The Biggest Lesson About Climate Change From 2019

We need to change how our economy is powered — and that will require politics

OnOn December 11, two things happened that caught the attention of those invested in the fight against climate change, which at this point should include all of us. TIME magazine named 16-year-old Greta Thunberg its 2019 person of the year, lauding her for “creating a global attitudinal shift, transforming millions of vague, middle-of-the-night anxieties into a worldwide movement calling for urgent change.” And, Saudi Aramco — Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company and the largest producer of crude oil in the world — had the biggest initial public offering on record, raising more than $25 billion and ending its first day of trading with a valuation of $1.88 trillion, $600 billion more than its nearest competitor, Apple.

More than anything else, these two events — the recognition of a truly fresh voice and the market’s embrace of the company with the single largest carbon footprint in the world — tell us where the world stands on climate change. Thunberg, who this time last year was holding a lonely vigil outside the Swedish Parliament as part of the nascent “School Strike for Climate,” represents the rise of a strong climate activist movement, one that has embraced increasingly radical tactics and is backed up by growing public support. Aramco represents how entrenched fossil fuels remain in the global economy, despite all that effort. Thunberg shows us how far we came in 2019, while Aramco’s multi-trillion dollar valuation shows us how far we still have to go.

Spend long enough reporting on climate change, and you can develop a nasty case of deja vu. Every year ends with a UN climate summit — 2019’s edition stumbled to a close in Madrid in mid-December — where the same fights are had between developed and developing countries, between Europe and the United States. Carbon dioxide emissions will likely hit a record high in 2019, and with them, the same warnings that we have only a few years left to drastically cut CO2 emissions or face global catastrophe. Scientists and environmentalists employ the same messages, doomsaying marbled with glimmers of hope. There are a few extreme weather events linked to climate change, like December’s record-breaking heat in Australia, presaging worse to come. And the next year, the cycle renews, as atmospheric carbon concentrations keep ticking up, now higher than they’ve been in millions of years.

There’s a reason that the Oxford Dictionaries named “climate emergency” as the word of the year for 2019.

The scientific news about climate change in 2019 was mostly bad, as it tends to be. The 2010s will almost certainly go down as the hottest decade on record, and July 2019 was the single hottest month on record. Sea ice levels in the Arctic — a key symptom for the rate of warming — keep dropping, with 2019 tied for the second-lowest levels on record. Ice in Greenland is melting seven times as fast as it was in the 1990s, directly contributing to rising oceans and putting the world on track for the highest projected figures for sea level rise by the end of this century. As the seas become hotter and more acidic, coral reefs — the nurseries of the oceans — suffer, and could be essentially gone by 2050. Extreme rainfall — one of the clearest effects of global warming — pounded much of the world, with the lower 48 U.S. states experiencing what’s likely to be the wettest year on record. Animal extinctions, droughts, wildfires — there’s a reason that the Oxford Dictionaries named “climate emergency” as the word of the year for 2019.

But more notable than the raw meteorological records broken in 2019 was the way that the knock-on effects of climate change on human society began to become clear. In October, amidst unusually hot and dry weather, California’s largest utility PG&E made the unprecedented decision to proactively cut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers, with little warning, to reduce the risk that live power lines could spark wildfires, as happened catastrophically in 2018. Teasing out the influence of warming temperatures on wildfires is tricky, and other factors — like growing human population in fire-prone areas — may play a larger role than climate change. But a hotter world is one that will likely experience more extreme weather, and the preemptive blackouts in California show what happens when the rickety infrastructure designed for a calmer climate meets a wilder future.

So that’s the bad news on the scientific front — and things weren’t much better politically. In November, President Trump began the process of formally withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, the 2015 international deal in which nearly 200 nations pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support poorer nations as they dealt with the effects of climate change. Trump’s move was a long time coming, and it was merely one part of his administration’s efforts to backtrack on climate action whenever possible, whether that meant working to revoke California’s authority to regulate emissions from automobiles or rolling back Environmental Protection Agency rules on greenhouse gases.

But while Trump may be willfully pulling the United States in the opposite direction of meaningful climate action, those countries that have remained faithful to the Paris Agreement haven’t done much better. Only seven countries — based on their carbon emission reduction pledges and current policies — are on track to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, which is the overall goal of the agreement. And when the nations of the world met at the annual year-end UN climate talks in Madrid, little was achieved. The United States and other large polluters like Australia, India, and China blocked even a nonbinding measure that would have encouraged — not mandated — countries to take on tougher emission reduction pledges next year. The bar had been set low for the negotiations, officially called the 25th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change. It still wasn’t cleared.

