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Nine Surprising Signs That Momentum Is Building for Climate Action

While huge obstacles remain, there are indications in the U.S. and around the world that progress is possible

A wave of coal plant retirements gives the author hope for progress on efforts to address climate change.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A spate of recent developments suggests momentum is building to address climate change — including some truly unexpected and inspiring signs in the United States and around the world.

Of course, huge obstacles remain: Florida Governor Rick Scott would allegedly like to censor any official mention of the subject. Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe still seems to think that carrying a snowball onto the floor of the Senate offers some kind of “evidence” that global warming is hoax.

And more worrisome, fossil fuel interests including the Koch brothers and Shell Oil are still spending millions trying to repeal renewable energy standards in states around the country through the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other front groups. But consider the following and see if you don’t agree that, when it comes to climate change, dramatic changes are afoot.

California breaks new ground on renewables

Last week, Governor Jerry Brown set aggressive new global warming emissions targets for California that put the nation and the world on notice. His plan calls for California to reduce emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. That’s a timetable for steep emissions reductions almost unthinkable just a few years ago. And considering that California is the world’s eighth largest economy, the state’s actions make a big difference.

Equally impressive, virtually all the evidence shows that California has profited mightily from its green energy economy so far, attracting an estimated $27 billion of venture capital into California clean tech companies since 2006.

Record-breaking coal retirements

In a report issued last month, Bloomberg New Energy Finance forecast “the largest wave of coal retirements in U.S. history.” This is good news for air pollution and the carbon emissions that drive global warming.

According to the Bloomberg report, fully 7 percent of U.S. coal energy generation is expected to shut down in 2015, spurred by the onset of a key mercury emissions rule and also by tougher economic competition from other energy sources. The upshot, according to this hard-nosed energy forecast: a “fundamental reduction in coal’s share of the U.S. power mix” and a significant step toward reducing the nation’s carbon footprint.

Red states among wind and solar leaders

Despite a lot of partisan talk in Washington, renewables are ramping up in many unexpected places. Consider, for example that, aside from California, North Carolina installed more solar photovoltaic systems last year than any other state in the country, with enough solar installations now to meet the needs of close to 100,000 homes. And Texas — a state practically synonymous with fossil fuel production — installed more wind turbines than any other state in 2014. Employing forward-thinking policy and investment, Texas nearly doubled its wind energy generation between 2009 and 2014 to now generate nearly 10 percent of its electricity from wind power.

Seismic shift in global business community

In a notable development, the G20 powers recently launched a joint probe into the global financial risks posed by the potential for fossil fuel companies’ so-called “stranded assets” — investments in costly ventures that may never be viable in light of emerging international climate agreements.

G20 nations have asked for an independent assessment of whether fossil fuel companies’ $6 trillion of investment into oil, gas, and coal development since 2007 might be based on false assumptions about demand that could risk the bursting of a so-called “carbon bubble.” Equally notable in the new zeitgeist, Newsweek recently reported that HSBC — the world’s third largest bank — wrote a private note to its clients advising them to divest from fossil fuel companies because of increasing risks they will become “economically non-viable.” Considering that five of the top six Fortune 100 companies are still in the oil refining business, if that doesn’t mark a sea change in thinking, I don’t know what does.

Tea Party loyalists are revolting to back solar solutions

Much to the chagrin of the Koch brothers who helped launch the Tea Party in 2009, a growing number of Tea Party activists are turning on their pro-fossil fuel backers to support solar energy. Last year, Debbie Dooley, one of the Tea Party’s original founding members, went head-to-head with the Koch-backed branch of the Tea Party to successfully persuade Georgia’s utility commission to require Georgia Power to buy more of its energy from solar sources.

Now, in Florida, some 85 Tea Party groups are joining a broad bipartisan coalition called Floridians for Solar Choice to support a popular ballot initiative that would amend the state’s constitution to allow individuals and businesses with solar panels to sell the power they generate directly to their tenants or neighbors.

