Read more stories featured in the Duke Environment Magazine Fall 2021 issue.
Thirty years is a long time. Thirty years ago, the average temperature on Earth was almost 0.5° C degrees cooler than today. And the latest IPCC report suggests that without greater imagination and action on humans’ part, our planet will likely warm another 1.5° C or more, on average, over the next 20 years.
When it comes to the action needed, we have choices to make. We can accept the current path. We can resist the current path. Or we can strategically direct the current path to better outcomes. Forging a more strategic and constructive way forward is and will continue to be an exercise in creativity, skill and tenacity.
The world is changing around us. Despair thrives in the dark corners of our minds that see only the uncertainty, the enormity of the task ahead and the impossibility, and that is where we become stuck in the paralysis of inaction.
Amidst the narratives of despair related to climate change, we forget that much has shifted in the last 30 years. And that pace has picked up in more recent years.
We are starting to see decoupling between economics and emissions. Decreases in emissions need not be tied to decreases in economic strength. This is due in part to the price of solar and wind coming down faster than estimated. Declines in the price for battery storage and electric vehicles are following closely behind. Carbon-free hydrogen is now on the horizon.
Hopes are high for COP26. The United States and Europe have launched the Global Methane Pledge to achieve a 30% reduction by 2030. Coal is in structural decline globally and new gains may be solidified in Glasgow.
Attribution science is growing stronger. This helps with communication and mainstreaming day-to-day weather occurrences as part of larger climate trends. In the U.S., the Conservative Climate Caucus has become a voice for reducing emissions and finding cheaper, more reliable and cleaner energy. Renewables are being deployed in Republican strongholds, including Texas and Wyoming, and this creates bipartisan support for decarbonization.
More companies are making net zero commitments. Moreover, in the last decade, billions of dollars in venture funding have been invested in solar and wind, biofuels and software-related efficiency apps. We are now seeing greater venture investment being channeled into sustainable alternatives in the food and transportation sectors and in technologies, goods and practices that nudge consumer behavior in more constructive directions.
In short, the global economy is shifting from fossil fuels. This will not be a painless transition as we experience shortages, price volatility and market turmoil. So how do we maintain our focus on narratives of possibility? The big picture is starting to change, but the big picture is not where most people live.
We face important choices related to how energy shortages will be portrayed as we weather this transition. On one hand, the transition will be framed as a threat to our current way of life: we can’t possibly sacrifice our standard of living while also imposing high costs on those most vulnerable. On the other hand, it will be framed as the necessary birthing pains to a new, cleaner economy: short-term pain is necessary for longer-term gain. Both narratives have truth.
To be successful in the climate aspirations we have for ourselves and the planet, we need to have the courage about the shortcomings and pitfalls associated with our plans.
We need to be more candid and transparent about what a carbon transition means, anticipate the political backlash that will come with it, listen for the legitimate criticisms of it, and aggressively address the distributional consequences for those least able to bear the fallout from change.
The narrative of possibility is in acknowledging the duality of our current path and finding constructive ways to address it as we engage in long-term transformation.
Ultimately, we get to choose how we experience this change. How we project our experience and truth has consequences for the hope and possibility others see in our future. Let’s choose to see – and be – the light. And let’s show the world how we move toward it. Because in the end, 30 years is really not that long at all to make great change.