This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
The Earth’s climate has always been a work in progress. In the 4.5 billion years the planet has been spinning around the sun, ice ages have come and gone, interrupted by epochs of intense heat. The highest mountain range in Texas was once an underwater reef. Camels wandered in evergreen forests in the Arctic. Then a few million years later, 400 feet of ice formed over what is now New York City. But amid this geologic mayhem, humans have gotten lucky. For the past 10,000 years, virtually the entire stretch of human civilization, people have lived in what scientists call “a Goldilocks climate” — not too hot, not too cold, just right.
Now, our luck is running out. The industrialized nations of the world are dumping 34 billion tons or so of carbon into the atmosphere every year, which is roughly 10 times faster than Mother Nature ever did on her own, even during past mass extinction events. As a result, global temperatures have risen 1.2 C since we began burning coal, and the past seven years have been the warmest seven years on record. The Earth’s temperature is rising faster today than at any time since the end of the last ice age, 11,300 years ago. We are pushing ourselves out of a Goldilocks climate and into something entirely different — quite literally, a different world than humans have ever lived in before.
How hot will the summers get in India and Pakistan, and how will tens of thousands of deaths from extreme heat impact the stability of the region (both nations have nuclear weapons)? How close is the West Antarctic ice sheet to collapse, and what does the risk of five or six feet of sea-level rise mean for people living in mobile homes on the Gulf Coast? The truth is, no one knows for sure. We are in uncharted terrain. “We’re now in a world where the past is no longer a good guide to the future,” said Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor of engineering at Princeton University. “We have to get much better at preparing for the unexpected.”
By all indications, President Biden and his team understand all this. And it’s hard not to feel that after 30 years of dithering and denial and hypocrisy, the fight to save the climate has finally begun in earnest. In the 2020 election, nearly 70 percent of Biden’s voters said climate change was a top issue for them. Biden has staffed his administration with the climate A-team, from Gina McCarthy as domestic climate czar to John Kerry as international climate envoy. He has made racial and environmental justice a top priority. And perhaps most important of all, he sees the climate crisis as an opportunity to reinvent the U.S. economy and create millions of new jobs.
“I think in Obama’s mind, it was always about tackling the climate challenge, not making the climate challenge the central element of your economic policy,” says John Podesta, a Democratic power broker and special adviser to President Obama who played a key role in negotiating the Paris Agreement. “Biden’s team is different. It is really the core of their economic strategy to make transformation of the energy systems the driver of innovation, growth, and job creation, justice and equity.”
Of course, there have been hopeful moments before: the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, when the nations of the world first came together to limit CO2 emissions; the success of Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth in 2006; the election of Obama in 2008 (“This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” Obama said in his speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination that year); the Paris Agreement in 2015, when China finally engaged in climate talks. But all of these moments, in the end, led to nothing. If you look at the only metric that really matters — a graph of the percentage of CO2 molecules in the atmosphere — it has been on a long, steady upward climb. More CO2 equals more heat. To put it bluntly, all our scientific knowledge, all the political speeches, all the activism and protest marches have done zero to stop the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels.
But hope rises again. The economic winds are lifting Biden’s sails: The cost of wind and solar power has plummeted by 90 percent or so over the past decade, and in many parts of the world it’s the cheapest way to generate electricity. Meanwhile, fossil-fuel dinosaurs are tottering: Big Coal is collapsing in real time and may disappear from American life in the next decade or so. ExxonMobil lost $22 billion last year and in August was delisted from the S&P 500. GM, long the staunch fossil-fuel loyalist of the U.S. auto industry, has pledged to go all-electric by 2035.
Globally, the signs of change are equally inspiring. Eight of the 10 largest economies have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. China, by far the world’s largest carbon polluter in terms of raw tonnage (on a per capita basis, the U.S. and several other countries pollute far more), has promised to become carbon neutral by 2060. Some 400 companies, including Microsoft, Unilever, Facebook, Ford, Nestlé, and Pepsi, have committed to reduce carbon pollution consistent with the United Nations’ 1.5 C target, which scientists have determined is the threshold of dangerous climate change. Many of these same companies are now calling on the Biden administration to cut overall U.S. carbon pollution by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, a goal consistent with the 1.5 C target.
