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 “safe” 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 “endless suffering.”

Third, humanity retains an enormous amount of control — 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 — though not in equal measure for every group….

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

“Things are coming through faster and more severely,” agrees the British economist Nicholas Stern… In green technology, he says, “we hold the growth story of the 21st century in our hands.” 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 — each a tipping point that “could start running away from us.” “Each time you get an I.P.C.C. report, it’s still worse than you thought, even though you thought it was very bad,” he says. “The human race doesn’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….”

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.

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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 Agency recently predicted that solar power would become “the cheapest source of electricity in history,” and a report by Carbon Tracker found that 90 percent of the global population lives in places where new renewable power would be cheaper than new dirty power. 

American Politics Today: A Case Study

One America News Network (OAN, not OANN) is where you go for “news” when you think Fox has become way too liberal. Somebody posted this screenshot today:

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Yes, we all remember how the former president “went and fought every weather crisis”, like that time after Hurricane Maria when he personally launched paper towels — or was it toilet paper? — to a roomful of Puerto Ricans and then decided to delay millions of dollars in financial aid.

So why is that cowardly weakling Joe Biden “hiding in his basement”? Biden may have immediately declared a state of emergency in Texas and authorized the federal government to send generators and other supplies, and and he may have spoken to Gov. Abbott yesterday:

President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. spoke this evening with Texas Governor Greg Abbott about the severe winter weather situation facing central and southern parts of the United States, including Texas. [He] conveyed his support to the people of Texas [and] reiterated that the federal government will continue to work hand-in-hand with state and local authorities in Texas to bring relief and address the critical needs of the families affected. He also shared his intentions to instruct additional federal agencies to look into any immediate steps that could be taken to support Texans at this time. The President also expressed that his administration was at the ready should the State of Texas or any other impacted region need additional federal disaster support or assistance as severe storms move across the US.

But what has Biden done for Texas lately? Damn liberals.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman of The New York Times tells what occurred after the disaster struck:

For a while, the politics surrounding the power outages that have spread across Texas looked fairly normal. True, the state’s leaders pursued reckless policies that set the stage for catastrophe, then tried to evade responsibility. But while their behavior was reprehensible, it was reprehensible in ways we’ve seen many times over the years.

However, that changed around a day after the severity of the disaster became apparent. Republican politicians and right-wing media, not content with run-of-the-mill blame-shifting, coalesced around a malicious falsehood instead — the claim that wind and solar power caused the collapse of the Texas power grid, and that radical environmentalists are somehow responsible for the fact that millions of people were freezing in the dark, even though conservative Republicans have run the state for a generation.

This wasn’t normal political malfeasance. It’s the energy-policy equivalent of claiming that the Jan. 6 insurrection was a false-flag Antifa operation — raw denial of reality, not just to escape accountability, but to demonize one’s opponents. . . . 

Like many states, Texas has a partly deregulated electricity market, but deregulation has gone further there than elsewhere. In particular, unlike other states, Texas chose not to provide power companies with incentives to install reserve capacity to deal with possible emergencies. This made power cheaper in normal times, but left the system vulnerable when things went wrong.

Texas authorities also ignored warnings about the risks associated with extreme cold. After a 2011 cold snap left millions of Texans in the dark, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission urged the state to winterize its power plants with insulation, heat pipes and other measures. But Texas, which has deliberately cut its power grid off from the rest of the country precisely to exempt itself from federal regulation, only partially implemented the recommendations.

And the deep freeze came.

While Texas’s Republican governor was blaming wind power, other state officials admitted that power plants and pipelines that deliver natural gas were the main source of the problem. (Besides which, wind turbines operate in places like Norway and Greenland all winter without breaking down.)

The Washington Post describes what actually happened this week:

Wind accounts for just 10 percent of the power in Texas generated during the winter. And the loss of power to the grid caused by shutdowns of thermal power plants, primarily those relying on natural gas, dwarfed the dent caused by frozen wind turbines, by a factor of five or six.

As the cold hit, demand for electricity soared past the mark that ERCOT [the Electric Reliability Council of Texas] had figured would be the maximum needed. But at a moment when the world is awash in surplus natural gas, much of it from Texas wells, the state’s power-generating operators were unable to turn that gas into electricity to meet that demand.

In the single-digit temperatures, pipelines froze up because there was some moisture in the gas. Pumps slowed. Diesel engines to power the pumps refused to start. One power plant after another went offline. Even a reactor at one of the state’s two nuclear plants went dark, hobbled by frozen equipment.

Krugman (who knows the answer) asks, therefore, “Why, then, the all-out effort to falsely place the blame on wind power?”

The incentives are obvious. Attacking wind power is a way for both elected officials and free-market ideologues to dodge responsibility for botched deregulation; it’s a way to please fossil fuel interests, which give the vast bulk of their political contributions to Republicans; and since progressives tend to favor renewable energy, it’s a way to own the libs. And it all dovetails with climate change denial.

But why do they think they can get away with such an obvious lie? The answer, surely, is that those peddling the lie know that they’re operating in a post-truth political landscape. When two-thirds of Republicans believe that Antifa was involved in the assault on the Capitol, selling the base a bogus narrative about the Texas electricity disaster is practically child’s play.

Greg Sargent of the Post concludes:

No doubt many Republicans expressing outrage at the failures producing this disaster — and calling for accountability and reform — are sincere in their intentions, though we’ll see how long those demands persist.

But it’s painfully obvious that in an important larger sense, many aspects of their reaction to the Texas calamity do indeed demonstrate the future they want.

It’s a future in which the default response to large public problems will be to increasingly retreat from real policy debates into an alternate information universe, while doubling down on scorched-earth distraction politics and counter-majoritarian tactics to insulate themselves from accountability. . . .

The thing is that Abbott knows renewable energy isn’t to blame. Elsewhere, he has admitted that natural gas and coal failures played a key role. Yet the lure of retreating into the Fox News universe — and spewing nonsense he knows will resonate there — is irresistible.

When a politician’s fundamental purposes in public life are to pursue power and maintain the economic and cultural status quo, it’s easy to lie with a clear conscience. As Gen. Sherman once said:

The lust for Power in political minds is the strongest passion of Life, and impels Ambitious Men to deeds of infamy.