Reasons for Climate Optimism

November 3, 2021

David Wallace-Wells in New York Magazine:

It’s not too late. In fact, it never will be. Whatever you may have read over the past year — as extreme weather brought a global heat wave and unprecedented wildfires burned through 1.6 million California acres and newspaper headlines declared, “Climate Change Is Here” — global warming is not binary. It is not a matter of “yes” or “no,” not a question of “fucked” or “not.” Instead, it is a problem that gets worse over time the longer we produce greenhouse gas, and can be made better if we choose to stop. Which means that no matter how hot it gets, no matter how fully climate change transforms the planet and the way we live on it, it will always be the case that the next decade could contain more warming, and more suffering, or less warming and less suffering. Just how much is up to us, and always will be.

Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone:

Here are ten reasons for optimism:

  1. The worst-case scenarios for climate warming have so far been averted. It’s often argued that the nearly 30 years of climate talks since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 have led to nothing. But that’s not true.  A decade ago, we were heading for a world 4°C (or more) warmer by 2100, which would have been catastrophic for life as we know it. But now, with the policies that are already in place, we’re heading for just under 3°C, perhaps a little lower. With the official pledges updated last month — if successfully translated into effective policies — we would limit warming to around 2.5°C. And since then, another 25 countries have updated their pledges. 2.5 C of warming is still horrific, but it’s far less horrific than 4 C.
  2. The price of clean energy is falling fast. A decade ago, the virtue of coal was that it was cheap and plentiful. No more. Utility-scale solar power declined in cost by 90 percent between 2009 and 2021. The cost of onshore wind power declined by 70 percent over the same period. Even in Big Coal states like Ohio, electricity from solar power will overtake coal by the end of the decade.
  3. The Age of Accountability for Big Oil has begun. Last week, the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform grilled Big Oil CEOs for knowingly spreading lies about the risks of climate change. Republicans on the committee, led by James Comer of Kentucky, trotted out 30 year-old myths about energy independence and how fossil fuels are the elixir of working families. But Democrats were merciless. Kati Porter of California used M&Ms and bags of rice to make a point about how much land the oil companies have tied up in land leases. New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was typically sharp about the dangers of life in a rapidly warming world: “Some of us have to actually live the future that you all are setting on fire for us.” The CEOs squirmed, fidgeted, and blustered. Maybe it was all theater. Or maybe it was a foreshadowing of climate accountability to come.
  4. President Biden’s climate agenda is big, smart, and serious. It’s been downsized and cut up. It’s been ransacked and shanghaied by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. But Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which includes $500 billion for climate funding, would still be the biggest investment in clean energy and climate adaptation the U.S. has ever made. It includes investments for virtually every aspect of the economy, from clean energy transmission and storage to tax credits for electric vehicles and the production of low-carbon steel.  Can Biden get it through congress?  That remains to be seen, especially after the drubbing Democrats took in this week’s elections.  The good news is that the U.S. is pressing forward on other fronts, including new rules to limit methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. Thanks in part to a big push from the U.S., more than 100 nations signed a Global Methane Pledge in Glasgow, vowing to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030.
  5. Scientists are getting their game on. Michael MannKatharine HayhoeGavin SchmidtAndrea Dutton and Andrew Dessler are all top climate scientists who have a knack for calling out bullshit when they see it. And they’re calling it out more and more. Mann has been particularly aggressive. “Look no further than Australia, a country that deserves better than the feckless coalition government that currently reigns,” he wrote in The Los Angeles Times last week. As Mann points out, Australia’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 26% to 28% by 2030 is half what other industrialized nations such as the U.S. and the European Union have committed to. Mann also roasted Saudi Arabia and Russia for making a mockery of the Glasgow negotiations by agreeing to “a laughably delinquent” date of 2060 for reaching net zero emissions.
  6. The fossil fuel divestment movement is snowballing. As activist and writer Bill McKibben noted in The New York Times last week, $40 trillion in endowments and portfolios has vowed to abstain from investing in coal and gas and oil. “That’s bigger than the GDP of China and the U.S. combined,” McKibben wrote.  There is still a lot of money sloshing around out there for fossil fuel development, but slowing the flow from the spigot sends a powerful signal. Here’s one sign of how well divestment campaigns are working: the West Virginia Coal Association called divestment “the dumbest movement in history.”
  7. Increased focus on the link between the climate crisis and public health. A rapidly warming world, researchers wrote in The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal, is exposing humans to searing heat and extreme weather events; increasing the transmission of infectious diseases; exacerbating food, water and financial insecurity; endangering sustainable development; and worsening global inequality. “Health is the vector for climate action,” Johan Rockstrom, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said in Glasgow. “It is what people care about, and what motivates them to take action.”
  8. The war on coal is getting serious. China has vowed to stop funding new coal plants abroad. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg just launched a new crusade to shut down coal plants in 25 countries. Bloomberg has already waged war against coal in the US, helping to shut down 280 plants. Coal’s demise can’t happen fast enough, but it is happening.
  9. Climate justice takes center stage. What do the rich polluters owe the poor who are suffering the worst climate impacts?  This has always been an issue at previous climate talks. In Glasgow, it’s the issue. And climate justice leaders, who see their very existence at stake in these negotiations, are in no mood to play footsie with the leaders of rich nations. As Fiji’s Prime Minister, Voreqe Bainimarama put it: “We Pacific nations have not travelled to the other end of the world to watch our future to be sacrificed at the altar of appeasement of the world’s worst emitters.”
  10. Writers and artists are finding their voices. “Nothing will be saved without you.”  That’s the first line of a poem by Yrsa Daley-Ward, a writer of mixed Nigeria-Jamaican heritage, which she read in the opening ceremony in Glasgow. If there’s a better one-sentence call to action for the climate movement, I haven’t heard it.

