Bill McKibben Is Optimistic About Climate Change, But Greta Thunberg Is Not

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Writing in The Guardian last week, Bill McKibben, the founder of and a non-stop climate activist, said, “It’s easy to feel pessimistic about the climate. But we’ve got two big things on our side. One is the astonishing fall in the cost of renewable energy. The other is the huge growth in the citizens’ movements demanding action.”

“So many things have broken the wrong way since the Paris climate accords were agreed in mid-December of 2015. Within eight weeks Donald Trump had won his first presidential primary, an insane comet streaking across the night sky, trailed by outliers like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. The world has endured opéra bouffe distractions like Brexit, and the true paralyzing emergency of the pandemic. And yet here we are, staggering and stumbling towards the real follow-up to Paris, [COP 26] starting 31 October in Glasgow.”

The background leading up to the meetings in Glasgow involved China and the US hissing and spitting at each other, a new European political landscape in which Angela Merkel is no longer at the helm, and many nations in the southern hemisphere unhappy that pledges made in Paris 6 years ago have not been honored. “Somehow all these players must stitch together a plan for dramatically increasing the speed of a global transition off fossil fuel,” McKibben writes.

“At least no one remains in the dark about the importance of the work. Since Paris we’ve endured the hottest heatwaves, the biggest and fastest storms, the highest winds, the heaviest rains. We’ve watched both the jet stream and the Gulf Stream start to sputter. The physical world, once backdrop, is now foreground, a well-lit stage on which the drama will play out,” McKibben adds.

Renewables = Trillions In Savings

But there is hope, he says. “The faster we move towards true renewable energy, the more money we save, and the savings are measured in many trillions of dollars. Last month an Oxford team released an analysis that concluded: ‘Compared to continuing with a fossil-fuel-based system, a rapid green energy transition will probably result in overall net savings of many trillions of dollars — even without accounting for climate damages or co-benefits of climate policy.’ That is, the faster we move towards true renewable energy, the more money we save.” Those savings will amount to trillions of dollars — enough to make policymakers around the world sit up and notice.

Greta Thunberg & Climate Activism

McKibben marks August of 2018 as another important reason to be optimistic. That’s when Greta Thunberg began her first climate strike. “There are thousands of Thunbergs now scattered across the planet, with millions of followers. This may be the biggest international movement in human history,” he writes. Between the economic benefits of renewables and the rising public sentiment in support of climate action, there is reason to feel optimistic about the future.

Vested Interests & Inertia

The two factors militating against climate action are vested interests and inertia, McKibben writes. “The fossil fuel lobby has suffered damage in recent years. A global divestment campaign…..has put $15 trillion in endowments and portfolios beyond its reach, and it builds little now without resistance.

“People increasingly see through the fossil fuel lobby’s attempts at greenwashing. But it maintains its hold on too many capitals — in the United States, the Republican party is its wholly owned subsidiary, which makes progress halting at best. And the planet’s financial superpowers — Chase, Citi, BlackRock and the rest — continue to lend and invest as if there was nothing wrong with an industry that is literally setting the Earth on fire.

“As for inertia, it’s a deep obstacle simply because the climate crisis is a timed test. Without swift change we will pass irrevocable tipping points. Winning slowly on climate is simply another way of losing. Every huge forest fire, every hurricane strike, every month of drought heightens public demand for change — but every distraction weakens that demand.

“We know which side will win in the end, because vested interest is slowly shifting towards the ever-larger renewable sector and because inertia over time loses ground to the movements that keep growing. But we don’t know if that win will come in time to matter. Glasgow, in other words, is about pace — will it accelerate change, or will things stay on their same too-slow trajectory? Time will tell — it’s the most important variable by far.”

Greta Thunberg Tells It Like It Is

When the IPCC 6 report was released this summer, UN Secretary General António Guterres called it a “code red for humanity.” Then the news cycle moved on and people pretty much forgot about it. All except Greta Thunberg, that is. In The Guardian this week, she has published a piece asking who will step up to take a leadership role at COP 26.

“The denial of the climate and ecological crisis runs so deep that hardly anyone takes real notice any more. Since no one treats the crisis like a crisis, the existential warnings keep on drowning in a steady tide of greenwash and everyday media news flow,” she writes.

“And yet there is still hope, but hope all starts with honesty. Because science doesn’t lie. The facts are crystal clear, but we just refuse to accept them. We refuse to acknowledge that we now have to choose between saving the living planet or saving our unsustainable way of life. Because we want both. We demand both.

“If we are to stay below the targets set in the 2015 Paris agreement we need immediate, drastic, annual emission reductions unlike anything the world has ever seen. We are currently on track for at least a 2.7 C hotter world by the end of the century and that’s only if countries meet all the pledges that they have made. Currently they are nowhere near doing that.”

