The false summit of climate change progress

Chart by CarbonBrief based on UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2020
  • The world will likely exceed 1.5˚C between 2026 and 2042 in scenarios where emissions are not rapidly reduced, with a central estimate of between 2030 and 2032.
  • The 2˚C threshold will likely be exceeded between 2034 and 2052 in the highest emissions scenario, with a median year of 2043.

    From Zeke Hausfather reporting in CarbonBrief April 2020

As a novice backpacker in the Pacific Northwest there were several times when I mistook the peak in my near field of view to be the top of whatever mountain that was my destination. The phenomenon of the false summit is something that most people have experienced as a metaphor for life’s challenges. Present progress on addressing climate change is a false summit unless we fully understand the nature of any perceived progress and the extreme danger of ongoing climate and biosphere disruption.

The graph and data above drive home this point using the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and projected global heating over the coming decades. The current policies for emissions reductions fall far short achieving the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement of 2015. The range of dates for breaching 1.5˚C and 2.0˚C show how soon the consequences of global heating may occur. Clearly, we are out of time, and certainly out of excuses.

As a member of the post-war generation, the our environmental crises have carved an arc through my personal history. I have been aware of biosphere disruption through my work with a variety of terrestrial ecosystems from the beginning of my 40-year career as an ecologist. Rarely did my close friends understand or share my concerns. The environmental icon Aldo Leopold observed, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.” Similarly, most people have paid scant attention to the onrushing consequences of climate change, which became apparent to me in the 1980s while conducting research in Central American forests.

There is real reason for hope. For the first time in my life climate change is routinely front page news. One of the most painful aspects of my professional life for over 20 years has been to watch this critical issue be ignored and manipulated for political gain. Perhaps most painful has been to deal with university administrators and faculty from all areas minimize or dismiss the need to address environmental issues. The reality of climate change has smacked us between the eyes and now is impossible to ignore. The hour is 11:59 and the stakes are literally everything. Our work is clear and urgent. Failure to stabilize the Earth System will end civilization.

There has been a lot of good news about reductions in emissions, adoption of renewable energy, and the intentions of the new Biden administration. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in significant positive changes in the carbon balance of the Earth System through major reductions in emissions linked to reduced economic activity during lockdown. The Biden administration proposes to conserve 30 percent of US land and 30 percent of its ocean waters by 2030. On land, this means protecting an area more than twice the size of Texas. States like Minnesota are moving aggressively eliminate fossil-fueled power, and globally the International Energy Agency projects that wind and solar will produce more energy in the electricity sector than coal and gas by 2024.

The Biden cabinet will have a powerful team of experienced climate change and environmental policy advocates. The transition administration tapped the North Carolina environment head Michael Regan to lead the EPA and Native American Representative Deb Haaland to be in charge of Interior. Brenda Mallory, a lead negotiator with the Southern Environmental Law Center, will head the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Progressive renewable energy advocate and former Michigan Governor, Jennifer Granholm will become Secretary of Energy. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, a universally-respect negotiator who led efforts to create the Paris Agreement, will be Biden’s climate envoy and will sit on the National Security Council.

These events herald world changing transformations and the belated assumption of climate leadership by the US. We must never forget that as a single nation the US is responsible for most of the emissions in the air. We can have a huge impact if we will implement changes in all sectors of our economy and leverage the global economy toward true sustainability. Our moral obligation to the world cannot be overstated.

Trump and the GOP have inflicted enormous damage on functioning government and the environment. More than 100 environmental rules have been wrecked by the Trump administration. Haaland will need to address dozens of these impaired efforts at conservation and Biden will need to issue a slew of executive orders to get things back on track. We have lost much more than evidenced by the damage from Trump’s policies. We have also lost the initiative and momentum that would have occurred if this sociopath and his sycophants had not been brought to power.  More damage will surely occur before inauguration day and more will be discovered after Biden assumes office.

There are several reasons why the changes underway represent a false summit leaving an extremely steep climate landscape yet to be scaled. In fact most of these changes are promises, rather than anything close to becoming reality. In the US, we can count on GOP elected officials at the state and federal level to oppose most of the proposed changes to energy policy and legislation to support climate change mitigation. The GOP will use the complex legislative and regulatory process to protect the fossil fuel industry in myriad ways that will leave the average voter at a loss to say exactly what is happening.

Most of the progress to date has been made in other developed countries including the UK and many in the EU. For mostly political reasons the US lags behind other countries, including China, in developing renewables. Changes in energy production in the US have been driven largely by market forces, rather than by any intention to address climate change. Biden’s plan to conserve new lands and ocean regions may require decades of legal maneuvering and unprecedented funding. The lull in emissions due to the pandemic will be temporary and warming pollution will increase as we return to business as usual. Because of unrelated reductions in aerosols, warming of the land and atmosphere has accelerated even as emissions have decreased.

