Climate optimism of the will

Don't mope. Fight and win.

“Eradicate the optimist
who takes the easy view
that human values will persist
no matter what we do.
Annihilate the pessimist
whose ineffectual cry
is that the goal's already missed
however hard we try.”

— Piet Hein

Among some climate activists, a mood of despair has set in. It has become increasingly common for young people hooked into the climate debate to declare that they refuse to bring a child into a world doomed by climate change. Now, activist Daniel Sherrell has a new book out trying to help people manage their climate anxiety. From The Cut’s book review and interview with the author:

When faced with the collapse of society, it feels increasingly pointless to accomplish all the things we are meant to do in life, including planning for a future and taking care of our mental health. Discussing, processing, and responding to these emotions often feels as insurmountable as halting carbon emissions itself.

Now, I can certainly understand why people who are paying close attention to the climate issue are feeling down. The chance of holding warming to 1.5C is now very slim indeed; effectively, this ship has sailed. Though the most extreme warming scenarios are looking much less likely (due to improved modeling), the likely scenarios have gotten worse, with warming now generally predicted to be between a very nasty 2C and an utterly catastrophic 4.4C, with the median somewhere in the range of a pretty catastrophic 3C:

What’s more, though activists are increasingly shrill and desperate, the general public still doesn’t have the necessary sense of urgency — at least, in the U.S. On Gallup’s regular poll on the most important problem facing the country, only 3-5% mention the environment, pollution, or climate change. And when a recent poll asked Americans whether they’d be willing to support various policies to limit climate change, here’s what they responded:

When two-thirds of Americans refuse to pay $10 a month to avert global environmental catastrophe, we’re in trouble. Meanwhile hurricanes are ravaging the coast, wildfires have made California a much less attractive place to live, heat domes are roasting Portland, and the Mississippi is beginning to flood its banks more.

So yeah, I’m not going to tell young climate activists that things are going well. The planet is in a very tough spot. But what I am going to tell young climate activists is that despite their pessimism of the intellect, they should embrace optimism of the will. Not only does despair ultimately not help anything, but it’s increasingly unwarranted — yes, things are tough right now, but recent developments mean that the climate has more of a fighting chance than it has in recent memory. And the reason is that unlike the discouraged climate activists, can-do types in science, business and government have been rolling up their sleeves and fighting the good fight.

The fightback against climate doom has begun

Activists are understandably leery of the idea that new technologies will come along to save the planet just in the nick of time. After all, the incentives are in no way aligned for such a deus ex machina — given the fundamental externality of carbon emissions, there’s no reason why scientists and engineers should care enough about the climate to spend their lives inventing stuff to fix it.

And yet, they do. Even if the public doesn’t take the climate problem seriously enough, scientists and engineers do. And they have poured their hearts and souls and careers and fortunes into creating cheap solar, cheap wind, cheap reliable batteries. Let me just re-post my favorite graph:

This is the result of many decades of hard work by a huge number of actors in government, academia, and business.

Of course cheap solar and wind are only one piece of the technological puzzle here. For one thing, you need to store energy for when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing — not just from day to night, but from summer to winter. Normal lithium-ion batteries work great for the short term and have come down in cost enormously, but they won’t cut it for the longer-term stuff. But as David Roberts explains, some new longer-term storage technologies like Form Energy’s iron-based batteries may already be competitive with gas plants for firming up the grid in some markets.

Meanwhile, electricity and transportation only account for a little over half of emissions. But technology is pressing ahead on every front! Industrial processes need heat; so we’ll use hydrogen to store energy from renewable sources and burn it for heat. Steel requires carbon to make, but we have an increasing array of new technologies to address that too. Same for cement. And as for retrofitting buildings cheaply to use electricity instead of gas, I know of some very promising developments in that area as well (more to come on that later).

The point here is that we don’t have to depend on any one magical deus ex machina technology to come and save us. There is no single such technology. Instead, everywhere you look, scientists and engineers are inventing new technologies to maintain our industrial society while eliminating greenhouse emissions. And everywhere you look, companies are eager to both develop and purchase these technologies, promising to bring them down in cost the way solar and batteries have fallen in cost.

