Good News, Bad News on Climate

The New York Times has a long article about the climate crisis that can be summed up thusly: It’s going to be very bad for a lot of people but doesn’t look like the end of the world.

Here’s a link to the whole article: “Beyond Catastrophe: A New Climate Is Coming Into View” by David Foster-Wallace. Some excerpts:

With the world already 1.2 degrees hotter, scientists believe that warming this century will most likely fall between two or three degrees…. A little lower is possible, with much more concerted action; a little higher, too, with slower action and bad climate luck….Thanks to astonishing declines in the price of renewables, a truly global political mobilization, a clearer picture of the energy future and serious policy focus from world leaders, we have cut expected warming almost in half in just five years….

First, worst-case temperature scenarios that recently seemed plausible now look much less so, which is inarguably good news and, in a time of climate panic and despair, a truly underappreciated sign of genuine and world-shaping progress.

Second, and just as important, the likeliest futures still lie beyond thresholds long thought disastrous, marking a failure of global efforts to limit warming to โ€œsafeโ€ levels. Through decades of only minimal action, we have squandered that opportunity. Perhaps even more concerning, the more we are learning about even relatively moderate levels of warming, the harsher and harder to navigate they seem. In a news release…, the United Nations predicted that a world more than two degrees warmer would lead to โ€œendless suffering.โ€

Third, humanity retains an enormous amount of control โ€” over just how hot it will get and how much we will do to protect one another through those assaults and disruptions. Acknowledging that truly apocalyptic warming now looks considerably less likely than it did just a few years ago pulls the future out of the realm of myth and returns it to the plane of history: contested, combative, combining suffering and flourishing โ€” though not in equal measure for every group….

โ€œThe good news is we have implemented policies that are significantly bringing down the projected global average temperature change,โ€ says the Canadian atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe,…The bad news, she says, is that we have been โ€œsystematically underestimating the rate and magnitude of extremes.โ€ Even if temperature rise is limited to two degrees, she says, โ€œthe extremes might be what you would have projected for four to five.โ€

โ€œThings are coming through faster and more severely,โ€ agrees the British economist Nicholas Stern… In green technology, he says, โ€œwe hold the growth story of the 21st century in our hands.โ€ But he worries about the future of the Amazon, the melting of carbon-rich permafrost in the northern latitudes and the instability of the ice sheets โ€” each a tipping point that โ€œcould start running away from us.โ€ โ€œEach time you get an I.P.C.C. report, itโ€™s still worse than you thought, even though you thought it was very bad,โ€ he says. โ€œThe human race doesnโ€™t, as it were, collapse at two degrees, but you probably will see a lot of death, a lot of movement of people, a lot of conflict over space and water.

…. What will the world look like at two degrees? There will be extreme weather even more intense and much more frequent. Disruption and upheaval, at some scale, at nearly every level, from the microbial to the geopolitical. Suffering and injustice for hundreds of millions of people, because the benefits of industrial activity have accumulated in parts of the world that will also be spared the worst of its consequences. Innovation, too, including down paths hard to imagine today, and some new prosperity, if less than would have been expected in the absence of warming. Normalization of larger and more costly disasters, and perhaps an exhaustion of empathy in the face of devastation in the global south….โ€

So we shouldn’t worry about the Earth turning into another Venus, a planetary greenhouse with surface temperatures of 800 degrees. That’s the good news.


For more on the bad news, there’s a companion article by the same author: “The New World: Envisioning Life After Climate Change”.

The moral of this story: We’ll still be around for a long time but we have plenty of work to do to make things not so bad.

And a note for the reactionaries who love oil and coal:

Since 2010, the cost of solar power and lithium-battery technology has fallen by more than 85 percent, the cost of wind power by more than 55 percent. The International Energy Agencyย recently predicted that solar powerย would become โ€œthe cheapest source of electricity in history,โ€ andย a report by Carbon Trackerย found that 90 percent of the global population lives in places where new renewable power would be cheaper than new dirty power.ย