In the past month, there have been several news items that should be seen as further signs of a crisis. Most of our officials, candidates, business leaders, and the public in general are still ignoring these signs.
Warning Signs of Climate Change
The first was the report from the UN IPCC that we can expect to see major impacts from climate change by 2040 if greenhouse gas emissions continue at current levels. The second was a new study by the Princeton oceanographer Laure Resplandy, showing that between 1991 and 2016, the world’s oceans warmed an average of 60% more than the estimates that the IPCC used in its models, meaning the IPCC’s estimates might be conservative. Meanwhile an iceberg five times the size of Manhattan broke free from Antartica’s Pine Island Glacier and Venice is largely underwater.
On top of all this comes the news that most of the Amazon rain forest, which plays a huge role in capturing CO2 in the atmosphere, will be under the stewardship of Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist who has threatened to open the rainforest to new development and said that the indigenous people who live there should “either adapt or simply vanish”. If Jair lives up to his rhetoric, the deforestation of the Amazon could accelerate and its critical carbon absorbing capacity will shrink.
The Good News
To be fair, there is good news on the renewable energy front, as global additions of wind and solar energy capacity reached 150 gigawatts in 2017. This accounts for well over half of all newly installed electricity capacity. Solar prices have dropped by 85% in the past seven years, and onshore wind is now the cheapest source of new electricity available in the U.S. California has passed legislation calling for 100% zero-carbon electricity by 2045. China is aiming to get 35% of its electricity from renewables by 2030.
All of this is good, but unfortunately is still much too little, much too late. The International Energy Agency estimates that renewables will account for just 12.4% of global energy supply in 2023, far short of where we need to be. We’re on a ship that’s sinking fast and we’re bailing water with teaspoons. With all our progress, in a few years we’ll be up to tablespoons.
Why Should We Care?
The point is this: all of the technical and economic forces are moving in the right direction. With renewables now the cheapest form of new electricity and battery storage costs coming down as well. Meaning we can store energy when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
If all we had to worry about was everyday environmental problems like smog, sulfur dioxide, particulates, mercury poisoning, coal ash, nuclear waste, and extinction of more and more species, we could wait for technology and the market to do their work and tough it out in the meantime. But we don’t have that luxury.
By the time we’ve replaced enough fossil fuels in the energy supply, or developed the means to capture and sequester enough carbon, the environment will be devastated, with major economic, health and social consequences. In fact, we don’t even know how serious it will be.
In a best-case scenario, we’re facing drastic change, while the worst-case scenario looks more likely and more frightening every day.