Please talk me out of a grim climate crisis analysis and forecast

As I revise Universities on Fire I have been mulling over one way of looking at the climate crisis in recent history and the near future.  It’s a grim view, specifically of the United States, and yet I can’t shake it.  Please help talk me out of it.

Fair warning: I’m writing this in a hurry, caught between competing deadlines, so it’ll be a short post without a ton of links or development.

The Age of Stupid

I’ll explain this shortly.

Let’s start with the American partisan divide over the climate crisis.  Roughly speaking the Republican party either doesn’t think it matters, or thinks it’ll happen but humans didn’t do it and the government should stay out of the issue, or considers it a conspiracy/scam. In contrast the Democratic party has been increasingly interested in viewing climate change as a dire threat and wanting to do something about it.

So when Americans elected Trump and gave both houses of Congress to the Republicans in 2016, we were set for a climate crisis retreat on the political side.  (This is one reason I saw my friend Bill McKibben campaigning fiercely for Hillary Clinton that year.) While civil society may have become more interested in the climate crisis, government was either stymied or retrograde. So that’s four years lost.

Then in 2020 the US elected Joe Biden. He pledged to treat the climate crisis as a leading threat. He proposed a series of programs and participated in the 2021 COP meeting. Yet all of that political energy ran into a political minefield. Many of those programs died in Congress, thanks to solid Republican opposition, plus being undermined by putative Democrats Manchin and Sinema. Meanwhile, Biden authorized more oil drilling.

Next, Putin attacked Ukraine and it looks like Biden’s political calculus changed. The American president responded to that new war by (among other things) calling for increased fossil fuel production (LNG to Germany, expanded infrastructure, etc.) in order to help countries avoid buying Russian oil and gas.  As for alternatives, global opinion seems to hold that renewables (primarily solar and wind, also hydro) are not capable of being scaled up to meet potential energy shortfalls.  In short, for geopolitical reasons, the White House led the way in increasing fossil fuel production.

The political calculation has other components. As 2022 staggers on, some polls indicate that climate change is not a leading issue for most Americans now. Perhaps in response to such assessments, Biden and some other Democrats have stopped talking about climate change as much as they used to. The topic barely appeared in the 2022 State of the Union.

This brings my grim story to the rest of 2022. Looking ahead, I see little chance of relief.  The consensus seems to be that the GOP will attain a Senate majority in November’s Congressional elections, and also make gains in the House, perhaps enough for a majority. This would block any major climate initiatives from Biden in 2023-2024, assuming he attempts any, given the GOP’s militant and well organized opposition to anything along these lines.

Which brings us to 2024 and eight years of next to no American governmental progress on the climate emergency.  That’s almost a decade, lost. Is the US really responding this badly to what is arguably the biggest 21st century crisis?

Looking further ahead, what are the odds of the Democratic party returning to a climate focus, winning the presidency in 2024, and also getting back majorities in both houses?

Please help me see a way out of this. Tell me Biden will use his extensive federal experience to whip up some powerful executive orders which will actually get done, running past Republican judges. Make a case that the states making up the majority of American economic power are going to take more action on the issue. Perhaps you see a climate disaster occurring which will sap Republican opposition to climate mitigation and adaption policies. Or something.

Otherwise I’m staring at stuck with the title of a cruel yet fair documentary from a decade ago, which describes our era as The Age of Stupid.  That described the world; for now, in this post, I’m just focused on the United States. Are we really ending up being such lousy ancestors?

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16 Responses to Please talk me out of a grim climate crisis analysis and forecast

  1. Harry Baya says:

    I wish I could say something encouraging. Not only do I agree that it seems highly likely that politics are going to cause years of no significant action related to avoiding a climate catastrophe (from numerous sources) in near (20- 50) years, it also looks to me that even the most aggressive actions considered by major players are at most a band aid where serious surgery is needed. My guess is that the human population will go through a drastic reduction (at least 50% down, maybe a lot more) and then recover – perhaps with the sense not to do it again. That’s the upside. Warfare and power competition may lead to our becoming extinct. How’s that for cheer. You don’t need to answer this. Continue doing what you can to help us as we are. If we were truly rational and trusted what science is telling us we would ALL change all our priorities and life styles to prevent the disaster. I talk the talk, I am not walking the walk. Harry

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Harry, you did a better job than I of summarizing the point: “politics are going to cause years of no significant action related to avoiding a climate catastrophe.”

      Population decline: like William Gibson’s Jackpot?

      Extinction is the theme of one chapter in the new book, alas.

  2. Joe says:

    I read an interesting statistic: those who have taken personal or financial losses from extreme weather tend to start believing climate-change is a real threat.

    It’s rather like what you said to me once about COVID: folks will fret only when someone they know is lost.

    But the hour is past late: rapid change is here. We need to consider geo-engineering as well as a carbon-zero energy system. Or our descendants will curse us.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Thank you for remembering that, Joe. I’m reminded of conversations with people who endured Katrina or Sandy.

      We need to do a better job of storytelling.

  3. Jeremy Stanton says:

    Well, on March 31, Biden did invoke the defense production act to ramp up domestic production of minerals critical for EV batteries, because it seems they’re waking up to the fact that “Demand for such materials is projected to increase exponentially as the world transitions to a clean energy economy.”

    https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2022/03/31/memorandum-on-presidential-determination-pursuant-to-section-303-of-the-defense-production-act-of-1950-as-amended/

    It sounds like DoD will be getting into the mining business, which is really quite extraordinary. Desperate times, desperate measures I suppose. Unfortunately no amount of government coercion will alter the geographic distribution of these minerals throughout the Earth’s crust, and most of them aren’t in the US in anywhere near the required amounts.

