Irish Times Column, January 4th, 2024
A great source of a of optimism and hope for me is the fact that we need no miracles to radically cut greenhouse gas emissions and halt climate change.
We already have the technologies necessary to stop using most fossil fuels. Those solutions – wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles, heat pumps, buses, bikes, insulation and so on – are already widely available on the market, are increasingly cheaper and more reliable than fossil fuels, and bring broader benefits, like cutting air pollution and making energy supply more secure and affordable.
We also have solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and land use: dedicating more space to trees, peatlands, crops and nature requires no technological breakthroughs.
We can view climate change as a socio-political challenge, as much as a techno-economic one. This is another source of hope: history is full of examples of outlandish change in society.
According to Rebecca Solnit, author of Hope in the Dark, “the past equips us to face the future .. history is full of ruptures and surprises”. Hope can come from taking the long view, and appreciating the potential of collective action and “people power” to bring about profound change: women’s rights, civil and indigenous movements, marriage equality and the liberalisation of society. The status quo has been tipped on its head, again and again.
Most recently, what have we learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, if not for the potential for radical action in the face of a grave threat? Who knew that our individualistic society had the capacity take such measures to protect the most vulnerable in society, and compensate those whose livelihood was affected by lockdowns.
For Greta Thunberg, hope is earned through action: “Hope is not something that is given to you. It is something you have to earn, to create. It cannot be gained passively from standing by passively and waiting for someone else to do something. It is taking action. It is stepping outside your comfort zone.” Thunberg recalls Fridays for Futures, a movement of school children that brought millions to the streets and challenged political leaders, demanding climate action. Thunberg asks us to “imagine what we could all do together if we try.” Hope - cherishing a vision for a better future - gives us a space to act, and build collective movements.
There is a subtle difference between hope and blind optimism, a naïve belief that everything will work out fine, despite all evidence.
On the other hand, anyone paying attention will know that there is a strong case for pessimism on climate. Greenhouse gas emissions have not even peaked, and are not even close to entering the staggering decline necessary to limit warming to safe levels. False solutions and bad faith actors are everywhere.
Even though cynicism and despair are understandable reactions to these facts, they are a poor strategy. Those who declare “we’re all doomed” are as counterproductive to climate action as those who deny the problem exists at all, because the future is all to play for.
In any case, there is never going to be a stage where it’s “too late” to fix climate change – or a stage where it is totally solved. Each incremental bit of warming creates more damage, and efforts will also have to start focussing on adapting to climate change’s harmful effects. There will always be more work to be done.
Global consensus-based climate negotiations seem excruciatingly slow, but there is now full agreement among countries that greenhouse gas emissions must rapidly fall, and to do so, countries must transition away from fossil fuels. Before the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015, the world was on track to warm by well above three degrees by the end of this century.
Now, with new national decarbonisation commitments and a positive outlook for the energy transition, the world is on track to warm by 2.5 to 2.9 degrees. This is a far cry from the safe warming limit of 1.5 degrees, but an awful lot better than the outlook only a few years ago.
There is reason for “conditional optimism” that the outlook will keep improving. Many people now believe that the energy transition away from fossil fuels is inevitable. What matters now is how soon that can come about. Because the solutions already largely exist, the speed of this transition will be determined by social, institutional and political capacity for change.
Unprecedented change is necessary to cut greenhouse gas emissions quickly, but just because something is unprecedented it doesn’t make it impossible – otherwise nothing would have ever changed in the past. And just as there are negative tipping points in planetary systems, there can also be positive social tipping points that pave the way for this unprecedented change. That, for me, is a reason to keep hoping.