Big Money is also waking up to the risks and benefits of climate action. In his annual letter to investors, Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, which manages $7.8 trillion in assets, challenged companies “to disclose a plan for how their business model will be compatible with a net-zero economy.” In her confirmation hearing, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called climate change “an existential threat” and promised to create a team to examine the risks and integrate them into financial policy-making.
Still, these are only baby steps in a very long journey. And the clock is ticking. “When it comes to the climate crisis,” says futurist Alex Steffen, “speed is everything.” Every molecule of carbon we dump into the atmosphere is another molecule of carbon that will warm the climate for centuries to come, and in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, reshape the world we live in. The changes we are making are not reversible. If we magically stopped all carbon pollution tomorrow, the Earth’s temperature would level off, but warm seas would continue melting the ice sheets and seas would keep rising for decades, if not centuries (last time carbon levels were as high as they are today, sea levels were 70 feet higher). Ocean acidification, caused by high CO2 levels, is already dissolving coral reefs and is having a major impact on the ocean food chain. Even after emissions stop, it will take the ocean thousands of years to recover.
Cutting carbon fast would slow these changes and reduce the risk of other climate catastrophes. But despite the world’s newfound ambition, political leaders are not moving anywhere near fast enough. Even the goal of holding future warming to 2 C, which is a centerpiece of the Paris Agreement and considered the outer limits of a Goldilocks climate for much of the planet, is nearly out of reach. As a recent paper in Nature pointed out: “On current trends, the probability of staying below 2 C of warming is only five percent.” If all countries meet the commitment they made in the 2015 Paris Agreement and continue to reduce emissions at the same rate after 2030, the paper argued, the probability of remaining below 2 C of warming rises to 26 percent (“As if a 26 percent chance was good,” Swedish climate wunderkind Greta Thunberg pointed out in a tweet).
The great danger is not climate denial. The great danger is climate delay. Instead of pushing for changes tomorrow, world leaders and CEOs like to make virtuous-sounding statements about what they will do in 2050. And then in 2050, they will make virtuous-sounding statements about what they will do in 2070. Climate scientist Zeke Hausfather calls this the “empty radicalism” of long-term goals.
What’s needed is action now. As climate envoy John Kerry put it at the World Sustainable Development Summit in February: “We have to now phase out coal five times faster than we have been. We have to increase tree cover five times faster than we have been. We have to ramp up renewable energy six times faster than we are. We have to transition to [electric vehicles] 22 times faster.”
As an example of the seriousness of Biden’s near-term ambition, he has proposed transitioning to 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, which means goodbye natural-gas plants, goodbye coal plants, and hello electric cars and battery storage. It’s an astonishingly ambitious proposal, one that would require a remaking of the digital backbone of America at a breakneck speed. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, but if Biden is serious about getting it done, it will require retooling permitting laws and the environmental-review process that often stalls big infrastructure projects.
Demanding action now will also require shutting down the international financing schemes that support fossil fuels. China, Japan, and South Korea all claim to be doing their part in making carbon reductions at home, while at the same time they are financing 70,000 megawatts of coal power in places like Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Indonesia. In addition, state-run oil companies in places like China, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia are on course to spend more than $400 billion over the next decade to expand oil infrastructure and exploration.
The goal of net-zero emissions is also problematic. “Net zero” is not the same thing as zero. It means that carbon pollution is either eliminated or offset by other processes that remove carbon from the atmosphere, such as forests or machines that capture CO2. Some of these offsets and technologies are more legit than others, opening the door to scams that claim to eliminate more carbon than they do.
In a way, the economic chaos caused by the pandemic has created a historic opportunity for the Biden administration. As one White House adviser tells me, “If you are going to pump billions of dollars into the economy, why not use those dollars to help us transition away from fossil fuels?” This is one of the central ideas behind Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure bill, which is now being negotiated in Congress. The bill includes a wide variety of climate-related initiatives, shaped around the twin pillars of Biden-era policy: clean-energy jobs and climate justice.
