7 Reasons America Should Succeed On Climate Change


One of the country’s best wonks, Vox’s Ezra Klein, has gone defeatist on climate change with his piece, “7 reasons America will fail on climate change.” He invites a reply, and this is mine.

I have praised Vox’s recent climate coverage. But to see how pessimistic this story is, look at a few of the large-type, all caps, pull-out quotes:



I asked one of the country’s top climatologists, Michael Mann, who criticized this story in a tweet to comment. He wrote:

Defeatist framing is not helpful and threatens serving as self-fulfilling prophecy. We all grew up reading the “The Little Engine that Could,” not “The Little Engine that Couldn’t.” The only real obstacle to averting dangerous climate change is lack of willpower and imagination. We must avoid messaging that seems to condone that, as the title of the Vox piece unfortunately does.

Over the past 8 years of blogging at Climate Progress, I have tried to focus on what the science says we should do (slash CO2 ASAP to avoid catastrophe) and what technology says we could do (as much as we need to) and what economics suggests it would cost (not bloody much).

Predictions of what America and the world “will” do in the future are essentially personal judgments on human nature and the national and global political system. I fully understand why some people would be pessimistic about that (and I have been myself, as readers know).

But the science makes clear inaction is not a rational option and that technology/economics makes clear that action is super cheap. If those involved in the political process (or in influencing or changing it) decide not to act, that is their choice. But for a leading pundit to declare that he knows the future of this complex issue seems at the very least wildly premature and at the worst, as Dr. Mann says, a counterproductive self-fulfilling prophecy.

Here are Klein’s 7 reasons America “will fail,” which I’ll then replace with my own:

1) We’ve waited so long that what America needs to do is really, really hard — and maybe impossible2) The people most affected by climate change don’t get a vote3) We’re bad at sacrificing now to benefit later4) The effects of global warming are not easily reversible5) The Republican Party has gone off the rails on climate change6) The international cooperation required is unprecedented, and maybe impossible7) Geoengineering is nuts

Here are mine:

1. What America and the world needs to do is really, really cheap economically, as key clean technologies plummet in cost.

In April, after an extensive review of the literature, the world’s scientists and governments concluded that stabilizing at 2°C would have a net effect on growth of 0.06% per year — essentially no effect at all compared to the staggering amount of climate damages avoided.

In May, the International Energy Agency (IEA) issued yet another major report, “Energy Technology Perspectives 2014,” that said keeping global warming below the dangerous threshold of 2°C (their 2DS scenario) would require investment in clean energy of only about 1% of global GDP per year — but be astoundingly cost-effective: “The $44 trillion additional investment needed to decarbonise the energy system in line with the 2DS by 2050 is more than offset by over $115 trillion in fuel savings — resulting in net savings of $71 trillion.”

As the charts I’ve posted show, solar and wind and key enabling clean energy technologies have been dropping sharply in price, as their deployment rates have grown.

In addition, the United States remains the Saudi Arabia of wasted energy, and so energy efficiency remains “The biggest low-carbon resource by far” — a truly limitless low-cost resource that never runs out.

2. All of the people who get a vote are severely affected by climate change.

It is I think one of the most widespread and dangerous myths that poor, “irrelevant” countries will suffer far more than everyone else. Yes, poor countries will suffer terribly — and all the more so because they lack the resources to “adapt.” But one only need look at Superstorm Sandy to realize that America, by virtue of being the richest country, has the most to lose in an absolute sense.

We have trillions of dollars of wealth near sea level — some of it in areas like Southeast Florida where there are no obvious ways to protect cities like Miami.

We are vulnerable to a wider diversity of harsh impacts than almost anyone else — not just sea level rise and worsening storm surge, but also to stronger hurricanes and bark beetle infestation and wildfires and Dust-Bowlification. The U.S. National Climate Assessment (NCA) and recent studies makes clear that large parts of the Southwest and Great Plains face near permanent drought conditions on our current do-nothing path.

Klein uses this map from a 2014 Standard & Poor’s analysis to make his case:

I’m not sure Standard & Poor’s is a great source for climate analysis. What exactly will happen to U.S. creditworthiness when coastal property values collapse? America has the most invested in this unsustainable Ponzi scheme we call the global economic system — so we have the most to lose.

Even using that map, you’ll see that India is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, and China isn’t far behind. Those two countries are very important to international climate talks — and China is as crucial to their success as we are.

Thus, “all of the people who get a vote are severely affected by climate change.” This is nothing to cheer about, of course, but anyone who read the NCA knows that the United States has more than enough science-based motivation for action.

3. We’re sometimes very good at sacrificing now to benefit later (and to benefit others).

As I’m writing this, it’s the 70th anniversary of D-Day. If you watched the moving coverage on TV, then you know that in 1944, a lot of people knew they were risking the ultimate sacrifice for the chance of a better future — that is, a better future primarily for other people they didn’t even know! And that is separate from the economic sacrifices and hardships Americans as a whole had been making for years during the war effort.

