Ask a Scientist: In Moments of Despair, Climate Progress Can Keep Hope Alive

December 8, 2022 | 10:45 am
Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland from Just Stop Oil addressing the public after throwing tomato soup on Vincent van Gogh’s Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers (1888).Video still by @damiengayle
Elliott Negin
Senior Writer

Masterpieces in European museums are under siege. Last month, protesters threw a black, oily liquid at a Gustav Klimt painting at Vienna’s Leopold Museum. In October, they dumped tomato soup on a Vincent Van Gogh painting London’s Gallery of Art, smeared mash potatoes on a Claude Monet painting at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, and glued themselves to a Johannes Vermeer painting at the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague. (Fortunately all the paintings were protected by glass.) All told, more than a dozen artworks have been attacked since May.

Why? According to the activists, to draw public attention to the climate crisis.

“There are people who are destroying the Earth! Think about it. Artists tell you: Think of the Earth. That’s why I did this,” explained a 36-year-old man, who—disguised as an old woman in a wheelchair—lobbed a piece of cake at Leonardo DaVinci’s “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre in Paris on May 29.

The effectiveness of such actions is debatable, but the frustration underlying them is understandable. Phoebe Plummer, a 21-year-old British university student who strafed Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” told NPR that the rationale for joining Just Stop Oil, one of the groups responsible for the art attacks, was “largely out of a sense of fear and despairing” after trying “all the more traditional forms of activism,” including writing to elected officials, signing petitions and attending marches, and “not making any meaningful change.”

Tell me about it. I’ve been working in the climate trenches longer than Plummer has been on the planet. But aside from sharing Plummer’s frustration about the pace of progress, it is important to repeat over and over that there has been meaningful change. No doubt there needs to be a lot more—and soon—but the situation we face looks quite different than it did a decade ago.

To get an assessment of the progress thus far, as well as an idea if what has to happen next, I turned to two of my colleagues in the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) Climate & Energy Program: Principal Climate Scientist Rachel Licker and Transmission Policy Manager Sam Gomberg. I started the conversation with Gomberg, who focuses on clean energy integration and grid modernization issues, and ended it with Licker, a contributing author for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change who helps explain the nuances of climate science developments to policymakers, the news media and the general public.

EN: Sam, first let’s dispel the myth that there has been no meaningful change, a notion that has spurred climate activists in Europe to take out their frustrations in provocative ways.

SG: One great example of progress is the dramatic decline in coal-fired electricity in the United States. It’s due to a combination of factors, including tremendous demand for clean energy from states, utilities and consumers; federal regulations to reduce toxic air pollutants; and—most important—the simple fact that renewables and natural gas are now the cheapest options to meet our electricity needs.   

Over the last decade, coal generation dropped 40 percent while wind and solar use nearly quadrupled. In 2012, coal accounted for 37 percent of US electricity, while natural gas and renewables—including hydropower—accounted for 30 percent and 11.7 percent respectively, according to US Energy Information Administration (EIA) data. In 2021, EIA reported that coal generated 21.8 percent; natural gas, 38.3 percent; and renewables 20.1 percent.

This trend is expected to continue. According an April report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, US utilities plan to shutter at least 50 percent of their remaining coal generators by 2030. Another 18.5 percent is scheduled for retirement or conversion to natural gas after 2030.

Meanwhile, wind and solar development is predicted to continue at a breakneck pace. The Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratory reported in April that nearly a terawatt—930 gigawatts (GW) to be exact—of new zero-carbon generation capacity is available to interconnect to the grid. There’s another 400-plus GW of battery storage projects also ready to connect—resources that could provide major benefits by balancing intermittent renewable resources and maintaining system reliability and resilience.

EN: To enable the United States to meet its Paris climate agreement obligations, President Biden pledged to reduce US global warming emissions by 50 percent by 2030. And there was plenty of action in Congress over the last two years that should help get at least part of the way. Congress wound up passing a landmark bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which includes some $370 billion in incentives for everything from electric vehicles to solar panels. Sam, can you give us a brief overview of the highlights of the infrastructure law and the IRA?

