The Climate’s Improved Future

Source: By German Lopez, New York Times • Posted: Sunday, October 30, 2022

The world has made real progress on climate change.

Wind turbines in Nebraska.
Walker Pickering for The New York Times

Five years ago, the journalist David Wallace-Wells explored a worst-case scenario for climate change: one in which the planet warmed by as much as 5 degrees Celsius by 2100 — causing widespread extreme weather, economic collapse, famine and war.

Now, David sees that level of doom as much less likely, he writes in an essay for this Sunday’s climate issue of The New York Times Magazine, where he is a columnist. While 5 degrees of warming once seemed possible, scientists now estimate that the Earth is on track to warm by 2 to 3 degrees. That difference might not seem huge, but it translates to fewer record-breaking floods, storms, droughts and heat waves and potentially thousands or millions of lives saved in the coming decades.

“The window of possible climate futures is narrowing, and as a result, we are getting a clearer sense of what’s to come: a new world, full of disruption but also billions of people, well past climate normal and yet mercifully short of true climate apocalypse,” David wrote.

In other words, humanity has made progress on one of the most serious challenges it has ever faced. “I’ve grown more optimistic than I used to be,” David told me. “The endgame looks calmer and more stable than it did a few years ago.”

So how did we get to this point? There are three major explanations: First, the use of coal, which provides about 30 percent of the world’s energy, is expected to further decline. Second, renewable energy prices have plummeted since 2010 — solar power more than 85 percent, wind more than 55 percent — and that affordability has made them a viable alternative to fossil fuels.

Finally, global powers have adopted serious plans to fight climate change. Those countries include the United States, which recently enacted sweeping incentives for cleaner energy through the Inflation Reduction Act. Such policies could push warming down even more than experts estimate now.

An unfinished job

Better does not mean good. David emphasized that 2 or 3 degrees of warming is still above the target that scientists have described as relatively safe. A United Nations report released yesterday warned that countries are falling short of their commitments to fight climate change, putting us on a path toward otherwise preventable disasters.

Consider what we have seen just this year: Deadly flooding and heat waves spread in the U.S. In Europe and China, droughts dried up rivers, exposing sunken warships and cutting off supply routes. In Pakistan, a heat wave sent temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and monsoon floods submerged a third of the country.

Even under the most optimistic climate forecasting models, such extreme weather will get worse and become more common in the coming decades.

It will be particularly bad for developing countries, which have fewer resources to adapt to climate disasters, even though rich countries have contributed to the majority of climate emissions (as I explained in this newsletter).

“If you had asked a politically cynical person 30 years ago what the climate future looked like, they might have answered that we’d end up at a temperature level that was difficult but manageable for the rich countries of the world but much, much harder for developing nations,” David said. “And that looks like what we’re heading for.”

The takeaway is mixed: The improving trends show that humanity can act and make progress on this issue. But more action is still needed to avert more climate disasters, especially in the most vulnerable places.

Read David’s full story, which explores what the more optimistic climate trends mean for all of us.