This essay is an extended version of the opening talk that James Temple will deliver this morning at ClimateTech, MIT Technology Review’s inaugural climate and energy conference.
In recent months, we’ve witnessed stunning progress on climate action—and terrifying signs of the dangers we’ve unleashed.
The US finally stepped up as a leader in climate action, enacting a trio of major laws that could add up to the largest federal investment ever into climate and clean-energy technologies. The nation will leverage hundreds of billions of dollars in federal grants, loans, procurements, and tax credits to turbocharge wind and solar development, electric-vehicles sales, battery manufacturing, and emerging means of capturing, sucking up, and storing away carbon dioxide.
Meanwhile, renewables, electric vehicles, and meat alternatives are now competitive mainstream options that are seizing market share. The cost of building large solar farms plummeted more than 80% in the last decade. The gas-guzzling Ford F-150 is now available as the Lightning EV. And Impossible Whoppers made the menu at Burger King.
Thousands of corporations have committed to zero out their climate pollution in the coming decades, and a decent share have already made real progress. A variety of companies are developing more sustainable ways of producing cement, fertilizer, steel, and chemicals. And venture capitalists are pouring billions of dollars into climate tech.
Many other nations have raised their climate ambitions as well. The EU passed a law in 2021 requiring member countries to slash emissions 55% by 2030 and become “climate neutral” by 2050. China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia have all committed to achieving carbon neutrality or net-zero emissions by 2060. India has pledged to get there by 2070.
If we assume every country follows through on its latest commitments under the Paris climate deal, the world will be on track for about 2.4 ˚C of warming over the levels of the late 1800s.
That’s too much, but few scientists are still warning that we’re barreling toward a 4 ˚C or hotter planet this century.
That’s a dramatic shift over just the six years I’ve been covering climate and energy for MIT Technology Review. But as projections for coal use plummeted, expectations for renewables soared, and nations enacted more climate policies, the worst-case scenarios have come to seem increasingly unlikely. And that is very good news.
But in so many other ways, we are getting started tragically, disastrously, unforgivably late. While we’re setting ourselves up to make faster progress in the future, the measure that matters most has continued to rise: global emissions reached their highest level ever in 2021, as the world economy sputtered back from the depths of the pandemic.
We have yet to see where emissions will land in 2022, but the Ukraine conflict set natural-gas prices soaring, which propelled coal demand back to the all-time high set a decade ago.
This all means that so far we’ve only managed to slow down the rate at which we’re making climate change worse, even as we begin to see how dangerous it truly is. During this summer and fall, we’ve witnessed the growing human and ecological toll of just 1.2 ˚C of warming, and we’ve observed unsettling indications of how much worse it could get.
Flooding in Pakistan submerged one-third of the country, killed more than a thousand people, and left millions homeless following monsoon downpours that scientists say climate change almost certainly intensified. Major rivers are drying up throughout other parts of the world, threatening food and water supplies as well as the livelihood of farmers and the reliability of hydropower.
This year’s extreme heat waves toppled records across the planet, scorching parts of Japan, India, China, Europe, and the US.
Temperatures in London reached 104 ˚F. Sacramento, California, saw 116 ˚F. Jacobabad, Pakistan, hit 124 ˚F. (That’s 40˚ to 51˚ in Celsius.)
Heat waves have become so hot, in so many places, year after year, that scientists are struggling to understand whether our climate models fully capture all the forces at work and reflect the blistering temperatures that could occur as greenhouse-gas concentrations continue to tick up.
And while 2.4 ˚C of warming certainly beats the earlier fears of an Uninhabitable Earth, recent research finds that as little as 1.5 ˚C could begin pushing the planet past critical tipping points that trigger the ecosystem collapses and feedback effects that drive more warming still.
You’ve heard these warnings before, but they bear repeating. The demise of coral reefs in ocean waters that we’ve managed to simultaneously heat up, acidify, and pollute will destroy the habitat and spawning grounds of a vast share of marine species. Crumbling polar ice sheets will push up ocean levels and reflect less heat back into space. Dying forests and thawing permafrost will release massive stores of potent greenhouse gases.
Urgency and obligation
So where does this all leave us?
There are endless debates online and in the public sphere over exactly how rosy, gloomy, or doomy people should feel about the state of climate action and the threat of climate change—and whether scientists, policymakers, and climate communicators will drive more change through a message of hope or fear.
I think different people react in different ways to different information and emotions. So our best bet is simply to aim for the truth.
I see very serious risks that nations could backslide on their commitments, and fear that global warming could unleash threats, conflicts, and chaos that overwhelm our abilities to adapt in many places.
Mounting and overlapping emergencies will strain our resources, infect our politics, and weaken our willingness to extend aid to others. And we know for sure that the hottest, poorest, and most vulnerable regions are the ones that will suffer the most, even though they’ve done the least to drive climate change.
We will, over the next few years, see more examples like Pakistan. We may also witness other spiraling tragedies like the Syrian civil war, where drought, famine, and other extreme events spark conflicts, mass migration, refugee crises, and nationalistic backlashes.
The poorest will suffer disproportionately in richer nations as well, dying from flooding, fires, and heat exhaustion just one home or one block away from where others were fine.
So when I take a hard, honest look at the progress we’ve made and the suffering in store, I’d argue that what we should feel above all is a sense of urgency and obligation.
We still have so much to do. Fully addressing climate change demands nothing less than reinventing the foundations of the modern world: the technologies, plants, and processes by which we generate or transport energy, food, goods, medicine, and people.
But what the signs of climate progress show is that we have the technological potential and economic capacity to limit how much hotter the planet gets.
So we have to redouble our efforts to accelerate emissions reductions. We must invest deeply to improve our technologies, and push harder for stricter targets and policies. We must pay the steep cost to keep citizens safe from the additional threats we’ve created, whether by building shoreline protections, overhauling zoning laws, or simply handing out air conditioners.
By any honest accounting, the nations and companies that grew richest by extracting and burning fossil fuels also now owe steep climate reparations to those most vulnerable to the consequences, payable in climate adaptation funding, loans for clean-energy projects, direct aid, migration assistance, and more.
The growing proof that we can ease the dangers, that we can make clean technologies affordable, that we can find the necessary political will, and that we can pressure companies to act even in the absence of regulations means we have a template for getting things done and accelerating our progress from here. It means we are duty bound to do more.
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