21 Responses to “Reasons for Climate Optimism”

  1. There are several ways to look at the past 30 years. I made a table with economy gdp and CO2 emissions. There is a lot of CO2 efficency won. The results are very impressive. I realy thought the past 30 years were close to nothing in this respect. This is not true.

  2. jimbills Says:

    (Repost – accidentally included three links in my first try.)

    I’m going to hold off on judgement until after 11/12 about COP26, but it’s a bit frustrating to see a ‘polishing a turd’ response to what are very minimal actions so far.

    Article in the Atlantic today:

    The article is bit too light on the impacts of 2 degrees C warming, and really, we’re looking at 2.7+ plus as is:

  3. indy222 Says:

    That polished turd is shining brightly. Smells the same, though. Just look at the market price of Big Oil corporations. It’s out distanced that of Solar PV by a country mile since Biden was elected. If divestment were really working, we would be seeing the opposite. Look at the ratio of XLE to TAN. is a free site where you can plot it. Just enter the sybol XLE:TAN and look at the progression since last November ’20.

    You’ll see that XLE has outperformed TAN (the solar ETF) by fully 68% (!). Longer term the trend is more favorable, but yet the market is clearly disappointed in the Biden climate pledges. Just like it was for Obama, and all other presidents.

    I’ve had respect for David Wallace-Wells, so I’m mystified why he puts any credence in Biden’s climate plans. It’s vanishing fraction of the total $ in his budget. I think Biden means well, but he looks increasingly feeble-minded in all his interviews. He should turn over his thinking to smarter people.

    • jimbills Says:

      I don’t see in DWW’s article where he mentions Biden’s plan. It’s actually an excerpt from ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ from a few years ago. The full excerpt is worth the read, imo. DWW’s ‘optimism’ is essentially that we have no choice but do carbon capture on a massive scale, and he mentions how almost all the IPCC models already have that tech built-in with the less severe warming scenarios.

  4. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    It’s not too late. In fact, it never will be.

    OK, that’s where I stopped reading.
    That’s at odds with the physical systems as we understand them.
    All right, I’ll read his rationale….

    Instead, it is a problem that gets worse over time the longer we produce greenhouse gas, and can be made better if we choose to stop.

    Ah, I see. He seems to be unaware that permafrost melt and Arctic wildfires means that emissions will climb even if human output goes flat or even declines, and budgets worldwide (government and household) will be spending more on disaster response, community abandonment and crop failures. That “choose to stop” option doesn’t seem to reflect our species’ proven behavior, either.

  5. ecoquant Says:

    Yes, there has been progress. I’m not going to credit governments, however. Their movement, however slug-like, has been because of public pressure in the streets and because the climate is speaking. And …

    …. [M]uch of the progress has been by developments which some environmental progressives and the Degrowth Crowd dislike to credit. (Y’know, corporations. Those Nasties.) These are technological innovation in solar and wind and storage, and motoring innovations like EVs. And, like it or not, market forces which have these start-up products challenging The Established. It is classic Schumpeter.

