The deadly consequences of climate change only grew clearer this year, as record-shattering heat waves, floods, and wildfires killed thousands and strained the limits of our disaster responders.
In the closing days of 2021, scientists warned that the eastern ledge of a Florida-size glacier is about to snap off of Antarctica and US legislators found they may have flubbed their best chance in a decade to enact sweeping climate policies.
But amid these stark signs, there were also indications that momentum is beginning to build behind climate action. Indeed, there’s good reason now to believe that the world could at least sidestep the worst dangers of global warming.
Princeton energy researcher Jesse Jenkins accurately, and colorfully, pinpointed the weird moment we’ve arrived at in a recent tweet: “We’re no longer totally f$%@ed. But we’re also far from totally unf$@%*ed!”
To be sure, the limited progress isn’t nearly enough. We’ve taken far too long to begin making real changes. World events and politics could still slow or reverse the trends. And we can’t allow a tiny bit of progress in the face of a generational challenge to ease the pressures for greater action.
But it’s worth highlighting and reflecting on the advances the world has made, because it demonstrates that it can be done—and could provide a template for achieving more.
So what are the signs of progress amid the climate gloom?
The grimmest scenarios that many fretted about just a few years ago look increasingly unlikely. That includes the 4 or 5 °C of warming this century that I and others previously highlighted as a possibility.
The UN climate panel’s earlier high-end emissions scenario, known as RCP 8.5, had found that global temperatures could rise more than 5 °C by 2100. Those assumptions have been frequently included in studies assessing the risks of climate change, delivering the eye-catching top-end results often cited in the press. (Guilty.)
Some argue that it wasn’t all that plausible in the first place. And the scenario seems increasingly far-fetched given the rapid shift away from coal-fired power plants, initially to lower-emitting natural gas but increasingly toward carbon-free wind and solar.
Global emissions may have already flattened when taking into account recent revisions to land-use changes, meaning updated tallies of the forests, farmlands, and grasslands the world is gaining and losing.
Today, if you layer in all the climate policies already in place around the world, we’re now on track for 2.7 °C of warming this century as a middle estimate, according to Climate Action Tracker. (Similarly, the UN’s latest report found that the planet is likely to warm between 2.1 and 3.5 °C under its “intermediate” emissions scenario.)
If you assume that nations will meet their emissions pledges under the Paris agreement, including the new commitments timed around the recent UN summit in Glasgow, the figure goes down to 2.4 °C. And if every country pulls off its net-zero emissions targets by around the middle of the century, it drops to 1.8 °C.
Given the increasingly strict climate policies and the plummeting costs of solar and wind, we’re about to witness an absolute boom in renewables development. The International Energy Agency, well known for underestimating the growth of renewables in the past, now says that global capacity will rise more than 60% by 2026. At that point, solar, wind, hydroelectric dams, and other renewables facilities will rival the worldwide capacity of fossil-fuel and nuclear plants.
Sales of new electric vehicles, bumping along in the low single digits for years, are also taking off. They’ll reach around 5.6 million this year, leaping more than 80% over 2020 figures, as automakers release more models and governments enact increasingly aggressive policies, according to BloombergNEF.
Electric vehicles climbed from 2.8% of new sales in the first half of 2019 to 7% during the first half of 2021, with particularly large gains in China and Europe. Zero-emissions vehicles will make up nearly 30% of all new purchases by 2030, the research firm projects.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of signs of technological progress. Researchers and companies are figuring out ways to produce carbon-free steel and cement. Plant-based meat alternatives are getting tastier and more popular faster than anyone expected. Businesses are building increasingly large plants to suck carbon dioxide out of the air. Venture capital investments into climate and clean-tech startups have risen to levels never before seen, totaling more than $30 billion through the third quarter, according to PitchBook.
And here’s an important and counterintuitive finding: While dangerous, extreme weather events are becoming increasingly common or severe, the world seems to be getting a lot better at keeping people safer from them. The average number of deaths from natural disasters has generally dropped sharply in recent decades.
“We have better technologies to predict storms, wildfires, and floods; infrastructure to protect ourselves; and networks to cooperate and recover when a disaster does strike,” noted Hannah Ritchie, head of research at Our World of Data, in an recent Wired UK essay, citing her own research.
This provides additional hope that with the right investments into climate adaption measures like seawalls and community cooling centers, we’ll be able to manage some of the increased risks we’ll face. Rich nations that have emitted the most greenhouse gases, however, must provide financial assistance to help poor countries bolster their defenses.
