Magical Hope vs Actual Hope
Left or right, physics doesn't much care about your wishful thinking
I spent the weekend in Reno, Nevada with, among other people, my old friend Rebecca Solnit. We were there to rally voters and knock on doors in one of the nastiest elections in the country—and at such times Solnit’s powerful reflections on hope are a balm and a spur. Ever since her landmark 2004 book Hope in the Dark, she’s been a kind of spokeswoman for the proposition that we can make progress on our struggles—especially the climate fight—if we mobilize together, build our strength, and break the power of the fossil fuel industry. Climate change, she once wrote, is very real, indeed coming
faster, harder and more devastating than scientists anticipated. Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the 21st century has brought, including the movements, heroes and shifts in consciousness that address these things now. This has been a truly remarkable decade for movement-building, social change and deep shifts in ideas, perspective and frameworks for large parts of the population
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I thought of this when reading two important recent accounts from pundits about how we should be thinking about climate change. One comes from the progressive Ruy Teixeira, longtime pundit and analyst at liberal bulwarks like the Center for Amnerican Progress and the Brookings Institution. He’s long argued that demographics favor the emergence of a progressive majority, and that leftists should be more “optimistic” about the future. In this case, staring down the barrel of a mid-term election that could go badly for Democrats, he assigns much of the responsibility to a climate policy and rhteoric that he thinks has strayed too far in the direction of renewable energy, influenced by an “unhinged” Greta Thunberg and an overenthusiastic Sunrise Movement with its call for a Green New Deal.
What started as a reasonable attempt to deal with a genuine problem, in the spirit of reformist environmentalism, has been hijacked by a millenarian, quasi-religious commitment to rapidly zeroing out fossil fuels and creating a renewables-based economy. This hasn’t worked and will not work; it will subvert the Democrats as a electoral and governing force for as long as this dogma persists.
In the interest of winning elections, and with them other important Democratic goals, he advocates a return to an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy.
Meanwhile, from the other end of the spectrum, conservative pundit Bret Stephens published an essay in the Times explaining that he now was willing to concede that global warming was real. (It took a trip to Greenland to convince him; it’s true that the sight of that ice-shelf disintegrating is jaw-dropping, but it’s unclear why he didn’t believe the scientists who had carefully described it for years). Even after the scales fell from his eyes, however, he continues, like Teixeira, to doubt the usefulness of a rapid attempt to convert the planet to clean energy. If liberals believe governments solve problems (with Democratic majorities), conservatives believe markets solve problems; surely, if we go slowly we will be rich enough in 80 years that we will be able to “innovate” our way way past an eight-foot rise in sea level.
In the long run, we are likelier to make progress when we adopt partial solutions that work with the grain of human nature, not big ones that work against it. Sometimes those solutions will be legislative — at least when they nudge, rather than force, the private sector to move in the right direction. But more often they will come from the bottom up, in the form of innovations and practices tested in markets, adopted by consumers and continually refined by use.
These assessments sound reasonable—everyone likes slow change. (Lay aside that we could have had slow change if Big Oil hadn’t waged a thirty year campaign of climate disinformation.) But in fact they’re not reasonable, not if you know much about the actual science of climate change. They’re examples of magical thinking, of wishing that you could have the outcome (a working planet) without the necessary work.
To make their cases, both men need to posit that climate change isn’t precisely an emergency. Teixeira: “One can believe climate change is happening but that it’s not yet a crisis nor is it likely to become one anytime soon.” Stephens is actually less dismissive of the threat—Greenland seems to have shaken him—but still wants to move slowly: “Just as cancer treatments, when they work at all, can have terrible side effects, much the same can be said of climate treatments: The gap between an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment remains dismayingly wide.”
In fact, Greta is far closer to the truth on the threat (as the new book she has edited on the climate crisis, with 100 colleagues (myself included), makes clear). It’s sadly apparent by now that scientists have underestimated, not overestimated, the impact of warming: the rapid melt of the Arctic has destabilized both the jet stream and the Gulf Stream, and the planet’s hydrological cycle is fundamentally out of kilter, leading to both dramatic drought and flood. The epic heatwaves of the last two years (especially the heatdomes that formed over the Pacific Northwest last summer and China this year) have terrified researchers: old temperature records fell by eight or ten degrees Fahrenheit, which should be statistically impossible. Allowing the temperature to rise two degrees Celsius once seemed manageable to scientists; now, as more data pours in about the effects of the one-degree rise we’ve seen so far, that number seems impossibly grim. And of course at the moment we’re threatening to go well beyond two degrees, especially if we follow the prescriptions of these pundits.
Stephens and Teixeira also share the belief that the biggest help in reducing emissions comes from switching from coal to fossil gas, not moving to renewables. (Stephens calls it “the biggest driver in reducing emissions,” and Teixeira salutes the “fracking revolution” for its leading role). This is a popular position, and sadly also wrong: moving to natural gas did cut carbon emissions, but it did not substantially cut greenhouse gas emissions, because fracking for gas turns out to release large quantities of methane, the other potent warming gas, whose atmospheric concentration is rising faster than co2. The U.S. has thus run in place thanks to the “all of the above” policies that Teixeira endorses; if you read eight years worth of Obama’s State of the Union addresses, you can see this reality slowly dawning on the administration. Reducing carbon is a political talking point; reducing the total load of greenhouse gases is what the atmosphere demand.