Ten years ago, the near-collapse of the UN climate talks would have fed a narrative of failure on global warming action. I know, because I was at the 2009 Copenhagen summit, where expectations for a true global deal on climate change were high, only to be dashed when those expectations met the reality of global politics. The U.S. president was different then, but the essential issue was largely the same — domestic politics, not international ones, ultimately drive what countries are willing to do on climate change.

And this is where the good news begins to trickle in, ever so slowly. Despite Trump’s pledges that he would bring back coal, global demand for the single biggest source of human-made greenhouse gas emissions fell for the first time in two years, thanks in large part to the continued closure of coal plants in the United States. (Less good is the fact that new coal plants continued to be opened in Asian countries like India and China, where the demand for new electricity generation is ravenous.) Solar power is getting cheaper — the average cost has declined 65% over the past five years — and is growing rapidly, as are other renewable sources of energy. Cheaper clean energy makes climate action more painless, and in turn more popular, enabling policies like Canada’s move to establish a federal price on carbon.

So too does the steady movement of public opinion in favor of climate action. A 2019 Pew poll found that people in most countries listed climate change as one of the two top global threats, while another recent Pew survey concluded that the percentage of Americans who believed climate change was a major threat to the well-being of the United States grew from 40% in 2013 to 57% this year. In Greta Thunberg, the climate movement has found a symbol to rally around, one whose genius lies in her ability to articulate the key injustice of climate change: the mortgaging of the future by the present. “The eyes of all future generations are upon you,” Thunberg told delegates at a UN climate summit in New York in September. “And if you choose to fail us, I say — we will never forgive you.”

The real obstacle to meaningful climate change action in 2020 and beyond is power — and I mean power in two ways. The first is power in the technical sense: How do we create new kinds of cleaner power production that will rapidly reduce carbon emissions while ensuring everyone on the planet has the resources needed to live a developed lifestyle? It’s an exceedingly tough problem, because it requires us to replace an entire global industrial energy system, and do it while the clock is running. It will require innovation on a scale we haven’t yet begun to approach. For all the growth in renewable energy in recent years, we’re not making progress nearly fast enough, in part because while clean power is on the rise, the world still remains highly dependent on energy from dirty sources like oil and coal. The fact that a company like Aramco, which exists to pull a highly polluting substance out of the ground, can be worth more than Apple and Facebook combined proves that fact.

If that’s going to change, it will require power of a different source — political power. In 2019, it became impossible to ignore that climate change had become an utterly partisan issue. Those Americans in the Pew survey who now believe that climate change is a major threat? Nearly all of them are self-identified Democrats. Republican attitudes were largely unchanged — 43% of moderate to liberal Republicans said they were worried about climate change, a figure that dropped to just 19% of conservative Republicans. By comparison, 94% of liberal Democrats and 75% of moderate to conservative Democrats saw climate change as a major threat.

But general public opinion matters less than the opinion of those actually making policy. Here, the partisan divide is much greater. According to data collected by the nonpartisan League of Conservation Voters (LCV), since Trump’s election Republicans in Congress have voted for pro-environment legislation just 5% of the time, compared to 92% of the time for Democrats. That’s not a political divide — that’s the Grand Canyon.

2019’s climate legacy will ultimately be decided by what happens in the elections of 2020, and beyond.

It wasn’t always this way. As the LCV’s data shows, back in the 1970s the two parties generally voted along the same lines for clean air and water protection. The EPA was created under and the Endangered Species Protection Act was signed by Republican President Richard Nixon. And many green groups, I think, still picture a country where the environment and climate is nonpartisan issue. But those days are long gone, and they’re no more likely to come back than we’ll see global carbon concentrations dip back below 400 ppm.

What’s true in the United States is true of the rest of the world. The Conservatives who just solidified their grip on power in the U.K. may not be as uniformly opposed to climate action as their Republican counterparts, but they won’t be as motivated to do something as the opposition Labour party. In Australia, one of the world’s biggest carbon emitters on a population basis, the country’s conservative government refuses to admit the reality of climate change — even as the nation is literally on fire. In Brazil, home to more of the Amazon than any other nation, President Jair Bolsanaro has slashed protections against deforestation.

The reality is that the most important action that can be taken isn’t putting solar panels on your roof or switching to paper straws or sharing a hashtag on social media. It’s not even marching through the streets with Greta Thunberg. It’s supporting efforts to put politicians who are willing to act on climate change into office. 2019’s climate legacy will ultimately be decided by what happens in the elections of 2020, and beyond.

Journalist, author, dad. Former TIME magazine editor and foreign correspondent. Author of END TIMES, a book about existential risk and the end of the world.

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