A realistic baseline
Some folks have seized on these improving signs to argue that climate change isn’t going to be all that bad. That’s nonsense. The world is, by any measure, still dramatically underreacting to the rising risks.
A planet that’s nearly 3 °C hotter would be a far more dangerous and unpredictable place. Those temperatures threaten to wipe out coral reefs, sink major parts of our coastal cities and low-lying islands, and subject millions of people to far greater risks of extreme heat waves, droughts, famines, and floods.
In addition, we could still be underestimating how sensitive the atmosphere is to greenhouse gases, as well as the spiraling impacts of climate tipping points and the dangers that these higher temperatures bring. And there’s no guarantee that nations won’t backtrack on their policies and commitments amid economic shocks, conflicts, and other unpredictable events.
But to be sure, a 3 °C warmer world is a much more livable place than a 5 °C warmer one, and a far more promising starting line for getting to 2 °C.
“The point isn’t to say that that’s a good outcome,” says Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute. “The point is, that’s the baseline we’re working with now. And it’s easier to imagine much more rapid declines from there.”
In some ways, it’s especially notable that the world has made this much progress without sweeping climate policies in many nations, and despite all the poisoned, partisan politics surrounding climate change.
The shifts to natural gas, then solar and wind, and increasingly EVs were all aided by government support, including loans, subsidies, and other policies that pushed the underlying technologies into the marketplace. And the business-driven scale-up process rapidly cut the costs of those technologies, helping them become ever more attractive.
Increasingly competitive and business-friendly clean alternatives promise to simplify the politics of further climate action. If more and more nations enact increasingly aggressive policies—carbon taxes, clean-energy standards, or far more funding for research and demonstration projects—we’ll drive down emissions ever faster.
The world isn’t ending
There are other reasons to take note of the modest progress we are making.
Progressive US politicians now casually repeat the claim that climate change is an “existential threat,” suggesting it will wipe out all of humanity. After a 2018 UN report noted that global warming could reach 1.5 °C between 2030 and 2052, climate activists and media outlets contorted that finding into versions of “We have 12 years to save the planet!”
If so, it would now be down to nine. But 1.5 °C isn’t some scientifically determined threshold of societal collapse. Though the world will miss that goal, it remains crucial to fight for every additional half-degree of warming beyond it, each of which brings steadily higher risks.
Meanwhile, climate research does not suggest that the 3 °C of warming we’re now roughly on target for would transform the entire planet into some uninhabitable hellscape.
So no, climate change is not an existential threat.
But that sentiment has certainly taken hold. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Bath surveyed 10,000 young people, aged 16 to 25, in 10 countries to assess the levels of “climate anxiety.” More than half, 56%, agreed with the statement “Humanity is doomed.”
It’s standard stuff for politicians and activists to overstate dangers and demands, in the hopes of pushing toward some compromise solution. And the growing climate fears and the increasingly influential climate activist movement have undoubtedly put greater pressures on politicians and business to take these issues more seriously, helping to drive some the policy changes we’ve seen. They deserve real credit for that.
But insisting that the world is at the edge of collapse, when it’s not, is a terrible message for young people and carries some real risks as well. It clearly undermines credibility. It could lead some people to simply lose hope. And it could compel others to demand extreme and often counterproductive responses.
“It’s time to stop telling our children that they’re going to die from climate change,” Ritchie wrote. “It’s not only cruel, it might actually make it more likely to come true.”
When people don’t see a “reasonable path forward,” they begin to rationalize unreasonable ones.
Among those I hear with surprising frequency: We must shut down all fossil-fuel infrastructure, and end oil and gas extraction now. We must fix everything with today’s technologies and reject the “predatory delay” tactic of continued investment in clean-energy innovation. We have to halt consumption, construction, and economic development. Or even: We must smash the global capitalist system that caused all the problems!
Balancing the trade-offs
None of that strikes me as somehow more politically feasible than fixing our energy systems.
We do have to shut down fossil-fuel plants, replace vehicles, and switch to new methods of producing food, cement, steel, and other goods—and relatively quickly. But we have to do it by developing alternatives that don’t pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
If we adjust the goalpost back to 2 °C, which is regrettable but only realistic at this point, we have several decades yet to carry out the transformation required. Under a modest emissions scenario, the world won’t exceed that threshold until around 2052 as a middle estimate, Hausfather’s analysis of the latest UN climate report suggests.
What we can’t do is just shut down the infrastructure that drives the global economy—not without massive damage to jobs, food, health care, and safety. We’d sacrifice the economic resources we need to develop a more sustainable economy, as well as to make our communities more resilient to the coming climate dangers.