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.