The “sacrifice” needed to avoid catastrophic warming is considerably smaller that what was needed to win WWII. Indeed, America could achieve 80% to 90% reduction in emissions by 2050 in a manner that resulted in a much higher income and quality of life.

4. There NEVER will be a time when aggressive climate action is not the best strategy for everyone.

It’s true that the effects of global warming are not easily reversible. But as Klein himself notes near the end of his 3000-word piece:

“Climate change isn’t binary. There’s not a single state of success and a single state of failure. Warming the world by 2.5 degrees Celsius is a whole lot better than warming it by three degrees Celsius. Warming the world by three degrees Celsius is vastly less catastrophic than warming it by four degrees Celsius.”

The choice is not between inaction now and inaction forever. Aggressive action will always be the best action. If we did it starting now, we could avoid the worst consequences. If we start 10 years from now, we’d be stuck with many serious consequences — but we could prevent even worse ones happening. And so on.

But asserting “America will fail on climate change,” is to imply climate change is binary — and that we are headed for a single state of failure.

5. The Republican Party has gone so far off the rails on climate change that it is triggering a backlash.

No one can dispute that “The Republican Party has gone off the rails on climate change.” Certainly American politics writ large are no source of optimism.

But the GOP has derailed so much that there’s now a backlash over climate denial, as Marco Rubio found out. And many progressives have finally realized what the polling and social science has been saying for years — campaigning on climate action is a political winner.

It is probably true that if Tea-Party driven conservatives continue to hold decisive power and oppose all sensible action on climate for the next, say, quarter century or more, then, Klein may be right. But who can predict politics that far out? I’d argue that if they remain intransigent in the face of a climate reality that grows ever more painfully obvious to the public each year, conservatives will consign themselves to political oblivion long before then.

6. The international cooperation required is unprecedented, but the key country for a treaty, China, is on a path toward capping its carbon emissions.

There is no international climate treaty possible without the genuine participation of China, the biggest polluter and the biggest obstacle to a global treaty besides us.

We reported earlier this week that a key academic advisor on climate to the Chinese government said that he and other experts were recommending a cap on carbon emissions. Even more important, a key leader on climate issues in the government has acknowledged the country is committed toward developing one:

The world’s biggest producer of fossil fuel emissions has been studying for more than a year how and when it might be able to make its pollution levels peak and hopes to act as soon as possible, said Xie Zhenhua, China’s lead envoy to the United Nations global warming talks.

“China will behave in a very responsible way for Chinese people and the world and we will try our utmost to peak as early as possible,” Xie said yesterday in an interview at the talks in Bonn….

These remarks are especially significant because they come after Obama’s announcement of our own cap on electric utility carbon pollution.

Melanie Hart, director of the China energy and climate policy program at the Center for American Progress, told me that the process going on in China to develop a genuine emissions cap is “amazing”:

An emissions peak has legs. It’s not going to stop. Now it is an official process.

This development is a genuine reason for optimism.

7. Geoengineering is nuts.

I agree with Klein here: “Not to be a killjoy, but it’s hard to believe that the consequences of the huge, unpredictable changes to the global climate can be safely reversed by further efforts to make huge, unpredictable changes to the climate.”

The most commonly discussed efforts to geo-engineer our way out of catastrophe have fatal flaws that make them, at best, the chemotherapy of climate options. And I know of no geoengineering expert who believes that anyone of them could work meaningfully in the absence of very aggressive CO2 reduction

But I don’t agree this is a reason for pessimism. If people thought geoengineering could plausibly replace CO2 reduction, then it would kill the chances for action here. For better or worse, though, geoengineering can’t.

BOTTOM LINE: I think it is important for climate and policy experts to be realistic. But as politically difficult as serious climate action may be, there’s no doubt it’s something we could do, and I don’t see how anyone can know we won’t. Klein ends his piece:

There are manageable failures and there are unmanageable failures. We’re currently on track for an unmanageable failure. I think it’s possible that we can slowly, painfully pull ourselves towards a manageable failure, but I’m not willing to call that optimism.

On climate change, the truth has gone from inconvenient to awful. Right now we’re failing our future. And we will be judged harshly for it.

Well, even a “manageable failure” would be far better than rendering large parts of the planet uninhabitable and reducing the carrying capacity to far below 9 billion people, which is where we’re headed. But I think it’s possible and indeed likely that we will quickly and not-so-painfully pull ourselves into an even better outcome.

But that better outcome would require the U.S. political establishment, opinion makers, and media to understand as much about climate science as Ezra Klein does — and as much about clean energy and climate economics as the IEA and world governments and top scientists do.

Personally, conveying that information to readers strikes me as a better course of action than prejudging the whole matter as hopeless.