Climate News Can Be Confusing. Here’s How to Make Sense of It.
You would be forgiven if your head was spinning at the headlines about climate change this week. Some reports say countries are falling far short of their promises, with serious consequences likely, but there also seemed to be some signs of optimism. Here’s a quick look.
Are things really that bad?
Let’s start with the word “optimistic,” a word not often seen in an article about climate change. The Morning newsletter explored the meaning of optimism in the context of climate trends, and where in the world progress has been made.
It cited the work of the columnist David Wallace-Wells, who five years ago explored a worst-case scenario for climate change in which the planet warmed by as much as 5 degrees Celsius by 2100. That would be catastrophic, bringing extreme weather, environmental damage, economic collapse, famine and war, while hitting developing countries especially hard.
But Mr. Wallace-Wells now sees that level of doom as much less likely, suggesting that human beings have made progress on one of their most serious challenges ever faced. “I’ve grown more optimistic than I used to be,” Mr. Wallace-Wells said. “The endgame looks calmer and more stable than it did a few years ago.”
It’s a matter of a few degrees.
Mr. Wallace-Wells wrote an essay published online on Wednesday in The New York Times Magazine’s climate issue. His essay is a broad treatment of a new climate reality that is taking shape: one that falls somewhere short of outright doom.
He starts with the word “apocalyptic” to describe years-old projections for the future in which “business as usual” would bring four or even five degrees Celsius of warming and the food crises, heat stress, conflict and economic strife and more that it would entail. But he notes that scientists believe that warming this century will most likely fall between two or three degrees.
“Those numbers may sound abstract, but what they suggest is this: Thanks to astonishing declines in the price of renewables, a truly global political mobilization, a clearer picture of the energy future and serious policy focus from world leaders, we have cut expected warming almost in half in just five years,” Mr. Wallace-Wells wrote.
But he also warned about falling back on what he called the handy narratives of apocalypse and normality. You can explore his account of dozens of conversations with climate scientists, economists, policymakers, activists, and others, and the guideposts he uses to help map the landscape of climate possibilities.
Countries are falling short of their commitments.
The range of two to three degrees of warming was confirmed this week by the United Nations, in a report covered by The Times. Even though that scenario is an improvement over earlier projections, it still translates into severe disruption. With each fraction of a degree of warming, tens of millions more people worldwide would be exposed to life-threatening heat waves, food and water scarcity, and flooding.
The report said countries are failing to live up to commitments to fight climate change: only 26 of 193 countries that agreed last year to step up their actions have followed through. One problem appears to be unified action. On Monday, the European Union said it could only increase emissions reductions pledges when its members agreed on upcoming climate laws.
But an energy crisis, global inflation and political turmoil in countries like Britain and Brazil have distracted leaders and complicated cooperative efforts to tackle climate change. War in Europe has also been a factor.
The energy crisis from the invasion of Ukraine may have a surprising result.
Meanwhile, this week the International Energy Agency analyzed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its impact on global warming and proposed a possible positive development: The energy crisis triggered by the war is likely to speed up the transition away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner technologies.
That shift, however, is not happening fast enough to avoid dangerous levels of global warming, the agency said.
Some countries have been burning more fossil fuels, such as coal, in response to natural gas shortages caused by the war in Ukraine. Coal is the most polluting of all fossil fuels, and that means global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels are expected to rise roughly 1 percent and approach record highs.
But the rising cost of fossil fuels propelled many countries to invest heavily in clean, renewable alternatives, the I.E.A. said.
The rise in emissions would have been three times as large had it not been for a rapid deployment of wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles worldwide, the agency said in its World Energy Outlook, which forecasts global energy trends.
“It’s notable that many of these new clean energy targets aren’t being put in place solely for climate change reasons,” said Fatih Birol, the agency’s executive director, in an interview. “Increasingly, the big drivers are energy security as well as industrial policy — a lot of countries want to be at the leading edge of the energy industries of the future.”