    Indeed, those successes are my happy spot. Because no matter how stuck-in-the-mud some of my neighbors are in their renovations of their households, some day, it will not matter. The starkly low costs per kWh of wind+solar+storage and, for residences, especially solar+storage will bulldoze any sentimental commitments to oil, wood burning, or natural gas, or even grid-sourced generation. And for wealthy suburbs, as in which I am lucky to live, they have no excuse to fail to to that today. And, in my opinion, they owe it to the people, not far away and across the planet who cannot.

    Now, for a short tirade. Anyone who got it stuck in their heads that the transition to green energy could be done without emitting a bunch of fossil fuels or could be done without a bunch of extractive mining has been living under a rock — or in a mine — without awareness. This is a transition. All social ills and inequalities everywhere are not going to disappear just because there’s a climate emergency to address. As a matter, to the degree it is an emergency means other important matters cannot be addressed. And it is very inconsistent to think it can be, unless one assumes there are infinite resources and time which have, somehow, been neglected to be tapped before this moment.

    And, as a comment to the America First Folks, whether Republican or Democrat, whether you like it or not, it is also inconsistent to acknowledge there is a climate emergency and to demean cooperation with Terrible On Human Rights China or to think the U.S. can do this without coordinated international action. This is a global problem.

    Some basics, for the lurkers who may want to begin to throw doubts here on the urgency.

    There are multiple lines of reasoning which establish that thermal energy is trapped in the climate system due to elevating greenhouse gases, with Carbon Dioxide being the primary one resulting from human choices and activities.

    The principle argument is that greater concentrations of CO2 impede escape of thermal radiation through the Blackbody Effect, raising the thermal top of atmosphere. That and the lapse rate assures surface temperature must rise. The elevated concentrations of CO2 are known to be derived from human activity due to their isotopic chemistry, which ties them back to plant-produced activity of great age.

    That’s a boilerplate summary of climate disruption I’ve concocted for moments like this. And there’s:

    … [M]uch misunderstanding about what climate disruption means, how it will play out, and for what reductions of greenhouse gas emissions are intended. CO2 is not like DDT. CO2 hangs around for thousands of years. This is why (a) the goal is to zero CO2 emissions and emissions of those gases which become CO2, like Methane, and (b) why emphasis upon reducing Methane and hydrofluorocarbons without continued aggressive action to reduce CO2 emissions makes no sense. It’s all about the CO2.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      You barely mentioned methane, especially the fact that it is a GHG that is many times more potent than the CO2 that it turns into’ The “methane bomb” from subsea deposits and melting permafrost, if it occurs, could make moot any and all attempts to mitigate climate change—-that’s my biggest nightmare.

      • ecoquant Says:

        How appropriate!

        I’ve written much today about what I think of (U.S.) efforts to focus upon “short-lived climate pollution” like Methane.

        It’s called Losing sight of the big picture.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          Anyone who refers to methane as “short-lived climate pollution” has never understood the “big picture”. Methane is 85 times more potent a GHG than CO2 for the first ten years after it is released, and then turns into CO2 that lasts for thousands of years—-how is that short-lived?

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Looky, looky! Ecosquat can cut and paste neat looking graphs that supposedly tell us something. DOG too can cut and paste, although the things I find are just a bit more understandable than ecosquat’s.

            “Methane is a powerful greenhouses gas with a 100-year global warming potential 28-34 times that of CO2”.

            “Methane is also a powerful greenhouse gas. Over a 20-year period, it is 80 times more potent at warming than carbon dioxide. Methane has accounted for roughly 30 per cent of global warming since pre-industrial times and is proliferating faster than at any other time since record keeping began in the 1980s”.

            “Methane is the primary contributor to the formation of ground-level ozone, a hazardous air pollutant and greenhouse gas, exposure to which causes 1 million premature deaths every year.”

          • ecoquant Says:


            The “A” line are the emissions spectra for Sun and Earth, left to right. Here the horizontal is wavelength, moving from higher frequencies to lower frequencies. At the higher frequencies, there’s light. As you move to lower frequencies, with longer wavelengths, the radiation goes from light to near infrared to the infrared and thermal infrared, and ultimate to microwaves. Incoming light passes through a (nearly) transparent band from 0.3 microns to 0.8 microns, where absorption by water vapor begins to be prominent. Then there are a couple of notches in the incoming radiation as wavelength get longer by CO2 and CH4 (methane). By about 5 microns wavelength, incoming radiation from Sun is done, and that’s where the outgoing radiation from Earth picks up. It continues out to about 100 microns wavelength. This is the band that’s interesting, because as incoming radiation from Sun warms Earth, it (through complicated processes) gets down-translated in frequency before being emitted.