Already the pushback is fierce, especially in states that have benefited from the fracking boom. “The climate fight going forward is really about natural gas,” says Leah Stokes, author of Short Circuiting Policy, an analysis of how special interests have derailed clean-energy policy for 30 years. Shortly after Biden issued his first round of executive orders aimed at the climate crisis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference in the middle of the gas fields “to make clear that Texas is going to protect the oil-and-gas industry from any type of hostile attack launched from Washington, D.C.” In Florida, two bills were introduced that would preempt local governments from implementing plans to lower carbon pollution. In California and New York, residents are fighting transmission lines for offshore wind farms. Republicans, along with stalwart fossil-fuel allies like the Heritage Foundation, recently convened a private retreat in Utah to plot ways to “reclaim the narrative” on climate, while Republican Senators like Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn continue to recycle tired old rants about how the Paris Agreement is destroying American jobs.
None of this is surprising. And the fight will only get bigger and more ruthless as the clean-energy transition accelerates. Fossil fuels are emblematic of a culture, a way of life, a political hierarchy, and an empire of wealth that will not go quietly into the night.
Even among climate activists and progressives, there is wide disagreement about the best path forward. In Pennsylvania, Rep. Conor Lamb, a Democrat who supports Biden’s climate goals, sees natural gas as indispensable. “You can’t turn off natural gas in our society, at least in the Northeast of the United States at this time,” Lamb tells me. “You just can’t do it.” Lamb advocates investments in expensive and unproven technology like carbon capture that could extend the life of fossil fuels. Then there are the eternal battles over nuclear power as a source of clean energy, which Lamb also supports. Others, like UC Berkeley energy professor Daniel Kammen, remain skeptical: “If low-cost, reliable, entirely safe nuclear can prove itself out, this is wonderful. . . . But there’s a lot of big ifs.”
More important, the fight for a stable climate is increasingly inseparable from a fight for justice and equity. Catherine Coleman Flowers, who was on a task force that helped shape Biden’s climate policy during his campaign, grew up and works in Lowndes County, Alabama. “I see a lot of poverty here,” Flowers says. “And I see a lot of people who suffer from the impacts of climate change — whether it is heat, or disease, or poor sanitation and polluted drinking water. You can’t separate one from the other. They put sewage lagoons next to the houses of poor people, not rich people. They put oil pipelines through poor neighborhoods, not rich ones.”
Internationally, rich nations of the world pledged to “mobilize” $100 billion by 2020 through the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund to help developing nations adapt to climate change. But only about $10 billion materialized. The U.S. was among the worst actors: Of the $3 billion President Obama promised, he funded only $1 billion before Trump canceled further payments (Biden has promised to make good on the commitment, and then some).
Whatever happens with Biden’s climate and energy initiatives, we’re living in a new world now. The faster we cut carbon, the more manageable the changes will be. But change is coming. The biggest fights of the future are less likely to be about natural gas and nuclear power than about sea walls and migration policies. “Adaptation is not sexy,” says Alice Hill, who was an adviser to the Obama administration. “But it is inevitable.” As climate impacts escalate, dangerous techno-fixes, such as solar geoengineering, which involves spraying particles into the stratosphere to reflect away sunlight and cool the planet, will likely become more tempting and more divisive, perhaps further diluting the will to quickly cut carbon pollution.
For more than 30 years now, scientists and politicians have been aware that our hellbent consumption of fossil fuels could push us out of the Goldilocks zone and force humans to live in a world we have never inhabited before. As Biden’s push for climate action gets real, we will learn a lot about how serious human beings are about living on this planet, and how far the powerful and privileged are willing to go to reduce the suffering of the poor and vulnerable. If political leaders don’t take the climate crisis seriously now, with all they know, with all they have been through already, will they ever? “Climate advocates keep saying, ‘This is it, this is it, this is it,’ ” warns Podesta. “But this really is it. If we don’t amp up and accelerate the energy transformation in this decade, we’re goners — really goners.”