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Hoping for a Climate Change Breakthrough

After years of disappointments, seven reasons why things are starting to finally starting to look up

Signs of a changing climate? This house in Brooklyn, New York, was one of thousands damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Scientists warn global climate change could mean more extreme weather events in the future.
Image Credit: Proud Novice / Wikimedia Commons

Those concerned about climate change have no choice but hope. I take that a step further: Despite the overwhelming evidence that they’re horrendously wrong, I hope the climate deniers are right.

Better to look like a fool than to suffer what science says is in store for us.

Failing that, let’s return to the eternal hopes that carbon-free lightbulbs will appear over the heads of the Senate Majority and three ghosts per Koch Brother will leave a Dickensian impression overnight.

Better yet, let’s look at what’s been happening lately, because after years of bitter disappointment, things look different now. Sure, U.S. state houses and Congress are a denier-dominated mess, the big Paris conference is already being written off, India’s poised to surpass China as a top scofflaw and the on-the-ground evidence is looking bleak. But after years of cynicism, I see elements of a sea change in urgency and attitude on climate.

Here’s a list:

1. Wind and solar are finally beginning to add up

Oh, renewables, all my life you’ve been such a tease. It’s not just me. The pols, the policy wonks and the Captains of Industry all got roped in too: In 2000, the authoritative State of the World annual from the Worldwatch Institute declared “the transition to a solar/hydrogen economy has already begun.”

In 1973, Richard Nixon said in his State of the Union speech, “Solar energy holds great promise as a potentially limitless source of clean energy. My new budget triples our solar energy research and development effort to a level of $12 million.” And all the way back to 1958, the Chrysler Motors Corp. tantalized us with their vision of the “Sunray Sedan,” complete with solar collectors on its rear fins and ideal to compete with Ford’s reactor-driven “Nucleon,” sketched out a year earlier.

But… this just in: Wind and solar are now roaring down the express track, no matter how many logs get dropped in their path by utilities and the fossil industry. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, they were far and away the fastest growing energy sectors last year, with solar electric generation more than doubling. Renewables still barely move the needle at 1 percent of the national total, but they’re growing, and King Coal continues to slip.

2. Non-usual suspects are taking up the discussion

Read about climate and energy, and it’s either going to be from Al Gore, Bill McKibben, or a thousand wags like me. But last weekend, I noticed prominent climate pitches from three internationally weighty non-tree-hugger stereotypes: Carl Hiaasen, Gail Collins, and George P. Shultz. Hiaasen, the best-selling author and columnist, took Florida Governor Rick Scott to task after three state employees alleged a gag order on using the terms “global warming” or “climate change” in official communications.

Collins, the New York Times columnist and Hiassen’s equal in snark, swiped at Scott and the entire denial industry.

While it’s not the first time that George P. Shultz, Republican elder statesman and Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State, has spoken out on climate, he took a step deep into GOP heresy by saying Ronald Reagan would have ditched denial and done something. Despite Reagan’s mostly dreadful environmental record, Shultz argues that he would have played it safe in the face of overwhelming science.

3. Global carbon emissions flatlined in 2014

Call it a step in the right direction. Carbon emissions need to take a steep drop, not merely break even, to prevent climate catastrophe. But 2014 was the first year in four decades in which carbon emissions didn’t grow, and the global economy did.

One year does not a trend make, but preliminary data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) credits changes in China’s energy consumption, a decline in coal and a jump in renewables.

4. Embarrassments for hardcore deniers are adding up

Two recent blockbusters have taken aim at the scientific integrity of climate denial. Revelations that Willie Soon, one of the go-to scientists for climate denial, provided cooked-to-order science for fossil fuel funders without disclosing the obvious conflict have pulled back the curtain on soiled science.

And this month, the documentary version of “Merchants of Doubt” is making the rounds. Based on the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, “Doubt” traces the lineage of organized climate denial back to tactics deployed by the tobacco industry, among others. One of the most venerable doubtmeisters, Fred Singer, was moved to Pavlovian action, circulating an email to political soulmates in an effort to sell Doubt about Merchants of Doubt.

5. Beyond a few celebrated columnists, other media are now wide awake

Two news organizations with enough gravitational pull to potentially bring others along have finally decided that climate change merits sustained, if not relentless, reporting. Alan Rusbridger, the soon-to-retired editor of The Guardian, looked back at his career and saw underreporting of climate change as a potential stain on his legacy. He’s unleashed an all out, advocacy-ish campaign to focus on what he calls the preeminent issue of our lifetimes.

On this side of the pond, the Washington Post is on a mad tear of first-rate coverage. Pulitzer winner Joby Warrick and prolific science writer Chris Mooney are leading a cast of talented writers in what looks like an effort to own the U.S. climate beat.