Other reasons to temper any optimism include plans by governments and industries to increase burning of fossil fuels and the massive subsidies for these industries in place in the US and abroad. Before the Democratic Convention, Biden stated that he would end these subsidies, but he later backtracked indicating that he would merely review these policies. According to a 2019 article in Rolling Stone, US fossil fuel subsidies have exceeded Pentagon spending in recent years.

Not only are fossil fuel emissions disrupting our climate and biosphere, but the social costs of carbon extraction and emissions, mainly evidenced by impaired human health, are massive and increasing. Many of the promises made by the oil giants, especially Exxon, are thinly veiled lies.  For at least the last 30 years, fossil fuel corporations (especially Exxon) have functioned as a criminal enterprise that is legal in all nations. Globally we must enact legislation to rapidly shutdown these industries and outlaw or massively tax the widespread use of fossil fuels.

The fossil fuel industry is gaming ways to stay alive by providing the energy for production of hydrogen, which can be used in fuel cells. Hydrogen has been touted as a necessary way to address emissions from transportation and grid-scale power production, but it makes no sense to use hydrogen for these applications. Evidence is equivocal regarding any net decrease in fossil emissions during the initial phases of a massive switch to hydrogen. The leakage of emissions from fossil fuels used in countries that do not make the switch and the fossil fuels burned to create the capacity to generate hydrogen fuel could mostly negate any advantage.

The oil companies in the US are moving aggressively to use carbon captured at power plants to create a carbon-based liquid fuel. They claim this would make such a transportation fuel net zero, but this ignores the enormous investment in materials and resulting fossil emissions to create the infrastructure for carbon capture and storage. Direct Air Capture (DAC) and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) will not stop the large social costs of finding, mining, refining, and distribution of fossil fuels. Up to 2050 industry plans including CCS will result in 37% of fossil fuel reserves being consumed, and CDR, if developed at climate-significant scale, would emit more CO2 than it would remove. This would push the planet well beyond catastrophic 3˚C global heating. These companies are playing a shell game to make the public believe that they are the good guys.

An ongoing roadblock not apparent to most utility ratepayers has been the impact of investor-owned utilities on the development of renewables. Policies enacted to promote wind and solar in the 1990s and the first decade of this century have been neutralized by state legislatures and state agencies seeking to serve special interests. New legislation often written by the front group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has imposed taxes and tariffs on net metering and independent renewable energy production. Many US electric utilities, especially in the South, plan on only slow decarbonization over the next decade with most meaningful reductions occurring at midcentury. 

Those utilities that have turned to woody biomass as a putative renewable source of energy must give a true accounting of the impact of these carbon emissions.  Utilities must measure the rate of renewal of woody fuels and their potential for photosynthetic drawdown of CO2. The time of burning relative to CO2 uptake by plants harvested as biofuel is crucial for estimation of emissions reductions. Utilities must also account for emissions associated with the burning of fossil fuels in collection, processing, and transport of biomass.

No accounting of the real threats of climate change would be complete without identifying neoliberal economics and the use of any significant discount rate to assess the damage to future generations from climate change. Neoliberal economics has often been justified through the primary thesis in Adam Smith’s tomb Wealth of Nations. Such happy promotion of raping the planet ignores the fact that Smith strongly advocated for government intervention to guide “the invisible hand” of capitalism when the public good is threatened. Neoliberal economics was aggressively promoted by Reagan, Thatcher, and Bill Clinton. Administrations since Clinton have done little to stop the indiscriminate carnage of people and planet propagated by the practice of unregulated capitalism.

Economists such as William Nordhaus, who won the Nobel in 2018 for his economic climate model, argue that global growth in GDP will render much of the damage from climate change immaterial by the end of the century. This simply ignores the reality that much of the damage in the near term will be permanent and irreversible. It seems clear that Nordhaus is clueless about the real threats of climate change. In his Nobel acceptance speech he suggested that an optimal policy would result in global warming of about 3˚C, which the most climate scientists regard as catastrophic. The discount rate used in such models diminishes the value of human life for future generations and favors the use of capital in the present often for projects that make the problem worse. Ethicists have long argued that this approach to managing climate change is not morally justified.

Rather than expecting to quickly scale the summit of carbon neutrality, we should assume that the process to control climate warming will require decades of hard work, but must be achieved as soon as possible. CO2 must be removed from the air while new emissions are driven to zero. The required changes will be foundational and unlike any social, economic, or material transformation in human history. If we are to have any hope of stabilizing the Earth System, we must assume that small achievements such as those that appear to be unfolding are the barest of beginnings. If humanity is to survive, we are required to actively manage the climate system and the biosphere for as long as we inhabit Earth. Mitigation and adaptation must become the primary work of humanity.