Regional emissions reduction plans are exceeding expectations

A new report from the nine states participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) highlights the continuing success of the nation’s longest-running carbon market, showing that it really is possible to tackle our climate and energy challenges while delivering huge benefits to consumers.

According to the report, RGGI states have successfully cut emissions by 40 percent since 2005 while their economies have grown by 8 percent. Meanwhile, the $1.4 billion in proceeds from their auctions of emissions credits have been invested in energy efficiency projects that will return more than $2.9 billion in lifetime energy savings to millions of households and businesses. In the year to come, look for other states to wake up to these figures — either by asking to join RGGI or by forging regional carbon trading plans of their own.

The Pope is getting involved

Pope Francis is laying the foundation for a substantive campaign to combat global warming and environmental degradation, with an imminent Vatican summit meeting and plans for a potentially influential encyclical on the subject this summer.

The development shouldn’t be underestimated as a catalyst for change. As Timothy E. Wirth, vice chairman of the United Nations Foundation recently told The New York Times: “We’ve never seen a pope do anything like this. No single individual has a much global sway as he does. What he is doing will resonate in the government of any country that has a leading Catholic constituency.” In particular, the Pope’s exhortations on the subject are expected to speed climate action in some Latin American countries that have resisted getting involved up to now.

China is beating its own ambitious pledge

In an agreement with the United States at the end of last year, China pledged to cap its carbon emissions by 2030 and increase its share of non-fossil fuels to around 20 percent in the same time period. While China has yet to publish the details of its plan, it appears to be moving even faster than its pledge would require.

According to the latest figures, China burned less coal in 2014 than it did the previous year, the first such decline in decades. At the same time, as my colleague Michael Klare has noted, China increased its spending on renewable energy by an impressive 33 percent in 2014, investing a total of $83.3 billion. That’s the most a country has ever spent on renewables in a single year.

Other nations are making notable strides

While China is a pace setter, it is not alone. All told, global green energy investment jumped nearly 17 percent in 2014 from the previous year, topping an unprecedented $270 billion according to a UN-backed report.

Examples of this investment abound. Oil-rich Dubai just announced a $3 billion solar project expansion. Mexico made a larger-than-anticipated pledge in 2014, to cap its carbon emissions by 2026 and to achieve a 22 percent reduction in global warming emissions by 2030. And other nations continue to break new ground in the race for a low-carbon future. In March, for instance, Costa Rica announced that its state-run electricity company had powered the country exclusively with renewable resources (including hydropower) for a record-breaking 75 consecutive days.

Our world is still powered predominantly by burning fossil fuels and the imminent threats posed by climate impacts continue to grow. But make no mistake: with a growing catalog of developments like these, a cleaner and greener future is seeming more achievable than ever before.

Seth Shulman is the editorial director at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a veteran science journalist whose work has appeared in Nature, The Atlantic, Discover, Technology Review, Parade and many other publications. This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post. Peter Dykstra wrote about this subject last month.


  1. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #1

    China's coal use reductions, Georgia's PV, etc.
    It's been pointed out that China's 8% reduction in the use of coal in Q1 through Q2 2015 is equivalent to eliminating ALL greenhouse gas emissions in the UK.

    More than merely requiring that Georgia's vertically integrated statewide electricity monopoly to build more renewables, third party ownership of rooftop photovoltataic (PV) power became legal in the past few weeks. Third party ownership enables real competition with the utility in the form of $0 down leases & power purchase agreements that had previously been barred. In states where third party ownership of PV has been allowed for years it has become a primary driver of rooftop PV sales. The lifecycle cost of PV at medium scale installations is already lower than the retail cost of power in GA, and competitive with any new power generation coming online.

    This is a game changer that will erode retail electricity sales revenues, accelerating the retirement dates of older subcritical coal-fired power there. It may at the same time render the nuclear power plants currently under construction at Vogtle uneconomic by the time they are ready to load the first round of fuel, since it will also erode the more lucrative peak power rates that even legacy nukes need to be financially viable.

