The big climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, begins Sunday with everything on the line and few expecting much. Because last-minute developments are possible on the ground, I’ll keep this column at 30,000 feet.
Formally called COP26, it’s the 26th meeting of countries — a conference of parties (COP) — seeking to stabilize greenhouse emissions and their danger to the climate. The first was held in 1992 and received the signatures of 154 nations.
I’m ashamed to say I didn’t pay much attention back then, drenched in 1990s triumphalism with the end of the Cold War. It took Elizabeth Kolbert’s seminal reporting for The New Yorker magazine in the early 2000s to make me a believer.
It’s enough to make one despair that no matter what comes out of Glasgow, we will hurtle past the goal of preventing dangerous warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), compared with preindustrial times.
Worst outcomes are increasingly possible, a new report from the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a nonpartisan think tank whose funders range from the Ford Foundation to the Charles Koch Foundation, warns:
“This is the risk — which cannot be quantified but which also must not be ignored — that climate change will escape from human control altogether (because of) a set of ‘positive feedback loops’ or self-reinforcing processes.”
We’re already seeing the dangers of this in the threat of losing the Greenland ice sheet and melting permafrost in Siberia releasing methane (a much more powerful warming gas than CO2).
In this scenario, 3 degrees Celsius of global warming would spin to 4 and 5 degrees. “By any such point, the earth would have returned to its state of 55 million years ago when the entire planet had a tropical climate and sea levels were more than 120 meters higher than at present,” says the Quincy report.
Sudden warming 250 million years ago wiped out almost all ocean life.
To be sure, pressure is growing from activists, the Pentagon, even corporations. Seattle’s stunning new Climate Pledge Arena is named after Amazon’s challenge to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2040, a decade ahead of the Paris goal. A total of 202 companies have signed on.
Green energy such as wind and solar power is becoming ever cheaper, even competitive with fossil fuels. The cost of solar modules has fallen by nearly 100% since 1976. Solar is now the cheapest power source in most places.
Electricity generation caused 27% of U.S. carbon emissions in 2018, the most recent year for which complete data is available. Decarbonization here is only lacking political will and investment.
Transportation, which contributes 28% of emissions presents a more difficult challenge. Jet airplanes are big emitters and the pressure to address the problem is growing.
My colleague Dominic Gates wrote: “For the flying public, all outcomes in the years ahead point to an increase in the cost of flying. Yet that distant net-zero emissions target is so radical, and the proposed technology solutions so uncertain, that aviation risks falling far short.”
Still, constructive alternatives exist. High-speed rail in urbanized corridors (including Portland-Seattle-Vancouver, B.C.) or between populous city pairs (Phoenix and Los Angeles, Dallas and Houston) is much more climate friendly and still competitive in scheduling. In Europe, it has already substantially reduced or eliminated shorter airline flights, leaving planes to handle longer routes. The United States has many potential routes for high-speed trains. Again, all that’s needed is political will and investment, as well as reducing the cost of American infrastructure building — by emergency measures if necessary.
Economists have yet to catch up. The costs of doing nothing don’t get as much attention as the price of short-term change (coal jobs in Sen. Joe Manchin’s West Virginia!). The field of climate economics has evolved slowly and is focused on carbon pricing and taxes. Yet where it has advanced, it consistently shows that green energy, technology and changes such as adopting high-speed rail create more jobs than sticking with burning fossil fuels.
Finance professor and commentator Noah Smith points out in his Substack column that the big impediment to addressing climate change is the fossil-fuel industry. It’s evident in its disinformation campaigns and the millions of workers who stand to face short-term but very real losses.
Even so, research by economists Dean Baker and Aiden Lee shows that curtailing fossil fuels “could cause an annual job loss that is less than the number of workers that employers typically fire or lay off in a single day, even in states with a large fossil fuel industry.”
Smith writes, “Overcoming the last-ditch resistance of a declining sunset industry is a much less daunting task than overcoming the resistance of an industry in its prime. The fossil fuel industry is standing between the American people and a future of cheap, abundant energy — as soon as we make the country realize that fact, the resistance will crumble.”
Meanwhile, climate change is the far greater threat to U.S. national security than China, Russia or Iran. Enhancing cooperation, especially with China, is essential for addressing global warming.
Will any of this be addressed in Glasgow? Stay tuned. Time is running out.