blossoms bloom more than a week earlier than usual. I struggle to make sense of it. As someone who has worked to raise awareness and address the climate challenge for decades, I am often asked by friends whether I incline toward hope or despair. There is certainly some justification for both.

On the one hand, signs of failure are increasingly evident. Global CO2 emissions increased over 1 percent in 2023 despite accelerating installation of renewable energy systems. Despite clear evidence their business model is not sustainable, many oil companies continue investing in production of new resources and backing off past climate commitments. . Many corporations and financial institutions have stepped back from greenhouse gas reduction commitments made through initiatives like the Climate Action 100+, responding to an ongoing anti-ESG campaign and legislation in Texas and other red states.

While fewer politicians continue asserting climate change is a hoax, others claiming to be “centrists” question investments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as too costly while ignoring the much greater damages from extreme weather events. There are also many examples of “good news, bad news,” e.g., the evolving energy situation in China, which includes both accelerating increase in use of renewable energy but also construction of new coal plants.

In 2023 the earth already exceeded the Paris aim to limit warming to 1.5C, many locations much more. (As scientists measure global average temperature over 30 years to allow for variability, the Paris aim was technically not exceeded.) Methane emissions, the greatest contributor to near term warming, continue increasing — partly due to wetland decomposition and other natural sources, in turn a response to warming. While reducing domestic GHG emissions, the U.S. continues increasing exports of fossil fuels including energy intensive LNG. Banks, too, have seemingly proven unable to resist lending for fossil fuel projects with short-term profits but long-term risks.

On the other hand, the election of President Biden and appointment of John Kerry as climate ambassador (now replaced by John Podesta) enabled US leadership that was a key missing ingredient under Donald Trump. (Trump’s reelection would be a climate disaster, despite the advanced state of many state climate programs.) Financing for climate solutions, including some still early stage and high risk, has increased dramatically.

The steady decline in the cost of power from solar and wind power has made clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels in most of the world. Global capacity additions of wind and solar PV reached a record in 2023, up 75% on the level of 2022. Global sales of electric cars climbed to around 14 million, an increase of 35% on the level of 2022. The IEA has projected that electricity production from renewables will exceed that from coal in 2025. While it now seems almost inevitable that warming will exceed the 1.5C target, every tenth of a degree matters and it is still possible to limit warming below the 2C goal in the Paris Agreement.

The emergence of youth activists organizing climate campaigns has many parallels to the 1970 Earth Day in the passion, energy, and grass roots diversity of events and the action that followed. The parallels have been noted by Denis Hayes and other environmental leaders from the 1970s. Ongoing climate litigation on behalf of young climate activists is one tangible sign of their energy and commitment.

The problem is that we are running out of time. The window for effective action to combat climate change is rapidly closing. Recent trends imply that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will exceed limits implied by the Paris goals within a few years. While essential, reducing fossil fuel use is not likely to slow warming for at least a decade due to the offsetting effect of reductions in emissions of cooling sulfates. The increasing evidence of positive feedbacks and tipping points also points to the reality that catastrophe could come sooner and with greater consequences than thought even a few years ago.

I find hope in several facts. First, the extraordinary commitment to climate action demonstrated by President Biden (despite record oil and gas production during his administration). The enactment of the Inflation Reduction Act and other legislation supporting climate action in 2022 was easily the most significant step yet taken by the U.S. government to address climate change resulting in hundreds of billions of new investments in clean energy (ironically much of it in red states). Russia’s invasion of Ukraine increased short-term fossil fuel production but also resulted in further investment in renewable energy. Solar and wind power are now producing more power than coal in the U.S.

Second, economic trends are increasingly aligned with climate change goals. In addition to the declining cost of solar and wind energy, a wide range of climate friendly technologies (e.g., battery storage) have improved faster than virtually anyone predicted. Even some of the riskiest technologies like direct air capture, “green” hydrogen, and new methods for producing geothermal energy are attracting significant interest from investors.

Third, financial regulators are increasingly promoting climate awareness and, in some cases, adopting mandatory requirements for climate risk assessment and disclosure.

Fourth, the COP27 agreement to create a loss and damage fund, although yet to be defined and implemented, could encourage developing nations to engage more actively in promoting climate solutions.

Whether all of these positive trends will deliver action fast enough to prevent disaster remains to be seen. Politics and economics will have much to say about humanity’s future. Ultimately, however, nature will have the last word.

Alan Miller is a former climate change officer in the International Finance Corporation (2003–13) and climate change team leader, Global Environment Facility (1997–2003). Besides other engagements, Alan is an active editor for Climate Conscious submissions on Medium.

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