THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY TODAY
By David Beaulieu
How do things stand right now with the climate emergency? In a way, it can be put into four short statements:
• 2023 was a horrific year for the planet, and a frightening sign for the future.
• Enormous, “staggering” progress has been made in the development and expansion of renewable energy.
• However, plans to expand fossil fuel production threaten to negate much of the benefit of that expansion.
• Expectations for COP28, which began Nov. 30, are extremely low, but “doomism” must be avoided.
2023 set a new mark for awful climate news. It will go down as the hottest year on record, as extraordinary, protracted heatwaves struck southern Europe, China, and the US Southwest. Three days in July were the Earth’s hottest in 120,000 years. Enormous fires raged in Canada for months, and Hurricane Otis, growing from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane in a matter of hours, devastated a large part of Acapulco.
Scientists are “shocked” by the developments. In October, a distinguished group of twelve researchers warned, “We are afraid of the uncharted territory that we have now entered…The truth is that we are shocked by the ferocity of the extreme weather events in 2023.” They fear further extreme weather events could come sooner than expected, along with dreaded climate tipping points, and that we are “pushing our planetary systems into dangerous instability.” (The report is an update of a similar 2019 bulletin, which has now been signed by 15,000 scientists in 163 countries.)
Meanwhile, in the run-up to COP28, which opened Nov. 30 in Dubai, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and the UN Climate Chief Simon Stiell issued dire warnings. As we verge on 1.5C (2.7F), and with present trends pointing to a “hellish” rise of close to 3C, Guterres lamented that “This is a failure of leadership, a betrayal of the vulnerable, and a massive missed opportunity. Renewables have never been cheaper or more accessible. We know it is still possible to make the 1.5 degree limit a reality. It requires tearing out the poisoned root of the climate crisis: fossil fuels.”
And he’s right! Renewables have plunged in price over the last dozen years, and are now the cheapest form of energy. This has led to a “staggering” growth in renewable energy production and investment in the past two years, most dramatically in China. The trillion-dollar Inflation Reduction Act, signed last year by President Biden, is the most significant action ever taken by the US government on climate and energy, and it has already prompted an additional three trillion dollars in private investment. In addition, it has spurred much greater investment in renewables in India, Japan, and Europe. Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, said in September, “Despite the scale of the challenges, I feel more optimistic than I felt two years ago…Solar photovoltaic installations and electric vehicle sales are perfectly in line with what we said they should be, to be on track to reach net zero by 2050, and thus stay within 1.5C. Clean energy investments in the last two years have seen a staggering 40% increase.”
The problem is that plans to expand fossil fuel production and delivery are also proceeding and at an alarming rate, threatening to wipe out much of the gain from renewables. We need to reduce world emissions 43% by 2030, if we’re going to get to net zero in 2050 and keep the temperature rise to 1.5C. As things stand, in 2030 we’ll have instead an increase of over 10%. In spite of that, the US, Canada, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others are planning to drill for more oil and gas in 2030 than they do today! While the industry is expected to reach peak emissions sometime this decade, such an expansion of production would allow it to then plateau for several years, and that would be disastrous for the planet. Continued production is the result of greed, politcal corruption, and complacency, and Guterres has righly called the fossil fuel industry “the polluted heart of the climate crisis.” Al Gore has accused the industry of taking us for fools.
As I write, the COP28 conference has begun in Dubai, chaired by Sultan Al-Jeber, the oil chief executive for the UAE, the country with the third biggest oil and gas expansion plans in the world. Many environmentalists have thrown up their hands in disgust, and his recent statement that there is no science that says fossil fuels must be phased out in order to stay below 1.5C seems to confirm their worst fears. But hopeful we must remain. We’re not doomed. Even if the infrastructure expansion plans go forward, the sites and terminals can be abandoned. They don’t necessarily lead to actual production. If renewables continue to attract massive investment, and futher innovation and scale drops their price even further, they could overwhelm oil and natural gas production, and, in fact, some analysts are predicting just that.
The climate picture is complex, and there's still time to turn things around. Fears that “it’s too late” have to be resisted. As eminent climate scientist Michael Mann has written, “There’s so much anxiety, fear and despair, and grief even. Some of it comes from the mistaken notion that it’s physically too late, and I want to dispel that notion.” He goes on to call for political action, especially a huge voting turnout in 2024. Meanwhile, there are countless activists and NGO’s around the world working to halt emissions, including a big campaign here in the US to stop LNG terminal plans for the Gulf region. Thousands of them are at Dubai right now, struggling to be heard.
This is no moment for defeatism. The world’s future hangs in the balance.
How long can America’s climate hypocrisy last? New York Times
Clean energy’s big momentum New York Times
What if we actually succeed? New York Times