    The National Bank of Abu Dhabi recently published analysis showing that for new oil-fired power generation to be financially competitive with new PV in the Arabian Peninsula requires an oil price less than $10/bbl.

    Even though utility scale onshore wind is currently cheaper than small-scale rooftop PV, it's pretty clear that in a decade that will no longer be the case. The large scale centralized power plant model (even wind-power) that has made the most economic sense for a century is melting fast under the glare of ever-cheaper PV. The long term learning curve of PV cost has been about 22% for every doubling of installed capacity, but that has increased to about 30% in recent years. There are no technological barriers (though some utility regulatory and permitting barriers) that would prevent that from continuing in the next decade.

  2. vensonata | | #2

    Having watched for many years.
    I have a feeling that despite slow going up to now we have really only been just getting the techno kinks worked out. PV works great now and that means it is affordable. That wasn't so, just a few years ago. Wind turbine tech has arrived and giants like GE can bang them out now at impressive rates. And batteries, who doesn't love batteries? Flow and lithium are here finally, oh finally. Electric vehicles including buses and garbage trucks are now ready for prime time. So although we hopeful greenies have been celebrating our tiny accomplishments for the last few years, the flood gates are really about to open and will leave even the most optimistic of us slack jawed.

  3. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #3

    It's the regulatory kinks, not the technology kinks...
    The hardware & labor is less than half the cost of small scale PV in the US these days. The time spent advertising, quoting, planning and paper-shuffling through multiple agencies is the rest. In Germany and Australia the retail cost of rooftop PV is about half what it is in the US, using the same hardware, at comparable labor rates. If world price of PV at utility scale beats $10 oil in cheap oil country, it's only a matter of adjusting the regulatory environment so that it's no longer in the way.

    Even without storage wind & PV at current efficiencies and price points could support the 2050 grid more cheaply than the US business as usual case. The rise in new-renewables capacity seen in over the past 5 years is just the thin rising edge of the tsunami. It'll accelerate as it gets cheaper. Just as utilities can no longer rationalize new thermal coal (even supercritical coal at 40%+ efficiency) on a cost basis, other large centralized power generation types will look like insane investments long before 2030, even if the externalities of the fossil burning never get priced in.

    The investment banking sector has come to that epiphany over the past 18-24 months, even if the board rooms of some of the oil-majors might still be in denial.

  4. Svig | | #4

    Here in the U.S.
    It is a huge step forward to see the Tea Party step back and focus on things that really matter. Like climate change and their electric bill. They must be realizing they were being farmed for their votes for reasons that were not in their best interests.

  5. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #5

    It's not clear that the Tea Party is much about climate change.
    The Tea Party may diverge internally on climate change issues, but their libertarian self-reliance self-determination free-trade roots abhor monopoly, which was a motivating factor in GA on both grid-fuel monopoly/oligopoly protection end and the regulated utility monopoly in general. The "Green Tea Coalition" has pretty much won the day there. The third party ownership thing that just passed (with unanimous support in the GA legislature!) was a far bigger victory for them than the solar requirements pushed onto Georgia Power last year, since that finally brings a modicum of competition into the market where none had existed before.

    The prospects of GP surviving if they have to write-down the cost of the new Vogtle nukes in the face of ubiquitous & cheap solar seems pretty dicey. I expect them to continue to attempt to throw down roadblocks, but in the grander scheme anything they do will only amount to speed bumps on the road to cheaper renewables. The cozy relationship they've enjoyed with the regulators over the past 40 years is being eroded by political reality. The Tea Party isn't happy at all that they've been allowed to rate-base the cost of Vogtle years in advance of it coming on line. If they're allowed to rate base the write-down of what will almost surely become a stranded asset before it's useful lifecycle is up it'll get really ugly, and the regulators know it.

