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The Cautious Case for Climate Optimism
Believing in a comfortable future for our planet probably means some giant carbon-sucking machines.
Adapted from The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells, to be published on February 19 by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by David Wallace-Wells.
WN: The article highlighted below is eminently worth the read. It brings to mind The Ingenuity Gap: Can We Solve the Problems of the Future?“ by Thomas Homer-Dixon. A highly prescient (2001) eminent read as well.
Since I first began writing about climate a few years ago, I’ve been asked often whether I see any reason for optimism. The thing is, I am optimistic. But optimism is always a matter of perspective, and mine is this: No one wants to believe disaster is coming, but those who look, do. At about two degrees Celsius of warming, just one degree north of where we are today, some of the planet’s ice sheets are expected to begin their collapse, eventually bringing, over centuries, perhaps as much as 50 feet of sea-level rise. In the meantime, major cities in the equatorial band of the planet will become unlivable.
There will be, it has been estimated, 32 times as many extreme heat waves in India, and even in the northern latitudes, heat waves will kill thousands each summer. Given only conventional methods of decarbonization (replacing dirty-energy sources like coal and oil with clean ones like wind and solar), this is probably our best-case scenario. It is also what is called — so often nowadays the phrase numbs the lips — “catastrophic warming.” A representative from the Marshall Islands spoke for many of the world’s island nations when he used another word to describe the meaning of two degrees: genocide.
It is unlikely, I think, that we reach four degrees this century. But this is what it would take to stay under two: a comprehensively decarbonized economy, a perfectly renewable energy system, a reimagined system of agriculture, perhaps even a planet without meat-eaters. We also need overhauls of the world’s transportation systems and infrastructure. Every year the average American emits enough carbon to melt 10,000 tons of ice in the Antarctic ice sheets — enough to add 10,000 cubic meters of water to the ocean. Every minute, we each add five gallons.
If the task of reversing all that seems incomprehensibly big, it is. The scale of the technological transformation required dwarfs every technological revolution ever engineered in human history, including electricity and telecommunications and even the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago. By definition, it dwarfs them, because it contains all of them — every single sector needs to be rebuilt from the foundation, since every single one breathes on carbon like it’s a ventilator. In October, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world has only a dozen years to halve its carbon emissions to safely avoid two degrees of warming and all those “catastrophic” impacts.
A carbon tax is hypothetical for Americans, which may be one reason they tend to be optimistic about it. But there are already, today, many places with existing carbon pricing — South Korea, Japan, the E.U. None of their emissions are declining fast enough to meet a goal of two degrees, according to the carbon-watchdog site Climate Action Tracker. It is conceivable, even probable, that at much higher levels of taxation, the impact would be clearer. But as Jay Inslee, the governor of bright-green Washington State, which tried and failed to enact such a tax in 2018, recently put it, “To actually get carbon savings, you have to jack up the price so high that it becomes politically untenable.”
The longer we wait, the steeper the declines will have to be. If the world as a whole had begun decarbonization in the year 2000, when Al Gore collected half a million more votes in the presidential election than George W. Bush, emissions would have had to fall by 3 percent per year to achieve climate stability at two degrees; if we begin now, we will have to cut them by 10 percent each year; if we wait another decade, the cuts will be enormous, 30 percent per year, to even hope for warming levels below “genocide.” Last year, Nordhaus’s own nephew Ted wrote in Foreign Affairs that the dream of keeping the world under two degrees of warming, under any approach, was simply naïve.
The carbon tax is the solution favored by business. On the left, another possible approach has emerged: massive public investment and public works, both directed toward replacing dirty energy sources with clean ones and producing, along the way, an entirely renewable economy. In other words, the Green New Deal.
The term may seem like a response to our very present tense of climate panic, but it has bounced around for a while. It was used by Van Jones, Obama’s green-jobs adviser, in 2008 and formed the centerpiece of Jill Stein’s 2012 and 2016 campaigns, not that too many people took note. This year, under that same banner, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has rallied an astonishing level of political and policy energy around it — Cory Booker and Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren have already endorsed the plan, and many of their fellow aspiring nominees will surely follow. Their endorsements were for only a set of goals, as the proposal was still being hammered into legislation when they attached their support. The initial concept offered only one extremely ambitious goal — decarbonizing the American economy entirely by 2030 — and a number of other commitments that have excited many on the left whose political priorities may not be so climate-focused. That is: to use the economic stimulus of green-energy investment “to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth, and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation.”
These proposals are worthy, invigorating, and — believe it or not — popular. I’m all for them. Unfortunately, they are also, on their own, not enough. As a strategy of avoiding that same threshold of two degrees of warming, the investments of a Green New Deal are what logicians call “necessary but insufficient.”
The Paris climate accords, signed nearly a decade after the Great Recession, seemed to mark the end of the long era of technocratic, neoliberal globalism. And yet, as a multilateral treaty negotiated on the principle of positive-sum cooperation, it reflects those values in almost every way. Distressingly, it also reflects the failures of those values. Just two years in, no major industrial nation in the world but India is on track to keep warming below two degrees.
In some places, government action is being lapped by market forces. In America, for instance, coal production is projected to fall faster than was predicted if Obama’s Clean Power Plan were enacted (which it wasn’t). Over the past 25 years, the cost per unit of renewable energy has fallen so far that you can hardly measure today’s price using the same scales (since just 2009, for instance, solar-energy costs have fallen more than 80 percent). But over that same 25 years, the proportion of global energy use derived from renewables has not grown at all, which means that, billions of dollars and thousands of dramatic breakthroughs later, the planet is in some ways no further in its “green-energy revolution” than it was when hippies were affixing solar panels to their geodesic domes. In fact, less far along, because the market has not responded to these developments by retiring dirty-energy sources and replacing them with clean ones. It has responded by simply adding the new capacity to the same system. To the market, this is growth; to human civilization, it is suicide. In 2003, Kan Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution found that the world would need to add clean-power sources equivalent to the full capacity of a nuclear plant every single day between 2000 and 2050 to avoid catastrophic climate change. In 2018, James Temple of MIT’s Technology Review surveyed our progress; he found that the world was on track to complete the necessary energy revolution in 400 years.
