2050 and 2035: Failure and Hope for the Climate Crisis
The climate crisis arrived at our doorsteps with unexpected rapidity and vigor. Events foretold for 50 years from now are unfolding long before their predicted time. This early arrival is because climate change has tapped into unexpected amplification and feedback processes, which have accelerated global temperature rise and moved anticipated future events into the present. Australia and California have both burned far beyond historical levels during the past two years, and hurricanes increase in intensity each decade, literally wiping out coastal towns and driving communities inland. But despite the bad news, there is hope.
The Paris Agreement
The year 2015 was a seminal but mostly symbolic moment when the Paris Agreement allowed 197 countries to produce a framework for combating climate change. To date, 189 of those countries have ratified the agreement. However, the Climate Action Tracker shows that only a few of the most significant polluters are on track to meet their obligations in limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Currently, the pledged actions from participant countries appear conducive to limiting the change to 3 degrees Celsius. But even this goal of 3 degrees is questionable because pledges are often aspirational and not necessarily indicators of legislated or mandated changes.
The core of the Paris Agreement is a long-term goal to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to zero by the end of the century, with peak emissions occurring in 2020. Meeting this goal limits the rise of global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The stretch goal of limiting the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius requires that emissions reduce to zero by 2050. The year 2020 is here and rapidly passing, and we are not on track to meet either of these goals. Despite the good intentions behind the Paris Agreement, actual implementation has lagged. Reality provides a stark assessment of the situation, and current analyses indicate we will fail to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.
We face significant challenges as a global community because climate change is a long-term game, and short-term priorities push environmental considerations to the background. Approximately 3.4 billion people, or half the world’s population, live in poverty, struggling daily to provide food and shelter. When daily survival takes all your energy, there is none left to devote to climate change. It’s not a problem affecting only individuals since governments must also devote significant resources to fighting poverty and feeding their people. Expenditures fighting a long-term problem often lose out to short-term needs.
Efforts to mitigate climate change also clash with human nature. The U.S. joined and then withdrew from the Paris Agreement, driven by a President who sees the world as a zero-sum game — if someone is winning, someone else must be losing. But ultimately, climate change is not a zero-sum game. We have only one planet. If we lose it, then we all lose. If we effectively manage climate change, we all win.
However, despite the Paris Agreement’s apparent failure to meet its goals, there are sparks of hope igniting on the horizon. While the federal government in the U.S dithers, many State Governments are pressing forward with achievable goals for addressing climate change. Fifteen states plus Washington D.C and Puerto Rico have commitments to obtain at least 50 percent of their electricity from clean sources. Fourteen of the commitments are for 100 percent clean energy, and these commitments alter between legislated targets and goals set via executive decree.
These State commitments are important because without them, the investment required to move to clean energy power plants becomes too risky. A significant portion of the clean energy needed by States in fulfilling their goals comes from wind power, and in particular offshore wind-generated power. Analysts predict the offshore wind market will be a $70 billion industry by 2030. Procuring the significant financial resources needed for these projects requires long-term assurances that a market for this electricity will be available.
There is a clear pathway towards clean energy and significant reductions in carbon emissions. Collectively, States are bypassing an ineffective administration where the common response to climate change issues is, “I’m not a scientist.” This familiar refrain from Republicans, ranging from Senators and Representatives to Supreme Court nominees and the President, is a thinly veiled way of saying, “I’m not going to address climate change issues.” However, when it comes to abortion and pro-life stances, we don’t hear anyone saying, “I can’t address this because I’m not a doctor.”
There is still some hope that engagement at a Federal level is achievable. The Biden campaign has outlined an ambitious plan for the USA to move to carbon-free electricity by 2035. Such a move is not without challenges, but economists point to the potential for robust job creation and the fact that clean electricity already competes price-wise with fossil-fuel-generated power in many regions.
Responses to climate change provide a clear example of the differences in philosophy between the two main U.S political parties:
Republicans: It’s too hard — we can’t do it — we won’t infringe on the rights of business to pollute.
Democrats: It’s hard but worth the effort — we can do it — business does not have a right to destroy our children’s future.
Despite its admirable goals, the Paris Agreement will probably fail to meet the goal of reducing fossil fuel emissions to zero by 2050. But this does not mean solving the climate crisis is hopeless. The Paris Agreement relies on top-down solutions, but what we see emerging in many regions is more of a bottom-up approach. States and localities are adopting damage mitigation policies — legislative and regulatory changes, which can bring about meaningful change in ways that improve our economy and benefit our environment.
The dates of 2050 and 2035 bring us a potent mixture of failure and hope. I believe hope factors more firmly into our future than failure. How we vote will ultimately make the difference between failure and success.