The 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference got underway in Glasgow this week, and it already looks like a slow-motion train wreck. The leaders of three of the biggest polluting nations – Russia, Brazil, and China – aren’t there. The national pledges that have already been made to cut emissions won’t be met – and even if they were, they aren’t enough to avoid catastrophic warming. Rich nations of the world are woefully behind in their commitment to pay $100 billion a year into the Green Climate Fund to help poor nations adapt to climate impacts and transition to clean energy. The conference runs through Nov. 12 and new deals and commitments will emerge. But right now, given the scale of the crisis we face, signs of urgency, ambition, and leadership are hard to find.
As Rob Larter, a scientist with the British Antarctic Survey, put it in a tweet: “I think that in the main what’s going on is a lot of politicians from many countries are trying to work out how they can come out of it looking good without really committing themselves to doing much.”
But the climate fight is a big and complex war that’s being carried out on many fronts. Even for experienced climate warriors, it’s hard to keep the whole picture in your head at once. The apathy and self-dealing in Glasgow are obvious. What’s less obvious are signs of real progress.
Here are ten reasons for optimism:
- The worst-case scenarios for climate warming have so far been averted. It’s often argued that the nearly 30 years of climate talks since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 have led to nothing. But that’s not true. A decade ago, we were heading for a world 4°C (or more) warmer by 2100, which would have been catastrophic for life as we know it. But now, with the policies that are already in place, we’re heading for just under 3°C, perhaps a little lower. With the official pledges updated last month — if successfully translated into effective policies — we would limit warming to around 2.5°C. And since then, another 25 countries have updated their pledges. 2.5 C of warming is still horrific, but it’s far less horrific than 4 C.
- The price of clean energy is falling fast. A decade ago, the virtue of coal was that it was cheap and plentiful. No more. Utility-scale solar power declined in cost by 90 percent between 2009 and 2021. The cost of onshore wind power declined by 70 percent over the same period. Even in Big Coal states like Ohio, electricity from solar power will overtake coal by the end of the decade.
- The Age of Accountability for Big Oil has begun. Last week, the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform grilled Big Oil CEOs for knowingly spreading lies about the risks of climate change. Republicans on the committee, led by James Comer of Kentucky, trotted out 30 year-old myths about energy independence and how fossil fuels are the elixir of working families. But Democrats were merciless. Kati Porter of California used M&Ms and bags of rice to make a point about how much land the oil companies have tied up in land leases. New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was typically sharp about the dangers of life in a rapidly warming world: “Some of us have to actually live the future that you all are setting on fire for us.” The CEOs squirmed, fidgeted, and blustered. Maybe it was all theater. Or maybe it was a foreshadowing of climate accountability to come.
- President Biden’s climate agenda is big, smart, and serious. It’s been downsized and cut up. It’s been ransacked and shanghaied by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. But Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which includes $500 billion for climate funding, would still be the biggest investment in clean energy and climate adaptation the U.S. has ever made. It includes investments for virtually every aspect of the economy, from clean energy transmission and storage to tax credits for electric vehicles and the production of low-carbon steel. Can Biden get it through congress? That remains to be seen, especially after the drubbing Democrats took in this week’s elections. The good news is that the U.S. is pressing forward on other fronts, including new rules to limit methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. Thanks in part to a big push from the U.S., more than 100 nations signed a Global Methane Pledge in Glasgow, vowing to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030.
- Scientists are getting their game on. Michael Mann, Katherine Hayhoe, Gavin Schmidt, Andrea Dutton and Andrew Dessler are all top climate scientists who have a knack for calling out bullshit when they see it. And they’re calling it out more and more. Mann has been particularly aggressive. “Look no further than Australia, a country that deserves better than the feckless coalition government that currently reigns,” he wrote in The Los Angeles Times last week. As Mann points out, Australia’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 26% to 28% by 2030 is half what other industrialized nations such as the U.S. and the European Union have committed to. Mann also roasted Saudi Arabia and Russia for making a mockery of the Glasgow negotiations by agreeing to “a laughably delinquent” date of 2060 for reaching net zero emissions.
- The fossil fuel divestment movement is snowballing. As activist and writer Bill McKibben noted in The New York Times last week, $40 trillion in endowments and portfolios has vowed to abstain from investing in coal and gas and oil. “That’s bigger than the GDP of China and the U.S. combined,” McKibben wrote. There is still a lot of money sloshing around out there for fossil fuel development, but slowing the flow from the spigot sends a powerful signal. Here’s one sign of how well divestment campaigns are working: the West Virginia Coal Association called divestment “the dumbest movement in history.”
- Increased focus on the link between the climate crisis and public health. A rapidly warming world, researchers wrote in The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal, is exposing humans to searing heat and extreme weather events; increasing the transmission of infectious diseases; exacerbating food, water and financial insecurity; endangering sustainable development; and worsening global inequality. “Health is the vector for climate action,” Johan Rockstrom, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said in Glasgow. “It is what people care about, and what motivates them to take action.”
- The war on coal is getting serious. China has vowed to stop funding new coal plants abroad. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg just launched a new crusade to shut down coal plants in 25 countries. Bloomberg has already waged war against coal in the US, helping to shut down 280 plants. Coal’s demise can’t happen fast enough, but it is happening.
- Climate justice takes center stage. What do the rich polluters owe the poor who are suffering the worst climate impacts? This has always been an issue at previous climate talks. In Glasgow, it’s the issue. And climate justice leaders, who see their very existence at stake in these negotiations, are in no mood to play footsie with the leaders of rich nations. As Fiji’s Prime Minister, Voreqe Bainimarama put it: “We Pacific nations have not travelled to the other end of the world to watch our future to be sacrificed at the altar of appeasement of the world’s worst emitters.”
- Writers and artists are finding their voices. “Nothing will be saved without you.” That’s the first line of a poem by Yrsa Daley-Ward, a writer of mixed Nigeria-Jamaican heritage, which she read in the opening ceremony in Glasgow. If there’s a better one-sentence call to action for the climate movement, I haven’t heard it.