6. Divestment is showing a few big wins and beginning to work

The fossil fuel divestment movement got off to a slow start, scoring a few token wins with small universities and municipalities, but that may be changing: Their biggest trophy to date came in last month, when Norway’s $850 billion Government Pension Fund Global announced that it would ditch its oil and coal-heavy portfolio.

In a February filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal company, acknowledged that the divestment movement is a future threat citing “unfavorable lending policies by government-backed lending institutions and development banks toward the financing of new overseas coal-fueled power plants and divestment efforts affecting the investment community, which could significantly affect demand for our products or our securities.”

7. Some U.S. political operatives are getting louder about Republican climate denial being a dead end

Case in point, GOP consultant Alex Lundry, who last year respectfully made a relevant point to Republicans interested in winning elections: “A strong 59 percent of Americans believe that global climate change is real. This includes 51 percent of Republicans who say the effects are already happening, or will happen shortly, or will occur within their lifetime. If Republicans insist on listening to those that believe we won’t see the effects of climate change for decades, we are setting ourselves up for a political and a policy mistake that will damage the party, and more importantly, the country.”

It’s one thing to deny climate change. It’s another thing entirely to deny what “majority” means in an election. So stay tuned.

Peter Dykstra is the weekend editor of Environmental Health News. In 2009, he launched Science Nation, a video news series, for the National Science Foundation. From 2009 to 2011, he was a deputy director at The Pew Charitable Trusts, in charge of web, print, and broadcast communications for the Pew Environment Group. This column originally appeared at Environmental Health News and is republished here with permission.


  1. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #1

    About Carl Hiasson and Gail Collins
    Thanks for your optimistic blog. I sincerely hope that future events justify your optimism.

    One quibble: In item #2, you called Carl Hiaasen and Gail Collins "non-usual suspects" when it comes to people who warn about the danger of climate change; you say that they represent "non-tree-hugger stereotypes."

    Sorry, Peter, but you're wrong. Even a casual reader of Carl Hiaasen's novels knows that he has been a life-long environmentalist who has railed against greedy polluting developers (and the corrupt politicians who protect them) for decades.

    And Gail Collins is a well-known left-of-center columnist who has spent years consistently berating science-denying Republican legislators.

  2. user-349933 | | #2

    What is up with GBA
    GBA use to be a good source for information on building. Now it seems to host a weekly blog that is primarily aimed at divisive commentary. With commentary like this do you really think you are winning people over that may not be as radical. Contractors like me might stop reading the GBA where we can learn new techniques that we can put into practice to build higher quality greener homes. It seems like this divisive commentary will prove to be a lose lose situation. Those interested in seeing greener practices put into place will lose the readership of many of the building community who actually are out there working daily as contractors. The contractors lose because the will no longer be viewing a source good building ideas. Can't you live the divisive blogs to the Huffington Post or politicians and get back to articles on Building and design?

  3. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    Response to Dan Vandermolen
    GBA has not abandoned our primary service of providing technical advice to designers and builders. Our inventory of technical articles is as deep as ever -- in fact, we add to our library every week. Moreover, our Q&A column remains an excellent resource for those with technical questions.

    Two or three times a week, we post guest blogs by a variety of authors. Of course, the authors of these guest blogs are responsible for their opinions. If you aren't interested in reading GBA's opinion pieces and guest blogs, you can always skip them.

    Finally, GBA welcomes guest blogs expressing a variety of opinions. Dan, if you want to submit a relevant opinion piece, send it to me by e-mail: martin [at] greenbuildingadvisor [dot] com. Other GBA readers are also invited to submit guest blogs for consideration.

  4. exeric | | #4

    You're a darn saint

    You're a darn saint with that reply to Mr. Vandermolen. I could feel my blood pressure rising just reading his comment. It just seems incredible to me that there are still people that refuse to believe peer reviewed science on the effects of the release of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere. And then they have arrogance to be on a green web site and accuse everyone of having an agenda. It's no longer a subject for objective debate as to whether the evidence is in for it's detrimental effects. The effects are all around us and can no longer be debated unless one has an anti-science bias.

    So Mr. Vandermolen thinks we who approve of current science are advocating toxic divisive arguments when this subject is occasionally talked about on this blog. Well, I'm sorry. To me it would be the same as a southern racist 50 years ago lamenting the fact that northerners are verbally advocating the end of black lynchings. It would be just so divisive to even bring that stuff up.

    Of course, even though I'm partially of German extraction I will never excuse Nazism and their atrocities with the Holocaust. That's for those who would accuse me of having a selective memory. You can't just say a subject is divisive because one is too backwards to accept the truth. It is what it is.

