A climate change scientist explains why she’s come to the conclusion that the dire warnings in the various periodic government reports issued by people like herself have begun to help produce some really beneficial effects:
I’m used to mind-boggling numbers, and there are many of them in this report. Human beings have put about 1.6 trillion tons of carbon in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution — more than the weight of every living thing on Earth combined. But as we wrote the report, I learned other, even more mind-boggling numbers. In the last decade, the cost of wind energy has declined by 70 percent and solar has declined 90 percent. Renewables now make up 80 percent of new electricity generation capacity. Our country’s greenhouse gas emissions are falling, even as our G.D.P. and population grow.
In the report, we were tasked with projecting future climate change. We showed what the United States would look like if the world warms by 2 degrees Celsius. It wasn’t a pretty picture: more heat waves, more uncomfortably hot nights, more downpours, more droughts. If greenhouse emissions continue to rise, we could reach that point in the next couple of decades. If they fall a little, maybe we can stave it off until the middle of the century. But our findings also offered a glimmer of hope: If emissions fall dramatically, as the report suggested they could, we may never reach 2 degrees Celsius at all. For the first time in my career, I felt something strange: optimism. And that simple realization was enough to convince me that releasing yet another climate report was worthwhile.
Something has changed in the United States, and not just the climate. State, local and tribal governments all around the country have begun to take action. Some politicians now actually campaign on climate change, instead of ignoring or lying about it. Congress passed federal climate legislation — something I’d long regarded as impossible — in 2022 as we turned in the first draft.
And while the report stresses the urgency of limiting warming to prevent terrible risks, it has a new message, too: We can do this. We now know how to make the dramatic emissions cuts we’d need to limit warming, and it’s very possible to do this in a way that’s sustainable, healthy and fair. The conversation has moved on, and the role of scientists has changed. We’re not just warning of danger any more. We’re showing the way to safety.
I was wrong about those previous reports: They did matter, after all. While climate scientists were warning the world of disaster, a small army of scientists, engineers, policymakers and others were getting to work. These first responders have helped move us toward our climate goals. Our warnings did their job.
Of course the causal pathways here are very complicated, and there’s a very difficult needle to thread, pragmatically speaking.
On the one hand, it’s clearly important to emphasize how dire the climate change crisis really is. On the other, non-stop doomerism isn’t likely to be an effective rhetorical position in terms of political action. The best message, practically speaking, would combine sounding a very loud and continuous alarm with various facts about how real progress is being made on the technological side toward ameliorating the trajectory of climate change, on both a long term and shorter term basis.
That message does in fact seem to track with what’s happening, so it’s not some sort of noble lie. As I mentioned recently, it doesn’t appear that apocalyptic talk of a “dying planet” is either scientifically valid or politically helpful. Instead, the message ought to be that this is a huge problem, created by human ingenuity, that can be and is beginning to be solved by it as well. Neither complacency nor despair is warranted or useful.