Nancy E. Anderson
This will be a pivotal year for confronting climate change. Election results in the United States will help to shape policies that will be felt for decades to come. It also will be a year of reckoning and recalibration in light of the United Nations’ failed Madrid climate conference last year. With so much at stake, this could be a now-or-never time for securing a better climate future.
Here’s our starting point. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions went down from 2005 to 2016. That’s unprecedented progress. But emissions rose sharply in 2018 before falling again last year.
Energy efficiency becomes the norm
Is all lost? I think not, for five reasons:
1. The global economy is growing faster than emissions. That means energy efficiency is increasing without an erosion in economic growth.
2. Energy efficiency is moving from the margins toward a new normal in the products we use — think how commonplace LED light bulbs are today.
3. The price of solar and wind power has plunged, and there’s good reason to expect the cost of energy storage, key to an electric power grid reliant on renewable energy, to decline as well.
4. The supply of clean energy resources is growing at the same time prices have declined. Not long ago, offshore wind generation was dismissed as a pipe dream. Now, the potential for electric power generated from clean, steady sources is becoming a reality.
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5. State and local leaders set building and energy-use regulations. The same goes for zoning and land use rules. And state and local governments — from California to New York and many places in between — are proving to be living laboratories for climate policies and practices.
Trump administration slows progress
But don’t relax yet. We still must end our fossil fuel addiction, and that won’t be easy because fossil fuels are bolted into the foundation of how our world works. With billions of dollars invested in fossil fuel-burning power plants, corporations and their investors will continue to push back against abandoning their assets.
Despite progress on the state and local levels and the astonishing rise of young grassroots insurgents such as Greta Thunberg, it’s difficult to secure durable victories without federal government support. The Trump administration has put its thumb on the scale by trying to keep states like California from taking meaningful climate action. The administration, in cooperation with the Senate, also is remaking the federal judiciary into its own image. This will impair climate policy-making for a generation.
So why continue to hope? Why fight? When we look back at past predictions, it’s clear that climate science got it right. We are starting to feel the effects of spewing out all those greenhouse gases. Business as usual for our fossil-fueled economies and heedless politics have created a global climate crisis, and it has started to damage how and even where we live.
But that’s not the end of the story.
Instead, let’s make “past performance is no guarantee of future results” the rallying cry of climate activists. The rising arc of damage can still be altered. Besides, there is no Planet B.
Nancy E. Anderson is executive director of The Sallan Foundation Inc.