Dr. James Hansen & his co-authors published this new paper last week, suggesting that the world will reach 1.5°C warming before 2030. This has launched a lot of discussion, ranging from questions on the quality of the science in the paper to pure doom-scrolling surrender.
I find these responses puzzling. After all, if we reach 1.5°C in 2027, 2031, or 2035 it’s still bad. Moreover, the collective global response looks the same regardless of the specific year
Here’s an open secret you won’t find in most stories or social media: we actually know what to do to solve climate change.
When I say “we” I mean the overwhelming majority of energy and climate mitigation experts who take the challenge seriously. This is reflected in studies ranging from the most recent IPCC Synthesis Report to the International Energy Agency Net Zero Scenarios to the Department of Energy EarthShot Initative and many others (including Bill Gate’s book and a recent ClimateWorks Foundation report with Pacific Northwest Natl. Lab.).
Given this broad (frankly stunning) concurrence, you might be excused for not understanding the rancor represented in media, in debates, in TED talks, and more. These is far more concurrence than contention, far more agreement than division
— — — — —
To be clear, people disagree on priorities, specifically how much money goes where and in what order. Often this is presented within a zero-sum game framework — there’s only so much resource to go around, so let’s focus it on “the best” stuff first.
I find this discussion counterproductive for four reasons:
· We need everything (all of “all of the above”)
· We need much, much more of everything
· We must go faster
· Money must go to infrastructure, innovation, building things, and workforce
We know we need a LOT more action and a LOT more money. We come off the rails when we debate the specific fraction of things, as if climate mitigation scenarios were precise forecasts (they’re not) or there was a globally agreed definition of what’s “the best”. What they do point out is what the system broadly looks like and what are important tradeoffs
Given the four needs above, the pie must be bigger — much bigger — to transition. Specifically, we have to move from roughly $1.7 trillion each year on the good stuff to about $4 trillion each year. Pretty much right away, and with more money going into sectors and endeavors that have historically received less investment.
Since we’re so far behind now, we succeed when we make progress on the many things we know 100% fer sure we need. Here’s a short list:
· Much more investment in developing countries
· Much more electric transmission infrastructure
· A lot more efficiency and conservation
· A lot more renewable power — mostly solar and wind, some hydro and geothermal
· A lot more zero-carbon fuels — hydrogen, sustainable aviation fuels, ammonia
· A lot of carbon dioxide removal
· Some carbon capture, especially in heavy industry
· Some nuclear
· A lot of new and retrained workers
· A lot of adaptation to climate change
· Much, much less deforestation
Each one of these is hard. Each one of these is needed.
Against the backdrop of climate uncertainty (when consequences occur and just how bad will they be), this is a great list to take on. The list doesn’t change much if you think we have 30 years or 50 years — roughly the difference between net-zero targets for 1.5 °C or 2.0 °C warming.
This figure tries to clarify what we know we must do with broad agreement regardless of a specific date and emissions target.
The difference between these two targets and their ovals is mostly one of degrees. For example, in the 1.5 C plan we need ~750 million tonnes/y of zero-C hydrogen by 2050, and in the 2.0 C plan we need ~500 million tonnes/y.
Given that we have only about 4 million tonnes of low-C hydrogen, we need way more regardless. Clean hydrogen must displace all dirty hydrogen, about 80 million tonnes/y, along the way, and then create whole new applications and fields of use (like steelmaking and shipping)
That’s plenty of work. Debating exactly how much distracts from the fact that we need way more and we’re far behind.
The same can be said for every other investment in the “both” category. Do we need 3x more electrical transmission or 5x? Do we need 3x annual growth in renewables or 5x? Do we need 4 billion tonnes/y of carbon capture or 7 billion tonnes/y? Should we triple or quadruple innovation investment?
Since we must do way more of ALL these actions, there is little benefit in arguing about which scarce resource gets allocated first. We know we need a lot more a lot faster, and we know we’re behind, and we know how to start now.
— — -
Unfortunately, there’s something else most experts agree on — there’s always a way to do all this poorly.
· We might cause more environmental damage along the way
· We might deploy without serving underserved communities or those who need more energy around the world
· We might increase pinch-points in critical materials and supply chains
· We might fail to serve workers, communities and local environments
These are legitimate concerns. The history of prior energy deployments is a history of injustice, poor planning, and unintended consequences. Whether this is uranium wastes on Navajo Land, deforestation in Indonesia for palm oil plantations, or toxic air in China, humanity’s record is hardly spotless.
Against that backdrop, the recent focus on equity and justice is helpful. It identifies failures of the past — some horrific and egregious — and requires more work and attention to avoid terrible outcomes. That said, concerns about equity and justice can’t become a catch-all excuse for stalling and inaction. We need to build the future world, and that means cooperation and engagement and generosity to move both quickly and well.
If we can agree on that, we can focus on doing the job well. We can stop debating just how bad our current circumstances are and stop dithering over the virtue of certain actions and solutions.
We can build the just, verdant future we want.
Let’s bring all these solutions into the world — right now.