  5. user-349933 | | #5

    Comment to Eric
    Why do you support blogs that label people with names like deniers? I find name calling divisive. I have the "arrogance to be on a green website.". Sir I have been on this website almost since the day it was started. I pay to be on this website just like I have paid to read Fine Homebuilding for the past 15 years or so. I also have had the arrogance to read books on green building, attend workshops on energy efficient construction and attend the West Coast Green conference. One point I tried to make is that when you have the truth as you feel you do you don't win people over to your side by telling them how stupid they are and calling them names. This seems to be the new normal in the media and it is sad that it is now is on a website that one would think is primarily devoted to building. I don't have any problem with the content of the blog but I do with the tone. Things like "Congress is a denier-dominated mess."
    Why did GBA change so most of free new content is opinionated blogs and you have to pay for the articles related to building? Then to top it off many of the building articles are reprints from Fine Homebuilding that I already paid to read through my subscription? The primary upgrade on the site seems to be the inclusion of more opinion pieces and fewer new building articles. What exactly are the improvements? Both Eric and myself must have an interest in green construction but both of us find our blood pressure rising when the content or replies change to opinions vs the hard science of construction.
    Martin, thanks for the info on submitting an opinion piece. I already have the framework. I will have a picture of a drinking fountain with a sign that says greens only and attempt to discuss how environmentalism is becoming a new class issue. When the 1% goes "green" they get to use public services to jump to the front of the line and tax dollars to subsidize their lifestyle.

  6. Expert Member

    Godwin's Law
    Godwin's Law states that as an online argument grows longer and more heated, it becomes increasingly likely that somebody will bring up Adolf Hitler or the Nazis. When such an event occurs, the person guilty of invoking Godwin's Law has effectively forfieted the argument.

  7. Expert Member

    This Place
    has a humour deficit.

  8. exeric | | #8

    Malcolm,I think Godwin's
    I think Godwin's Law, whatever that is, maybe too easy an argument to write off my opinion. I presume it's mostly used against someone who is accusing someone else of acting like a Nazi. I never did that. What I was inferring , maybe too obliquely, is that climate change deniers really are acting a lot like Holocaust deniers. Why would you give one group more room to operate than the other. There really are truths out there that people like to deny just because they are unpleasant. Basically climate change denial by people in power in this country and in others is the reason it's gotten to the point where there are visible effects now for all to see. Why not call it out? I applaud the author's lack of prissiness on a subject that effects all on the planet.

    Yeah, this is an old tired subject. I had a teacher in 6th grade, back in 1964, who first introduced me us to the idea of manmade climate change due to CO2. This is an old idea. I just think many of us have lost patience with people who 50 years later STILL are having trouble accepting it. And I'll reiterate: it's nothing but arrogance for those people who are still having trouble accepting it to want to coddle those deniers and let them drive the agenda. Especially on a site devoted to green building techniques.

  9. exeric | | #9

    No it doesn't. The original
    No it doesn't. The original article by Mr. Dykstra was hilarious in it's asides about Koch Brothers and all the usual suspects holding things up. Now you are turning that upside down by siding with people who have too tender of feelings about that humor.

  10. Peter Dykstra | | #10

    Thanks for the comments
    Martin, thanks for the comment. When I say that Carl Hiaasen and Gail Collins aren't "usual suspects," I don't mean they're brand new to these issues, but that they write on a wide spectrum of things, not just environment. But I'm glad you acknowledged their work over time.

    Dan, a "denier" is someone in denial. The psychological concept of denial dates from the early 20th Century, and is usually credited to Sigmund and Anna Freud. Climate "deniers" are clearly in denial. This should not cause a leap of faith and a likening of them to deniers of the Holocaust On occasion, both environmental advocates and their harshest critics throw the "Nazi" card at each other. It has no place in any of this. Or in the comments here. How did the Nazis get into my comment string?

    I don't know what to say about #8 and #9, which added together, suggest that I'm not humourous, but I'm humorous.

    Dan, consider my assertion that "Congress is a denier-dominated mess" as a two part notion. Part One: The Senate Majority Leader, the House Speaker, and the Chairs of nearly all the relevant science, energy, and environment committees fit the framework of climate denial. Part Two: Is Congress a mess? Its approval ratings in recent polls, for both parties, is hovering between 10% and 15%.

    Thanks for reading, and please check out our stuff at and

  11. exeric | | #11

    Mr. Dykstra
    Mea culpa,
    In my case the interjection of Holocaust denial, came from my own misplaced guilt just from being half German, though growing up in North America. On the whole though, if one had to err on either side, it's better to err on the side of misplaced guilt rather than misplaced innocence. Very few of us are so well adjusted that we don't carry one of the two. Sorry about that.

