From Yale Environment 360
Donald Trump's ascension to the presidency is a stunning blow to hopes for avoiding the worst impacts of global warming. But a broad-based, grassroots movement committed to cutting emissions and promoting clean energy must continue and intensify -- the stakes are simply too high to give up.
One possibility is, we've lost. It's a real possibility, and we should consider it carefully instead of ignoring it because it's emotionally unpalatable.
I think the argument would go like this: The idea that humans would move quickly enough off coal and oil and gas to salvage the planet's climate was always a long shot. When I wrote the first book on all of this back in 1989, I interviewed a political scientist who said "it's the problem from hell," with so many interests at odds, and so much money invested in the status quo, that it was hard to see a real path forward.
And that was back when we thought global warming would roll out somewhat slowly -- when we feared the consequences that would unfold in the second half of this century. The scientists, it turns out, had been much too conservative, and so "ahead of schedule" became the watchword for everything from polar melt to ocean acidification. Already, only 17 years into the millennium, the planet is profoundly changed: half the ice missing from the polar north, for instance, which in turn is shifting weather patterns around the globe.
That galloping momentum of warming (building on itself, as white ice gives way to blue ocean and as fires in drought-stricken forests send clouds of carbon aloft) scares me. It should scare everyone; for a decade now it has threatened to take this crisis beyond the reach of politics. To catch up with the physics of climate change we'd need a truly stunning commitment to change, an all-out, planet-wide decision to push as hard as we've ever pushed to spread clean energy and shut down the dirty stuff.
Even if he doesn't scrap the Paris accord, Trump and his team will do all they can to slow the momentum for action.
The closest we've gotten to that -- and in truth, it wasn't all that close -- was the Paris Agreement that went into effect last November 4. It committed all the nations of the world to holding the planet's temperature increase to as close to 1.5 degrees Celsius as possible, and by all means below 2 degrees. It lacked enforcement mechanisms and strict timetables, but it did at least signal the planet's willingness to go to work. And it helped conjure up the counter-momentum that was beginning to take hold: renewable energy was suddenly outpacing fossil fuel in many places. Carbon emissions were starting to stabilize.
Four days later, Donald J. Trump was elected.
He has promised, of course, to scrap the Paris accords, but even if he doesn't do that, he and his team will do all they can to slow that building momentum. And since pace is everything here, that might well be enough. Our not-very-good-in-any-event chance just got much much harder.
But -- and I say this with a certain weary sadness -- the chances have not gotten so much harder that one can justify giving up. There definitely are days when I wish one could simply say "that's that" and walk away, and since I don't live next to a refinery I suppose I have that luxury. Doing so would require, however, ignoring a few realities that shouldn't be ignored.
One is the almost unbelievable fall in the price of renewable energy, which is continuing apace. Each passing month brings cheaper solar panels, more efficient wind turbines, more powerful batteries at lower cost, shinier electric cars. The pieces are there, and in a few spots they're actually being used: If Denmark can generate half its power from the wind, then so can lots of other places. If India can build the world's largest solar farm in a matter of months, then there's no reason others couldn't follow. The engineering breakthroughs of the last decade have made rapid conversion technologically plausible; as Mark Jacobson and his Stanford team have demonstrated, you can make the numbers work -- they've shown state-by-state that getting to 80 percent clean power in the U.S. by 2030 isn't easy, but it is possible.
The other reality is darker, but no less real: global warming will happen on a spectrum. It's not like everything is okay up to 2 degrees, and then everything is hell. Hell is breaking loose now, and we're barely past 1 degree. Two degrees will be exponentially tougher -- but 3 degrees will be exponentially tougher than that. The battle never really ends: you just keep falling back to the next redoubt, finding some new weapon with which to fight, yielding no more ground than you must. We're never going to reach the point where it can't get any worse. It can get worse, and it will if we don't battle.
Where, then, will the battle be fought?