The case for climate change realism

It’s getting harder and harder to communicate the two essential realities of human-caused climate change: that our failure to slow and eventually stop it is contributing to devastating human suffering all over the world, and that it’s not too late to act.

The big picture: Experts have long told climate communicators —including scientists, journalists and politicians — that disaster porn immobilizes people, leaving them cowering in a corner. You’ve got to give them a sense of hope, the research shows.

Yes, but: Climate news right now continues to be a steady, terrible drumbeat of doom.

Why it matters: Climate change is not an existential cliff that we’ll suddenly fall off of, with no turning back. It’s more like a hill we’re sliding down at ever-increasing speed.

  • We can choose to alter course at any time by hitting the brakes and slashing emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, emanating from the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.
  • But the longer we wait, the faster we’ll be traveling, and the more effort it will take to slow down and achieve the cuts that are needed. And we’ve already waited a long time to start pumping the brakes.

Between the lines: Optimism has its place in climate change discourse.

  • Many of the technologies needed to dramatically reduce emissions, such as renewable energy resources like wind and solar power, are seeing increasingly wide adoption. In most cases now in the U.S., they even have a cost advantage over fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas.
  • Electric vehicles are gaining traction, and money is flowing into next-generation technologies like carbon removal mechanisms.
  • A social movement is pushing for climate action in the U.S. and abroad. And corporations are seeking ways to reduce their emissions in response to pressure from customers and regulators.

But the fact is that we’re still on course for at least 3°C (5.4°F) of warming compared to the preindustrial era, based on the latest emissions reduction pledges. And if climate models that project even more warming for the same amount of emissions are correct, it could be closer to 4°C (7.2°F).

  • Almost unimaginable consequences would stem from that level of warming, particularly in the developing world.
  • The planet has only warmed by about 1.2°C (2.16°F) since the preindustrial era, and even that has left us with a summer straight out of «The Day After Tomorrow.»

My thought bubble: Being a climate reporter today is like being a chronicler of human-caused disasters, along with a bearer of grim policy news as leaders fail to stem the tide of ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

  • My job is to inform, not to inspire, and that means being blunt about the fact that climate change is ravaging the Earth right now.
  • But I also know that too much doom risks leaving people with a sense of fatalism, obscuring the equally true and equally relevant fact that the damage does not have to keep getting worse at this pace. Choices made today will determine what the planet will be like in just a few decades.

What’s next: The doom, for now, is going to keep coming.

  • The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is set to release a new compendium on Aug. 9 — a policy-neutral, authoritative report that’s expected to highlight how difficult it will be to adhere to the Paris climate agreement’s temperature targets, while also depicting in more granular details the consequences of failing to do so.
  • The report is expected to detail the differences between a world that warms by only 1.5°C — an increasingly unrealistic target — versus a world that warms by 2°C or more.
  • Expect alarming headlines to accompany that report, and a renewed push for action.

-Rising gasoline prices signal trouble for climate change action

Cutting oil production before we cut our demand for oil could undermine much of the progress that needs to be made on climate change.

Why it matters: If companies cut back on producing oil but consumers don’t cut back on consuming it, demand will exceed supply and prices will shoot up. That’s bad for our pocketbooks and risks the transition to cleaner energy.

Driving the news: This appears to be the track we’re on. Lurking in the shadows of the pandemic-induced roller coaster of oil prices we’re on now is a deeper, systemic shift within the oil industry and its investors.

  • Buoyed largely by politics and growing activism, Wall Street is demanding that oil companies invest less in new oil discoveries and more in cleaner energy (and pay off debts).
  • In response to that pressure and the collapse in oil prices starting in 2014, overall industry investments in new oil and gas resources have collapsed in recent years, according to Bob McNally, president of consulting firm Rapidan Energy Group.

Yes, but: Despite ambitious goals to reduce heat-trapping emissions, most countries have actually not passed laws that significantly reduce oil demand by targeting consumers through taxes or mandates.

  • Instead, most countries are pursuing less politically toxic options, like regulations that indirectly (and slowly and unevenly) reduce oil consumption.
  • “If we curb supply but not demand, oil prices will spike well into the hundred-dollar range,” said McNally. “Gasoline prices would follow. Such an oil price spike would harm the economy, the political careers of elected officials, and the energy transition.”
  • He projects that such a scenario is likely to start unfolding within the next five years.

By the numbers: The average price of a gallon of U.S. gasoline is $3.17 as of July 30, according to AAA. That’s the highest in seven years, though prices are fluctuating as the pandemic stamps down oil demand again with the Delta variant.

Where it stands: The International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental group launched in 1974 to ensure global oil security, issued one of its most impactful reports in May. It declared that no new oil and gas discoveries would be needed in a future that reaches net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

What they’re saying: “Needing no more oil and gas is only true if previous actions by governments happen and demand follows that trajectory,” Laura Cozzi, the IEA’s chief energy modeler and lead author of the report, told me. “The sequencing is important.”

  • In its report, the IEA identified 400 milestones that need to occur to achieve the net-zero goal, and 95% of those should be driven by policy changes affecting demand, not supply, said IEA executive director Fatih Birol, per Reuters.
  • This includes imposing carbon pricing and phasing out fossil-fuel subsidies, both which have direct impact on consumers’ demand for those fuels.

How it works: Public sentiment generally skews toward concern about energy affordability during periods of economic recessions and instabilities. A recent Gallup survey shows that playing out in the wake of the pandemic.

  • That sentiment creates headwinds for any type of policy that could be even perceived as raising the cost of energy — a key reason President Biden and other administration officials insist they’re not going to support a gasoline tax increase or any other tax on energy.

“If there is increased oil demand and if we don’t have technological innovation and policy driving a transition to clean energy, you will get higher prices for oil and gas, and that will create all kind of dynamics, including political ones.”

— Richard Newell, former administrator of the U.S. Energy Information Administration under Barack Obama and current president of think tank Resources for the Future

The other side: Environmentalists have helped propel a social movement around climate change by fighting projects producing and moving fossil fuels around (remember the Keystone XL pipeline?). In other words, they have focused on supply, not demand of those fuels.

  • Tzeporah Berman, international program director at group, says some countries are now beginning to impose demand-side policies, like pledges to ban internal combustion engines cars within the next 15 years.
  • But she is cognizant of the risks our world faces if demand reduction doesn’t follow soon after.

The bottom line: “Without political leadership and courage, a lot of this could be at risk,” said Berman. “The challenge for policymakers is to move quickly putting in infrastructure for electrification and efficiency.”

Editor’s note: Amy Harder is vice president of publishing at Breakthrough Energy, a network of investment vehicles, philanthropic programs, policy advocacy, and other activities committed to scaling the technologies needed to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. She is launching a new journalism initiative there. Previously full time at Axios, Amy is now writing her Harder Line column as an outside contributor.


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