  12. lutro | | #12

    Mostly with you, but on one point...
    I'm seeing a logic deficit in your quip, "Better to look like a fool than to suffer what science says is in store for us." There is no logical link between the two stated alternatives. We will "suffer" whatever is coming, regardless of our attitude, and whether we are considered fools, deniers, pollyannas, doom and gloomers, or anything else. Hope is a worthwhile orientation, but choosing hope doesn't permit us to opt out of experiencing what the future will bring.

    Hopeful changes that you didn't mention, include the huge percentages of electricity generated from renewable sources in Germany and Costa Rica, as well as smaller locations.

  13. user-349933 | | #13

    Peter Dykstra
    I think that the polling data that shows that the Congress approval rating is around 10% and 15% speaks to my point about our culture that has become too divisive. Whole elections are run on pitting one group against the other. With our elected officials it seems to be the norm today.
    For me the benefit of a website like GBA is to be able to step away from the political nature of so many other sites out there and read something informational. I look to GBA for debates about 2 X 4 walls vs. 2 X 6 walls not to be told how dumb we are as Americans because we have lawns or how I'm in denial because I don't think our messed up government should be given even more power.
    On the new GBA it is easy to access the free side but as a paying customer the load up times for those stories are slow and I often have to sign in multiple times to get access. Why not go back to free access until you get the bugs worked out for the paying customers?

  14. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #14

    Response to Dan Vandermolen
    Please send me an e-mail so I can help you with your problem accessing GBA stories. My e-mail address is martin [at] greenbuildingadvisor [dot] com.

    I'm not sure why stories are loading slowly for you, or why you are having trouble logging in. But Taunton's customer service department is available to help diagnose your problem and solve it.

    If you want to contact our customer service department directly, instead of e-mailing me, here is the contact information:

    Phone: 800-943-0253 or 866-325-2558
    E-mail:  [email protected]

  15. wjrobinson | | #15

    Here's to more of us living a
    Here's to more of us living a centered life, commenting from a centered position and someone drawing the right and left our way via lots of live and let live and .... Good IPAs.

  16. jwmdds | | #16

    Dan is correct about "Global Warming"
    I think we should treat our planet with respect, which very few people do. However, the REAL
    scientists know global warming is propaganda by special interest groups. The real problem
    is global cooling which is going to cause huge problems if we do not start preparing immediately.
    Global warming proponents make the assumption that our planet was created in seven days 10 thousand years ago. Sorry, but that is not true, as all evidence shows. The dominate determinate of our current climate is the solar cycle which says we have been in a cooling trend since 2008. Unfortunately, it is going to become much colder in the next 20-30 years. Well-built, well-insulated,
    fuel efficient homes will be a necessity if we are going to survive. Not wasting cropland on ethanol-producing corn and focusing on short, cooler season food crops is our only chance to limit mass starvation. You should read the Twilight of Abundance if you want to get an idea of what is coming. Apparently, the politicians don't care about our future so you had better prepare for yourself.

  17. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #17

    Response to John Moore
    Detecting irony on the Internet is difficult, and I can't tell whether your tongue is in your cheek.

    In case you have written without irony, I'll point out that there is no evidence whatsoever that "the REAL scientists know global warming is propaganda by special interest groups." Lots of studies show the contrary.

  18. user-349933 | | #18

    Response to Martin Holladay
    I take the above comment like I do the one where I was compared to a racist and a Nazis. I never did say that I don't believe that the climate is changing or we should not continue to to cut back on pollution.
    Instead of discussing issues some just like to discredit others by calling them names and labeling them. Lets end the discussion everyone knows that everything that is to be known about climate change is already settled and if I don't think you agree with me your an idiot or some other derogatory name.
    From my limited understanding a lot of the increase in pollution is coming from China. Couldn't we have a lager impact on global warming by supporting our local businesses so they can manufacture in America? If we put so many regulations on our businesses they end up fleeing our country then we turn around and import these products. Aren't we just outsourcing the climate change to other countries?

  19. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #19

    Response to Dan Vandermolen
    If I understand you correctly, you are objecting to my response to John Moore.

    1. My response was directed to John, not to you.

    2. I have no idea why you think that my response to John resembles some type of comparison between you and Nazis.

    3. I did not call you a name, nor did I call John a name.

  20. user-349933 | | #20

    My response is to Eric and John
    I take John's response as sarcasm directed at me. Eric clearly tried to tie my thinking with past racist and Nazis thought patterns. I find it troubling that one can't express a different opinion on something without being labeled a Nazis, racist, or denier of science. Again I would like someone to show me where I said that I don't believe that the climate is changing? My original point was that when you call people things like deniers you create divisiveness and shut down communication.

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