Climate Progress owes its existence to Hurricane Katrina. But it is only a decade after Katrina that we have actually seen anything resembling genuine “progress on climate” in the world.
After my brother lost his Mississippi home in the Hurricane Katrina storm surge, he asked me for advice on whether or not he should rebuild there. I started interviewing climate experts, going to seminars, and reading the scientific literature for what ultimately turned into a book, “Hell and High Water” — and this blog.
Our top climate scientists impressed upon me the fact that the climate situation was far more dire than I had realized, far more dire than 98 percent of opinion makers and politicians understood — a situation that, sadly, remains true today. I also realized that climate scientists and the major media were not doing a good job of communicating the danger.
One piece of the climate progress of recent years is that climate scientists are doing a much better job of both speaking out and communicating effectively. The media, however, has until very recently gotten worse — with far less coverage and far fewer dedicated climate reporters than we had a decade ago.
Prior to Katrina, I had been focused on working with companies to develop and deploy low-carbon technologies, including three years in the mid-1990s helping to oversee the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, the largest cleantech RDD&D (Research, Development, Demonstration, and Deployment) program in the world at the time. But after Katrina I wanted to focus on communications so I joined the Center for American Progress in the summer of 2006 because it had become the cutting-edge think tank for both policy and communications on progressive issues.
I began part time on the one-year anniversary of Katrina, posting on this blog once a day. As readership grew and ClimateProgress.org became a leading voice on energy and climate issues, I began posting more. I became a full-time blogger, writing several times a day. A few years ago, we added a deputy editor and formally merged with CAP’s flagship website, ThinkProgress. Now CP has several staff, and our articles are routinely featured on the front page of ThinkProgress. Climate Progress’s readership has steadily risen — and our social media interactions have skyrocketed.
ClimateProgress is easily the most influential dedicated climate website on social media today. Not only do we have more than 400,000 Facebook followers and another 120,000 Twitter followers — but ThinkProgress also shares our articles to its 1.5 million FB followers and almost 400,000 Twitter followers. The most popular ClimateProgress articles get many tens of thousands of FB likes — and their headlines and key points are seen by millions.
One measure of climate progress, at least online, is that the websites that push climate-science denial have totally fizzled out on social media, despite considerable effort. Why? Science is inherently a social enterprise — an intrinsically interesting voyage of discovery in which scientists build on each others’ work toward a better and better understanding of the world around us. Denial, being anti-science, is in some sense an anti-social activity whose goal is to stop society from listening to the scientific community about the ever-growing risks to society posed by unrestricted emissions of carbon pollution. The deniers operate an inherently monotonous treadmill of anti-truth, misunderstanding, and disinformation that builds only toward nihilism. No wonder it bombs on social media.
Of course there are far more important measures of climate progress — from China to cleantech to the Pope.
China and Paris
The game-changing November 2014 U.S.-China climate deal — where the U.S. pledged to reduce CO2 emissions by 25-28 percent in 2020 versus 1990 levels in return for China for the first time committing to peak in CO2 emissions by 2030 if not sooner — helped break the longstanding logjam in international climate negotiations between developed and developing nations. It resulted in a flood of commitments from other countries, which has created the genuine possibility of a breakthrough climate deal in Paris this December.
My June 2015 trip to China to meet with top governmental and non-governmental experts on clean energy and climate made clear to me the country’s leaders are serious about cleaning up their polluted air and beating their climate targets. It is widely believed in Beijing that China will peak in CO2 by 2025. It may be peaking in coal now. It will still take considerably more effort by China, the United States, and the world to keep total warming below the 2°C defense line that top scientists increasingly tell us we must not cross. But we have collectively started to take actions needed to keep that possibility alive, albeit barely.
Cleantech Comes of Age
At the Department of Energy, I had a chance to work with leading scientists and engineers at our national laboratories. I came to understand that the technology for reducing our emissions was already at hand and at a far lower cost than was widely understood — if we had smart government policies to drive those technologies into the marketplace and continue their march down the cost curve. Then I worked with some of the nation’s leading corporations, helping them to adopt CO2-reducing technologies and strategies that boosted both profits and productivity.
Now, finally, it is clear to everyone that the DOE projections from two decades ago were accurate. The price of solar by itself has dropped more than 99 percent since 1977 and 95 percent since the late 1990s.
Many other key technologies needed to avert catastrophic warming — wind, energy-efficient lighting, advanced batteries—have also seen a steady and in some cases remarkable drop in prices. This price drop has been matched by a steady improvement in performance. For instance, the best manufacturers have already reached the battery price needed for electric vehicles to have cost parity with conventional cars.
Maybe at some point in the past you could believe that climate action was too expensive, but not any more. The world’s top scientists, energy experts, economists, and governments have all spelled out in great detail that even the strongest climate action is super cheap. That is climate progress!
Finally, we have seen more and more opinion makers speak out on climate change. Maybe the most significant among them is Pope Francis, whose recent 195-page encyclical has spurred a global debate about the moral urgency for climate action. I would urge anyone needing motivation to accept and tackle the challenges we face in the years head to read it.
The Pope’s message is at its core a simple one: “We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.”
We have a long way to go to preserve a livable climate, a long way to go to make sure all of our great coastal cities — including New Orleans itself — don’t suffer the same devastation Katrina brought. But we have finally seen some genuine climate progress — especially compared to our previous “no strategy” strategy of keeping our foot on the accelerator as we headed toward the cliff of catastrophic warming while wishing for some miraculous technological deus ex machina to save us.