Speeding In The Wrong Direction

Here are the facts as Thunberg sees them:

“2021 is currently projected to experience the second-biggest emission rise ever recorded and global emissions are expected to increase by 16% by 2030 compared with 2010 levels. According to the International Energy Agency, only 2% of governments’ ‘build back better’ recovery spending has been invested in clean energy, while the production and burning of coal, oil and gas was subsidized by $5.9 trillion in 2020 alone.

“The world’s planned fossil fuel production by the year 2030 accounts for more than twice the amount than would be consistent with the 1.5C target. This is science’s way of telling us that we can no longer reach our targets without a system change. Because doing so would require tearing up contracts and abandoning deals and agreements on an unimaginable scale — something that is simply not possible in the current system.

“In short, we are totally failing to even reach targets that are completely insufficient in the first place (emphasis added). And that’s not the worst part. In my own country, Sweden, a news investigation recently concluded that once you include all of Sweden’s actual emissions (territorial, biogenic, consumption of imported goods, burning of biomass, pension fund investments and so on), only one third of the net total is accounted for in the country’s climate targets. It is reasonable to assume that this is not just a Swedish phenomenon.

“Surely the first step to address the climate crisis should be to include all of our actual emissions into the statistics in order to obtain a holistic overview. This would allow us to evaluate the situation and start making the necessary changes. But this approach has not been adopted or even proposed by any world leaders. Instead they all turn to communication tactics and PR in order to make it seem as if they are taking action.”

Calling Out The UK

“One textbook example is the UK — a nation that is currently producing 570 million barrels of oil and gas each year. A nation with a further 4.4 billion barrels of oil and gas reserves to be extracted from the continental shelf. A nation that is also among the 10 biggest emitters in history.

“Between 1990 and 2016, the UK lowered its territorial emissions by 41%. However, once you include the full scale of UK emissions such as consumption of imported goods, international aviation and shipping, the reduction is more like 15%. And this is excluding burning of biomass, like at Drax’s Selby plant — a heavily subsidized so-called ‘renewable’ power plant that is, according to analysis, the UK’s biggest single emitter of CO2 and the third biggest in all of Europe. And yet the government still considers the UK to be a global climate leader.

“The UK is far from the only country relying on such creative carbon accounting. China, currently by far the world’s biggest emitter of CO2, is planning to build 43 new coal power plants on top of the 1,000 plants already in operation — while also claiming to be an ecological ‘trailblazer’ committed to leaving ‘a clean and beautiful world to future generations.

“Or take the new US administration, claiming to listen to … science even though it recently announced plans to open millions of acres for oil and gas that could ultimately result in production of up to 1.1 billion barrels of crude oil and 4.4 trillion cubic feet of fossil gas. Being by far the biggest emitter in history, as well as the world’s number one oil producer, doesn’t seem to embarrass the US while it claims to be a climate leader.”

No Climate Leaders

“The truth is there are no climate leaders. Not yet. At least not among high-income nations. The level of public awareness and the unprecedented pressure from the media that would be required for any real leadership to appear is still basically nonexistent. Science doesn’t lie, nor does it tell us what to do. But it does give us a picture of what needs to be done. We are of course free to ignore that picture and remain in denial. Or to go on hiding behind clever accounting, loopholes and incomplete statistics. As if the atmosphere would care about our frameworks. As if we could argue with the laws of physics.”

A Social Crisis With Deep Roots

“The climate and ecological emergency is, of course, only a symptom of a much larger sustainability crisis. A social crisis. A crisis of inequality that dates back to colonialism and beyond (emphasis added). A crisis based on the idea that some people are worth more than others and, therefore have the right to exploit and steal other people’s land and resources. It’s all interconnected. It’s a sustainability crisis that everyone would benefit from tackling. But it’s naive to think that we could solve this crisis without confronting the roots of it.

“Things may look very dark and hopeless, and given the torrent of reports and escalating incidents, the feeling of despair is more than understandable. But we need to remind ourselves that we can still turn this around. It’s entirely possible if we are prepared to change.

“Hope is all around us. Because all it would really take is one — one world leader or one high income nation or one major TV station or leading newspaper who decides to be honest, to truly treat the climate crisis as the crisis that it is. One leader who counts all the numbers and then takes brave action to reduce emissions at the pace and scale the science demands. Then everything could be set in motion towards action, hope, purpose and meaning. The clock is ticking. Summits keep happening. Emissions keep growing. Who will that leader be?”

The Takeaway

Bill McKibben puts his faith in the economic imperative that lies at the heart of the capitalist system. Only a fool would pay more for the energy needed by the global community rather than less. And public awareness of the gathering threat to human survival is growing. But indifference to the plight of the world is all around us. The US Congress is held hostage by fossil fuel interests who insist on scaling back on Joe Biden’s climate initiatives. China seems as intent on starting a war over Taiwan as tackling its own emissions crisis.

Is there really cause for optimism, as Bill McKibben says? The answer is more about politics than technology. COP26 may be humanity’s last best chance to keep the world from getting too hot for humans to survive. Who is right, Bill McKibben or Greta Thunberg? We are curious to hear what the CleanTechnica community has to say on this subject.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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