    The Florida Tea Party learned quite bit from Georgia's Green Tea Coalition, and despite a different utility regulatory environment in FL, the basic arguments are the same, but there's even more room to work with. The Floridians for Solar Choice coalition should be able to win their ballot initiative handily. ( It's about time the sunshine state put it to a better use than burning the hides off spring breakers. :-) )

  6. exeric | | #6

    Reply to Dana Dorsett
    It's interesting what you wrote about the tea party's libertarian anti monopoly roots. Were you writing that tongue in cheek? I honestly can't tell. The really strange thing about all that is the Koch Brothers and their organization ALEC is all about pouring money into the coffers of Republican congressmen to change the laws to benefit the Koch Brother's companies. They cleverly have positioned themselves as being all for the little guy while using their huge resources to actually create their own oligarchy.

    To me it seems like they are the pied piper playing a beguiling tune with their huge financial resources behind them. They are just sucking in the gullible with correct code words and phrases the libertarians want to hear. Believe me, if the world actually became what the Tea Party people "think" the Koch Brothers would like it to be, well, the Koch Brothers would hate it and their own monopoly would go down the tubes in that environment. It's all kind of bizarre and pathetic how gullible some people can be. So I hope you were saying what you said tongue firmly in cheek.

  7. Expert Member

    "Electric vehicles including buses and garbage trucks are now ready for prime time"

    It's funny it took so long. I remember visiting Britain in the 1960's and all the milk delivery floats were electric.

  8. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #8

    I was quite serious.
    The rhetoric used by the Tea Party members involved in the Green Tea Coalition in Georgia were all about self-sufficiency and standing up against/not being abused by the monopoly utility. It was sort of a "Nobody has the right to tell ME whether I can put solar on my house and make my own electricity or not, and CERTAINLY not fat overbearing recipients of corporate socialism like monopoly utilities." type of vibe.

    For a taste of it, see this short interview with Debbie Dooley, Tea Party leader of the Green Tea Coalition:

    There is that streak within the Tea Party at large, but like any herd of cats, it's far from monolithic. The support for solar has little or nothing much to do with climate change, but a lot to do with individual freedom and a severe distaste for monopoly businesses. That gets a lot of traction amongst grass roots conservatives, something that Koch/ALEC money can't easily erase.

    Agreement with (fear & loathing of?) Tea Party views on solar certainly played a part in the unanimous approval of third party ownership of PV in the GA legislature in late March, and the sign-off by the governor in recent weeks. It doesn't matter how many of those legislators took fossil fuel money in their last campaign, voting against it would likely get them primary-ed out of office. The referendum vote coming up in FL has a lot of grass root support too, driven by some of the same Tea Party folks who cracked the whip loudly in Georgia, using the same anti-monopoly pro-freedom rhetoric.

  9. kevin_in_denver | | #9

    Obama Pulls a Judo Move on Conservatives
    Today he called climate change an "indisputable security threat"
    I can't wait to hear Greg Gutfield try to explain that away.

  10. Svig | | #10

    Great interview with Debbie Dooley of the Tea Party
    "Conservatives need to do their research. Do your research and you’re going to come to the same conclusion that I have, that we’ve been manipulated by groups with interests in fossil fuel into believing that green energy is bad — and that’s wrong. Unless they’re going to expire the fossil fuel tax credits and nuclear tax credits all at the same time, then they need to keep the solar tax credit. If you take away all these subsidies, everyone’s going to see the true cost of energy in this nation."

    And she also kinda sorta indicated there are some serious climate/environment issues that need to be considered. I don't expect her to move all the way over right away, or even ever. It is a nice first step in escaping the grip the Koch brothers have had on them.

  11. user-958947 | | #11

    1) I fully support limiting
    1) I fully support limiting mercury emissions from coal fired plants. That's something that can be easily measured and its harmful effects are known----all without the use of a hockey-stick chart.
    2) The Pope? Really? In regards to "We've never seen a pope do anything like this. No single individual has as much global sway as he does."-----I seem to recall from history class that a Pope and Galileo had a minor dust-up over whether or not the earth revolved around the sun. The Pope was on the wrong side of that argument, but he did have a lot of "global sway" perpetrating his view of the issue.

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