            If there were no atmosphere or (mostly) no greenhouse gases, this energy would go right back into space and the Earth would be in a (chilly) thermal equilibrium. But there are gases which get in the way.

            Turning to the “B” section, the absorption spectrum, we can see where. There’s water again, this time with the rotational component of the its absorption, there are notches for ozone (O3), a notch for Nitrous Oxide (N2O, product of degrading fertilizer), and then there’s a relatively broad section absorbed by CO2.

            Note that the CO2 absorption band at about 15 microns corresponds to a high point of the Earth’s emissions band. But the CO2 absorption is not a simple band. It’s got fine structure, and the absorption depends upon altitude, as Eli Rabett points out:

            The main point of the graph can be see from where the absorption band for CH4 is and how wide it is. It’s off to the left of the emission spectrum for Earth, just to the right of a wide absorbing H2O region, with an N2O absorption band almost on top of it. Methane’s addition to the atmosphere doesn’t contribute that much to radiative forcing causing global warming because at the wavelength it absorbs, there isn’t much radiation coming out from Earth. Certainly there isn’t that much being absorbed in absolute terms relative to the amount being blocked by CO2 or H2O. So even if methane blocks a lot of the thermal infrared in the band it occupies, relative to a uniform illumination across the band, which is the GWP, for Earth, it’s not a big global warming contributor.

            It does become a contributor when it becomes CO2, roughly per:

            CH4 + 4 O2 —> CO2 + 2 H2O

            Then, of course, being CO2 it absorbs like the rest of the CO2 and, because it has a much longer life in atmosphere, the total blocking is much larger than the 20 or 50 or 100 year typically quoted life for CH4.


          • ecoquant Says:

            Sorry that should be

            CH4 + 2 O2 —> CO2 + 2 H2O

          • ecoquant Says:

            I’ve taken a deep dive into what @DumbOldGuy is arguing, relating to the Global Warming Potential or “GWP” of various greenhouse gases. With guidance from Dr Adam Levy (ClimateAdam on YouTube and elsewhere), yes, the GWP of methane is substantially higher than CO2, and that is not ameliorated by its position in the IR spectrum as I thought. I was quite wrong about that.

            However, I don’t have a comprehensive re-summary in hand. That is likely to be detailed and, so, will appear at my blog instead of here. This is in part because I don’t yet fully understand the definition of GWP as originally given in the IPCC AR4 WG1 report, or if that’s been revised. I don’t want to correct with statement which also contained mistaken elements. So developing this may take a while.

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          AIUI the reason an incremental increase in CH4 has a much greater immediate GHG effect than a corresponding increase in CO2 is that the starting saturation level of CH4 is so much lower. That is, it’s easier to double the amount of blocked radiation in the CH4 band with very little added, whereas incremental increases in CO2 only block a smaller amount in their bands.

          Adding CO2 “merely” increases the length it will time for those bands to clear out and allow more radiation to escape.

          • ecoquant Says:

            Excellent point. I must say, however. That after a deep dive into the definition of GWP prompted by an answer to a question about it by Dr Adam Levy (“Climate Adam”), at least some of the comments I made on the CH4 vs CO2 thing are wrong, e.g., to @DumbOldGuy, and perhaps most.

            But I need to understand more about the definition so, when I do correct what I wrote, I don’t get something else wrong.

            Prof Ray Pierrehumbert has other things to say about the comparison between methane and CO2 on page 254 of his textbook on climate, Principles of Planetary Climate.

            One of the complications I don’t understand is that emissions of CH4 and N2O interact and I’m trying to figure out if GWP includes that effect or not. Right now, I don’t think so. The danger is if it doesn’t, there is some extra GWP due to their interaction which has a real effect but doesn’t get assigned to either of them.

      • greenman3610 Says:

        if we can stay below 2 C, “methane bomb” scenario is unlikely, although we’d be in a world of hurt from a lot of other stuff

        • ecoquant Says:

          Also, even if the “methane bomb” happens? Is it from the integrated radiative forcing from the Methane over the 20 years or so that it’s potent? Or the extra CO2 to which it decomposes? Offhand, I wager on the latter.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            So. in this horse race of global warming, ecosquat would NOT bet on the horse that is 85 times more potent? In ten years, the methane would be 850 “yards” down the track as opposed to the 10 yards the CO2 will make. Don’t bet the rent money on that one, eco.

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