And the two also believe that we’re unable to make quick progress with renewables because progress has come slowly in the past, and because “intermittency”—the fact that the sun goes down or the wind drops—limits their usefulness. These viewpoints derive from outdated data and analsysis; in truth, we’re now at the point in the technology cost curve when plummeting price is finally leading to fast deployment of renewable energy, and increasingly with the use of ever-cheaper batteries to manage the fluctuations. Big grids with renewable mixes as high as 70 percent are doing just fine; it’s fossil fuel that’s showing itself to be an unreliable energy source across western Europe in the wake of Putin’s invasion.
There’s no question that the transition to renewable energy will be hard: it requires replacing a lot of stuff. But you’d think Stephens would be busy celebrating the ways that his beloved markets can move nimbly to accomplish big things, or that Teixeira would be pointing to the massive jobs gains that will come as we move towards more labor-intensive renewable energy. Instead, they both find themselves clinging to their particular worldviews, and in the process forced to discount reality. Neither mentions the most fascinating new evidence to emerge in the past year, a giant Oxford study of learning curves that found renewable energy on a relentlesly declining cost path. If we quickly moved to renewable energy, it found, we would save tens of trillions of dollars, simply because we wouldn’t have to pay the fuel costs we do today. If you have a solar panel, the sun delivers your power for free when it rises above the horizon—which, interestingly, is a big reason that solar panels are (almost uniquely) popular across the political spectrum.
One sympathizes with both these men, who have made their mark in the world with strong allegiance to particular ideas. When the world changes—and the rapid rise in temperature is the greatest change in world history—it undercuts lots of settled assumptions. Stephens and Teixeira can either try to make their pessimism a self-fulfilling prophecy, or they can try to move us quickly in the directions physics is encouraging us to go.
Real hope lies not with clinging to one’s priors; it lies, as Solnit insists, with people joining together to make change, despite the insistence of our betters that change is impossible. It’s always been so.
More climate and energy news:
+A crucial new report from the Sierra Club finds that the big U.S. banks are not living up to their climate pledges—they continue to lavishly fund fossil fuel expansion, even as their counterparts in Europe begin to cut back.
The net-zero commitments from Wall Street giants was indeed a significant step, but in the almost two years since each of the US majors committed to net-zero, their progress remains limited. While some banks have set targets and committed to new policies which are more aligned with the types of changes that will be necessary to reach their goals, as a whole, all six US majors fall significantly short. Over the coming months and years, these banks will need to significantly increase the ambition of their targets in order to give us a real chance to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C.
Meanwhile, the big U.S. banks seem to have succeeded in eroding the power of the finance alliance formed at Glasgow—they threatened to withdraw unless GFANZ removed the teeth from its plans, and as the Wall Street Journal reports “the group’s organizers, other members and environmentalists are frustrated that the U.N. coalition appears to be another voluntary climate group with little muscle to force the aggressive changes needed to slow global warming.”
+Under legal pressure from Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison, Enbridge Corporation has admitted that it breached an aquifer during construction of its Line 3 tarsands pipeline. The maximum fine available for such vandalism? $1,000.
+The Pennsylvania legislature, long a creature of the fossil fuel industry, is set to give frackers a couple of billion dollars in tax credits.
+In the final stretch before midterm elections, Joe Biden has finally started talking about a windfall profits tax on Big Oil—it coincides with the announcement that Exxon’s windfall profits for the last quarter were $20 billion. “It’s time for these companies to stop war profiteering, meet their responsibilities in this country and give the American people a break and still do very well.”
+International financing for climate relief has been slow to materialize and is not reaching those who need it most, a new UN report finds.
“The truth of the matter is that we are scrambling to try to understand where the climate money is that was promised a decade ago. Where is it? Who’s holding it and who is not delivering it to places like [drought-ravaged] Somalia?” said Martin Griffiths, the UN’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator. “Somalis are the victims of our behaviour, the victims of our habits – not of theirs. And yet we haven’t even managed to get to them the money that we pledged nobly some time ago for exactly this kind of purpose.”
+A new study finds that the proposed East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline will emit “monstrous” amounts of carbon.
The project will result in 379m tonnes of climate-heating pollution, according to an expert assessment, more than 25 times the combined annual emissions of Uganda and Tanzania, the host nations.
Of course, those countries have low emissions—but they’re also suffering dramatically from the rapid rise in temperatures. As esteemed local activist Prince Papa said
“In Uganda, having been at the center of the campaign against the proposed East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), I have seen forced displacement of communities, police brutality on peaceful environmental activists, delegitimization of otherwise legitimate environmental institutions, abduction of human rights activists and journalists, among other ills. The proposed EACOP must not be allowed to proceed. Total Energies must be stopped!”
+100 of the UK’s 153 universities have now divested from fossil fuel! And in this country Ohio’s Oberlin College has joined them! Meanwhile, Ilana Cohen celebrates the fact that Princeton went beyond divestment to stop taking fossil fuel money for research:
This represents the first pledge among higher education institutions to restrict fossil fuel industry money for climate research—the first formal recognition that partnering with the companies driving climate breakdown to identify climate solutions is, in fact, an obvious conflict of interest. And coming amid a wave of Fossil Free Research activism, it reflects the growing power of student and academic campaigners seeking to free our institutions from undue and dangerous industry influence.
+Kate Aronoff discovers that the fracked gas industry is now comparing its opponents to…Hitler.
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