But if, today, you want to believe in climate hope — want to believe the planet can stay below two degrees of warming — it means believing in something more fanciful than decarbonization and clean energy. No matter how quickly we take action, and no matter how aggressively, the goal of a stable climate is functionally out of reach by any conventional method. We can implement the most aggressive climate policy yet conceived, doubling or even tripling the most ambitious decarbonization proposals being put forward today by the world’s greenest leaders, and we will still need some “magic.” Probably a whole lot of it.
The most promising variety of this magic is “negative emissions”: taking carbon out of the atmosphere. Once a last-ditch, if-all-else-fails strategy, negative emissions has recently been built into nearly all climate-action goals. This is a chilling fact, which almost nobody outside the climate world appreciates: Just about every plausible scenario for avoiding catastrophic change is built on these technologies, which we are only now beginning to test. Of 400 IPCC emissions models that land us below two degrees Celsius, 344 feature negative emissions, most of them significantly. The ones that don’t rely on negative emissions all require such sharp and immediate emissions drops it is hard to believe they could be produced by any policy on the table today. On your chalkboard, you can draw whatever carbon-emissions curve you’d like, but keeping the world safely under two degrees by conventional decarbonization alone probably means policies like an immediate ban on all new internal-combustion engines and much of the world’s heavy industry being suddenly shuttered or redirected by fiat.
In 1950, walking to lunch at Los Alamos, the Italian-born physicist Enrico Fermi, one of the architects of the atomic bomb, found himself caught up in a conversation about UFOs with three other scientists — so caught up he drifted off in thought, jumping back in, long after everyone else had moved on, to ask, “Where is everybody?” The story passed into scientific legend, the interjection now known as Fermi’s paradox: If the universe is so big, then why haven’t we encountered any other intelligent life in it? The answer may be as simple as climate. Nowhere else in the known universe is a single planet as suited as this one to produce life of the kind we know. Global warming makes that suitability seem much more precarious.
The astrophysicist Adam Frank calls this kind of thinking “the astrobiology of the Anthropocene” in his book Light of the Stars, which considers climate change, the future of the planet, and our stewardship of it from the perspective of the universe — “thinking like a planet,” he calls it. “We are not alone. We are not the first,” Frank writes in the book’s opening pages. “This — meaning everything you see around you in our project of civilization — has quite likely happened thousands, millions, or even trillions of times before.”
That is a lot of despair to hang on “trillions” — in fact a lot to hang on some very speculative math. Fatalism has a strong pull in a time of ecological crisis, but even so it is a curious quirk of our present predicament that the transformation of the planet by anthropogenic climate change — that is, climate change caused by humans — has produced a vogue for Fermi’s paradox and so little for its philosophical counterpoint, the anthropic principle. That principle takes the human anomaly not as a puzzle to explain away but as the centerpiece of a grandly narcissistic view of the cosmos: However unlikely it may seem that intelligent civilization arose in an infinity of lifeless gas, and however lonely we appear to be in the universe, in fact something like the world we live on is a sort of logical inevitability, given that we are asking these questions, because only a universe compatible with our kind of conscious life would produce anything capable of contemplating it like this.
This is a Möbius strip of logic, a gimmicky tautology rather than a claim based strictly on observed data. And yet, I think, it is helpful — by which I mean hopeful — in thinking about climate change and the existential challenge of solving it in the decades ahead. There is one civilization we know of, and it is still around and kicking — for now, at least. Why should we be suspicious of our exceptionality or choose to understand it only by assuming an imminent demise? Why not choose to feel empowered by it?
Of course, a sense of cosmic specialness is no guarantee of good stewardship. And “thinking like a planet” is so alien to the perspectives of modern life — so far from thinking like a neoliberal subject in a ruthless competitive system — that the term sounds at first lifted from kindergarten. But reasoning from first principles is reasonable when it comes to climate; in fact, it is necessary, as we do not have very long to engineer a solution. This goes beyond “thinking like a planet,” because the planet will survive, however terribly we poison it; it is thinking like a people, one people, whose fate is shared by all.
How will we navigate that system — or understand our place within it? Even before the age of climate change, the literature of conservation furnished many metaphors to choose from. James Lovelock gave us the Gaia hypothesis, which conjured an image of the world as a single, evolving, quasi-biological entity. Buckminster Fuller popularized “spaceship Earth,” which presented the planet as a kind of desperate life raft in what Archibald MacLeish called “the enormous, empty night”; today the phrase suggests a vivid picture of a world spinning through the solar system barnacled with enough carbon-capture plants to actually stall out warming, or even reverse it, restoring as if by magic the breathability of the air between the machines. The Voyager space probe gave us the Pale Blue Dot — the inescapable smallness, and fragility, of the entire experiment we’re engaged in, together, whether we like it or not. Personally, I think climate change itself offers the most invigorating picture, in that even its cruelty flatters our sense of power and, in so doing, calls the world, as one, to action. At least, I hope it does. But that is another meaning of climate change’s kaleidoscope, which makes it so we can be mesmerized by the threat directly in front of us without ever seeing it clearly. You can choose your metaphor. You can’t choose the planet, which is the only one any of us will ever call home.
*This article appears in the February 4, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!