And a new report from the Institute for New Economic thinking suggests that this flurry of technological innovation has already changed the game in a fundamental way. In “Empirically grounded technology forecasts and the energy transition”, INET’s team notes that we’ve consistently underestimated progress in renewable technology. They argue that realistic forecasts mean that green energy will be so cheap that even businesses that don’t care about climate at all will now find it worth their while to ditch fossil fuels:

Here we take a new approach based on probabilistic cost forecasting methods that made reliable predictions when they were empirically tested on more than 50 technologies. We use these methods to estimate future energy system costs and find that, compared to continuing with a fossil-fuel-based system, a rapid green energy transition will likely result in overall net savings of many trillions of dollars - even without accounting for climate damages or co-benefits of climate policy. We show that if solar photovoltaics, wind, batteries and hydrogen electrolyzers continue to follow their current exponentially increasing deployment trends for another decade, we achieve a near-net-zero emissions energy system within twenty-five years. In contrast, a slower transition…is far more expensive. If non-energy sources of carbon emissions such as agriculture are brought under control, our analysis indicates that a rapid green energy transition would likely generate considerable economic savings while also meeting the 1.5 degrees Paris Agreement target. (emphasis mine).

Cheap renewable energy means that we don’t have to convince everyone in the world to sacrifice for the climate. Every selfish businessperson out there trying to make a buck now has an incentive to switch from coal to solar, just because it’s cheaper. (Note that this completely blows degrowth arguments out of the water, at least as regards climate change.)

And you can already see this start to materialize. The governments of India and China have been pushing back against emissions targets for years, arguing that their economies need to use fossil fuels in order to eliminate poverty. But thanks to the valiant efforts of the people pushing renewable technologies forward, these countries are now starting to decarbonize out of pure self-interest. India has been canceling coal plants left and right. China just announced that it’s canceling the financing of all new coal plants overseas, suggesting that Xi Jinping might have the political clout to take on the entrenched, hugely powerful coal industry. This would never have happened if technological innovation hadn’t made decarbonization an attractive economic prospect in its own right.

Even America’s Republicans may be starting to come around; despite controlling the Presidency and the Senate, they put significant climate provisions in the December Covid relief bill.

In other words, though we haven’t managed to convince the general public to make deep material sacrifices to fight climate change, we have managed to convince several key segments of society to join the fight in a highly effective manner. The effort to invent green technologies has been broad, consistent, sustained, and vigorous. And it’s pretty clear at this point — in a way that it wasn’t clear a decade ago — that the effort is going to be successful. That is what “optimism of the will” gets us; that is what it means to fight ourselves out of a tough situation.

The energy of optimism

This does not mean that the fight is won, and that we can kick back and watch technology stop climate change for us. As the INET report indicates, even optimistic technological scenarios still require strong government action on non-energy sources of emissions such as agriculture and land use. Moreover, technology might make decarbonization cheap, but the fossil fuel lobby is still incredibly powerful, especially in the United States — coal is dead, but oil and gas support tons of jobs and have the ear of the GOP and some Democrats as well. Innovation has opened the door to an emissions-free future, but activism will be needed to push us through that door.

That’s where optimism comes in. Activists need to realize that even though projections have worsened and the 1.5C target will probably be missed, technology has flipped what would otherwise be a truly hopeless situation into a very winnable battle. 10 years ago it looked like in order to stop climate change, activists would have to convince the world to make huge material sacrifices. But now, there’s no need to embrace degrowth, or demand that people live ascetic lives, or abolish capitalism, or any of that stuff. Economic logic is on the activists’ side now. All that’s needed is to overcome the entrenched political power of the lobbies of sunset industries, and their culture warrior allies. Those are powerful enemies, but they’re fundamentally beatable ones.

Climate activists will thus benefit from both a change in attitude and a change in tone. Optimism of the will — the determination to fight our way out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves — is a reason to get up in the morning. And it also makes for a damn good message. Instead of histrionics, or increasingly shrill and despairing portents of doom, or insistence that capitalism must end NOW NOW NOW OR THE PLANET DIES — all of which alienate more people than they convert — climate activists can deliver a positive, optimistic, can-do message. Climate change is beatable. We can even make money while beating it! Human ingenuity and will can triumph over the brute elemental forces that would destroy us. Must triumph, in fact.