It's Easy to Feel Pessimistic About the Climate. But We've Got Two Big Things on Our Side

Bill McKibben / Guardian UK
It's Easy to Feel Pessimistic About the Climate. But We've Got Two Big Things on Our Side The cost of renewable energy has fallen dramatically. (photo: Getty)

One is the astonishing fall in the cost of renewable energy. The other is the huge growth in the citizens’ movements demanding action

So many things have broken the wrong way since the Paris climate accords were agreed in mid-December of 2015. Within eight weeks Donald Trump had won his first presidential primary, an insane comet streaking across the night sky, trailed by outliers like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. The world has endured opéra bouffe distractions like Brexit, and the true paralyzing emergency of the pandemic.

And yet here we are, staggering and stumbling towards the real follow-up to Paris, starting 31 October in Glasgow. The international order, such as it is, is held together with baling wire and duct tape: China (its housing market cratering) and the US (between rebellions) are spitting at each other, India half-lost in its ugly experiments with repression, Europe Merkelless. The global south is ever more rightly angered by the failure of the north to deliver on its necessary pledges for climate finance – and to pay for the increasingly obvious damage that global warming has inflicted on nations that did nothing to cause it. But somehow all these players must stitch together a plan for dramatically increasing the speed of a global transition off fossil fuel – and if they don’t, then Paris will forever be the high-water mark of climate action. (And the actual high-water mark of rising seas will jump upward.)

At least no one remains in the dark about the importance of the work: since Paris we’ve endured the hottest heatwaves, the biggest and fastest storms, the highest winds, the heaviest rains; we’ve watched both the jet stream and the Gulf Stream start to sputter. The physical world, once backdrop, is now foreground, a well-lit stage on which the drama will play out.

And to make the theater interesting, there are two things that have broken the right way, two things that will have to be the bulwark of progress in Glasgow.

One is the continuing astonishing fall in the cost of renewable energy and the batteries with which to store it. This trend was evident by the time of Paris, but still new enough that it was hard to trust it: we still thought of wind and sun as expensive, a sacrifice. We now understand that they are miracles, both of engineering and economics: last month an Oxford team released an (undercovered) analysis that concluded: “Compared to continuing with a fossil-fuel-based system, a rapid green energy transition will probably result in overall net savings of many trillions of dollars – even without accounting for climate damages or co-benefits of climate policy.” That is, the faster we move towards true renewable energy, the more money we save, and the savings are measured in “many trillions of dollars”.

And the second lucky break is the continuing astonishing growth in the size of citizens’ movements demanding action. Again, this was already evident in Paris: 400,000 people had marched on the UN the year before demanding action, and as Barack Obama said at the time, “we cannot pretend we do not hear them. We have to answer the call.” He’d been able to slink back from Copenhagen in 2009 with no agreement and pay no political price; by Paris that had changed. But it’s changed even more in the six years since, particularly since August 2018 when Greta Thunberg began her first climate strike. There are thousands of Thunbergs now scattered across the planet, with millions of followers: this may be the biggest international movement in human history.

Those two strengths go up against the equally powerful bulwarks of the status quo: vested interest and inertia.

The first, the fossil fuel lobby, has suffered damage in recent years: a global divestment campaign, for instance, has put $15tn in endowments and portfolios beyond its reach, and it builds little now without resistance. People increasingly see through the fossil fuel lobby’s attempts at greenwashing. But it maintains its hold on too many capitals – in the United States, the Republican party is its wholly owned subsidiary, which makes progress halting at best. And the planet’s financial superpowers – Chase, Citi, BlackRock and the rest – continue to lend and invest as if there was nothing wrong with an industry that is literally setting the Earth on fire.

As for inertia, it’s a deep obstacle, simply because the climate crisis is a timed test. Without swift change we will pass irrevocable tipping points: winning slowly on climate is simply another way of losing. Every huge forest fire, every hurricane strike, every month of drought heightens public demand for change – but every distraction weakens that demand. Covid could not have come at a worse time – indeed, it very nearly undid these talks for the second year in a row.

So, that’s the playbill. We have two big forces on each side of the drama, behemoths leaning against each other and looking for weakness to exploit. In the wings, old hands like John Kerry, the US climate envoy, push and probe; if the US Senate actually passes a serious climate plan before Glasgow, his power will increase like some video game character handed a magic sword. If the price of gas keeps rising in Europe, perhaps that weakens chances for a breakthrough.

We know which side will win in the end, because vested interest is slowly shifting towards the ever-larger renewable sector, and because inertia over time loses ground to the movements that keep growing. But we don’t know if that win will come in time to matter. Glasgow, in other words, is about pace: will it accelerate change, or will things stay on their same too-slow trajectory? Time will tell – it’s the most important variable by far.

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