Are we warming up to new ways of thinking about climate change?
A new report offers a possible path forward
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Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the final installment of its Sixth Assessment Report. Begun in 1990 and released every six to seven years, the reports seek to offer a comprehensive review of the current state of the science, divided into three parts: (1) what’s causing climate change, (2) why it matters, and (3) what to do about it. Although Part 3 comes last, it is in some respects the most important—for if there is nothing we can feasibly do about climate change, then there is little point in hearing how bad it is. Perhaps we had better just bury our heads in the sand and hope for the best.
Thankfully, despite its fairly dire warnings in parts 1 and 2 about the current trajectory of global warming, the new report on mitigation offers a possible path forward that reflects just how far we have come in terms of technological innovation over the past three decades. Although the IPCC notes that current emissions overshoot the Paris Climate Accords’ stated goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the panel is optimistic that a change of course is possible. And best of all, it may not cost an arm and a leg.
For many years, conservatives have tended to raise their eyebrows in the face of climate-change doomsayers for good reasons—one of them being cost. Even if climate change is as bad as scientists say, the argument goes, does it make sense to wreck our economies to stop it? Maybe we’d be better off adapting to life in a warmer world. Even 10 years ago, with most forms of renewable energy vastly more expensive than traditional fossil fuels, this was a compelling argument. Today, however, with the demonstrated success of companies like Tesla in producing competitive electric vehicles and with wind and solar power generation costs falling by 85 percent, the calculus is beginning to look somewhat different. Indeed, the world is now at the point where the extra costs of reducing emissions might eventually cost less than the cost of business as usual.
Perhaps even more exciting are technological innovations that may allow us not merely to slow new carbon emissions but actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Of course, the most obvious way of doing this is by planting new trees. While desirable, given the tragic trajectory of deforestation in many parts of the globe, this would risk putting severe upward pressure on food costs as agricultural land is replaced with forest. More intriguing, then, is the recent expansion of direct air capture technology, in which carbon dioxide is sucked out of the atmosphere and converted into safe chemicals. The IPCC’s recent (if limited) endorsement of this approach is controversial since many are unsure just how viable it will prove. Still, there’s much reason for optimism if recent technological advances are any clue.
Still, the fact remains that any approach to climate change mitigation will continue to require significant changes to our behavior. For decades, climate scientists were criticized for their myopic approach to this subject, dimly reporting the dire data but with little consideration for how to persuade people or propose policies that would make real-world sense. The newest IPCC report represents a huge step forward for scientists belatedly learning how to interact with their fellow human beings. Crucial to such messaging is learning more about the goods people value and how to frame climate action to realize those goods rather than sacrifice them. For instance, most people prefer to live in communities with parks and green spaces rather than concrete—and it turns out public parks have an important role in reducing warming. Similarly, most people want to be motivated to exercise more and are eager to see less air and noise pollution from cars. Thus, designing cities to encourage walking and biking turns out to be a win-win. As we’ve seen from the pandemic, many people prefer working from home and commuting less. If businesses can learn to adapt to that shift, carbon emissions may begin to fall of their own accord.
In short, it’s high time for a rethink of the traditional partisan paradigm of debating climate change. For too long, we’ve accepted a choice between regulation and innovation, between caring about global warming or caring about the economy and quality of life. Increasingly, though, we are learning that it is a matter of both/and, not either/or. Perhaps, we will discover that we can find ways of caring for the planet and flourishing as human beings at the same time.
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