Human beings have made tremendous scientific and technological breakthroughs, but our continued social and cultural advancement has come at the expense of our planet’s ecosystems, endangered by human-driven global climate change. Ars Science Editor John Timmer joined climatologist Michael Mann of Penn State University (moving to the University of Pennsylvania this fall) and Sally Benson, deputy director for energy and chief strategist for the energy transition at the White House of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), for a spirited discussion about the existential threat of climate change; viable—and ethical—solutions to that threat; and the need to face the grim reality the planet faces without giving in to so-called climate “doom-ism.”
The discussion took place in the wake of the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—technically the third and final section of the 6th Assessment Report—concluding that the next few years are a critical window of opportunity if we hope to limit global warming to the benchmarks of 1.5° C or 2° C. The good news: There are signs of clear progress, most notably an acceleration in the growth of the clean energy sector. The bad news: We are at the peak of the so-called emissions curve, so emissions must begin declining now. Jim Skea (co-chair of the group behind the report), described it as a “now or never” scenario.
It’s not a question of science or technology. We understand the science, and we have the technologies to get to net-zero electricity and solve the crisis that exists. We merely lack the political will and the necessary sense of urgency to make it happen. Granted, as Benson pointed out, many of the solutions aren’t yet cost-competitive with fossil fuel alternatives, making it challenging for companies to invest in those technologies. That’s a crucial element since 25 percent of US residents struggle to pay their home energy bills. Of those residents, 60 percent spend more than 10 percent of their income on energy.
Nor is there equal access to these new technologies, given how our society is structured—hence the need for ethical climate solutions. Timmer noted that while homeowners with sufficiently high incomes can invest in things like solar panels and induction stoves, a large swathe of the US population rents their homes and hence are at the mercy of landlords. We must find financial incentives to make renewable technologies an attractive investment for those landlords.
Residents of low-income neighborhoods also suffer the health consequences of our continued reliance on burning fossil fuels, as well as the devastating impacts of floods and severe storms. And what’s true domestically in the US also holds globally, particularly in the developing world, where hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost due to climate-change-driven disasters. Rich countries like the US could provide vital resources to developing countries to help them catch up technologically.
The challenges are daunting, but all the panelists cautioned against giving in to what Mann terms climate “doom-ism.” There’s a very real risk that people will simply start to assume that it’s too late and there’s nothing we can do—and that this resignation to our collective fate will be weaponized politically to hamper any further progress. It’s not a succeed-or-fail binary scenario.
Mann drew a highway analogy to illustrate this point. “It’s possible we’ll miss the 1.5 degrees Celsius exit,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we sail hundreds of miles down the highway to the 3, 4, or 5 degrees Celsius exit. It means we get off at the next possible exit.” And the role of developing a diverse portfolio of clean energy technologies is to ensure we have plenty of additional exit ramps to take us on our journey toward net-zero energy.
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