    Meanwhile, the latest IPCC report shows the best case scenario as +1.5C being surpassed later this decade and remaining that way for 35 years, before dropping due to future large scale net-negative carbon capture technology *that has yet to be invented*. Fingers crossed for no methane feedbacks during that time.

    I don’t think there’s any way to avoid a grim climate crisis analysis and forecast. The best we can hope for is that declining net energy and its attendant financial unravelling will tip the global industrial society into an involuntary phase of degrowth. Reviews of the accuracy of the projections of the Limits To Growth World 3 model suggest we’re more or less on schedule for this soon.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Jeremy, thank you for these comments. I’d heard of Biden wanting to use the Defense Production Act, but didn’t know he’d actually done it. And what will the Pentagon mine, rare earths?

  4. Trent Batson says:

    Government’s purpose is to grow and maintain wealth and power. Governments will not do enough to mitigate GHG emissions. Wrong institution. Mitigation has already failed. Instead, civil society must focus on survival: adaptation, resilience and sustainability. Higher ed must lead this effort explicitly. That’s the right institution.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Trent, do you think we can persuade some states to view expanded renewables and social transformation as sources of wealth and power?

      In the meantime, on to civil society!

  5. Yes, we are lousy ancestors. Sad to say, you’ve got that right.

    As I read the increasing stack of climate change reports with their trajectories, from bad to really, really bad, I reflect on the opening of The Ministry of the Future, or in a non-fiction version, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells. While Robinson describes a future in which legal and extra-legal means are used to alter the future, Wallace-Wells describes life on the planet in the absence of Robinson’s imagined interventions. Given the inertia of local/national/global political systems (and the resulting centuries long atmospheric inertia) the scenarios of Wallace-Wells seem far more likely.

    As for academic institutions, we know the state of the world because of the work of academic scientists. Governments have funded this work, but the folks in the institutions have done the heavy, often under-appreciated lifting. They have continued to add decimal points to their estimates of climate change trajectories and effect. This has not been sufficient, and in the absence of some form of gordian-knot-chopper we are headed to a far different planet than the one that spawned our species.

    Living on the “new” planet will require a host of adaptations, and that is where the physical campus can be meaningful. In the form of flood protection at the University of Iowa or reaching for carbon neutrality at the University of California-Merced or institutions beginning to consider migrating to higher ground, campuses (even in red-states) are further along than most other institutions in the US.

    The world needs large scale demonstrations of how to live, work and build on a changed planet, without carbon footprints, sequestering carbon and emitting no net greenhouse gasses.  This is not easy or inexpensive, but American campuses have three distinguishing characteristics that make them essential models: Scale and Complexity, Longevity and Permanence, Governance and Comprehensiveness. There is more on this on campus matters.net https://wp.me/p2C3OA-9Xj

    Physical campuses can (must?) demonstrate how to live on this less (uninhabitable?) planet.

    We have not done enough to prevent climate change. Now we must prepare for the future of life on the planet. This not a cheery note, but it is something we can do to improve the lives of those who come after us.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Excellent, mordant thoughts, Michael.

      This is a great phrase to describe one function academia can perform: “large scale demonstrations of how to live, work and build on a changed planet.”

  6. Terra Strong says:

    The only way out of this climate wreck will be for each of us to finally realize that we all can’t have it all. We all have to see ourselves as the self-centered, invasive species who is incapable of saying no to every want and plastic wrapped aspiration. The only way out is not political. It is individual. We all must take responsibility for our own footprint. Limit our consumption. Limit our reproduction Stop pursuing whatever makes life easier and the more pleasurable. Start questioning each of our actions–what can each of us do to turn things around? Make goals and stick to them.

    I am now elderly. When I am finally diagnosed with an end game malady, I won’t fight it. I won’t be part of the disposable, plastic world of medically prolonged life. I want to go like every other non-human organism: leaving the earth slightly better than when I arrived.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Dear Terra Strong (and what a fine name you have):
      Thank you so much for these comments. I admire your brave way of facing death.

      You describe something of a cultural revolution. That new way of being would reject consumerism and celebrate repair and making do. It would be less ambitious, more forgiving, and with fewer people, less stuff.
      Do you see signs of it emerging now?

  7. Roxann says:

    Speculations, there are many, but there is no singular or even complex solution to ending massive exploitation of our planet. IMHO, I’m thinking and asking why do you think the Moon and Mars are being resourced and examined as a viable alternative to planet Earth? When we use every resource and pollute our home, climate shame, whatever, so that is no longer viable, the current future explorers will be well on their way to thinking about and eventually establishing colonies on Mars, or other viable planets, and or moon colonies. ( maybe the same thing will happen on those planets- hopefully we will learn from the past!)
    I imagine none of us will be here to really see that happen. I really hope that doesn’t happen but if it does, I hope Earth would someday be re-inhabitable. What we in our short time lines here, I hope will sustain the Earth and all inhabitants in kind and compassionate ways. Even though that might not happen, each of us can try to leave a legacy of kindness and compassion and care for our Earth home in all the best ways that we can, individually and world-wide collectively.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I applaud your call for kindness, compassion, and care, dear Roxann.

      Perhaps settling the moon and Mars will become an area for struggle over competing visions.

  8. David Lyon says:

    Maybe a better approach would be for government to do a better job of incentivizing the public and private sector to do more. For example, I’m surprised there is no incentive for the public institution where I work to integrate mass transit on a large scale. Instead, we have massive parking lots and garages that generate revenue.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      David, that would be a great step to take. It would also be a hard one, given how much America (I am guessing you’re talking about a US campus) loves cars, and how we need to expand mass transit.

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