SG: We didn’t get all that we wanted, but we got a lot. Besides covering the cost of repairing 65,000 miles of roads and 1,500 bridges this year alone, the $1.2-trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes more than $65 billion for the nation’s electricity transmission system. This historic funding will bolster more than 60 Energy Department programs focused on increasing system reliability and resilience and expanding access to renewable energy resources. It’s a big deal. Modernizing and expanding electricity transmission and distribution systems is probably our biggest priority to achieve serious carbon-reduction targets.

Meanwhile, as you mentioned, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) provided another $370 billion for climate and clean energy investments and incentives. The extension and expansion of federal clean energy tax credits is probably the biggest piece of that in terms of accelerating clean energy deployment. These incentives could save consumers thousands of dollars in rebates and tax credits for using renewable energy, buying electric vehicles, and making energy-efficient improvements to their homes. All told, IRA climate-related initiatives are expected to cut US global warming emissions 30 to 40 percent by 2030.

What’s really cool is how the federal government’s commitment to clean energy is driving private sector investments. The Italian energy giant Enel’s plan to build a massive solar panel factory in United States is just the latest example of a rush of deals in the wake of the IRA, which included incentives to build up a domestic supply chain for renewables. After the law was passed in August, companies ranging from solar panel maker First Solar to battery maker LG Energy Solution have announced billions of dollars of manufacturing plans, and industry experts predict many more deals are in the offing.

Another critically important aspect of these two new laws is they provide funding for historically marginalized communities that have suffered the most from transportation- and electricity-related pollution. That funding, and the technical assistance that goes along with it, will help ensure the clean energy transition is equitable and just and doesn’t leave any community behind.

EN: The Democrats were able to hold the Senate in the midterm elections, but the Republicans now have a slim majority in the House. What does a divided government mean for US climate policy? Will we see any progress in Congress? Will the Biden administration be able to accomplish anything?

SG: Some Republicans talk about the need to address climate change and boost the domestic clean energy industry, but the party has not offered any significant proposals to address the climate crisis. In any case, I’m skeptical that the GOP would be willing to hand the Biden administration another big climate accomplishment, despite the urgent need to cut carbon emissions.

Fortunately, there is little risk that the Republicans will be able to roll back what has already been accomplished by the infrastructure law and the IRA, particularly with Democrats maintaining a narrow majority in the Senate.

Perhaps the most important thing we need at the federal level over the next two years isn’t legislative, it’s administrative. Thoughtfully and effectively implementing all the moving pieces of the infrastructure law and the IRA will be a massive undertaking. Various federal agencies, in particular the Energy Department, have to push funding out the door quickly and effectively. Likewise, the Internal Revenue Service and the Treasury Department have to clearly define the accounting and tax implications of various incentives to enable clean energy developers, consumers and corporations to take full advantage of them.

EN: So nonprofit advocacy groups and local state and regional agencies will have to compensate for the likely stalemate in Congress. Rachel, what is going on at the state and local level?

RL: There is a lot going on. Let me give you just two examples—examples that UCS played a part in making happen.

My first example, from Florida, shows that advocacy groups can succeed when local and state governments fail to act. Last fall, the Coalition of Immokalee Farmworkers Fair Food Program brokered an agreement with growers and buyers to protect farmworkers from extreme heat. The plan requires growers to provide mandatory breaks every two hours, introduce heat-stress prevention measures, and respond to heat-stress symptoms. The coalition relied in part on UCS’s August 2021 Too Hot to Work report to make its case for stronger workplace protections.

My other example, from the Midwest, shows that public pressure on state and regional policymakers can have positive results.

In June, the Michigan Public Service Commission approved a settlement agreement regarding the electric utility Consumers Energy’s long-range resource plan. Under the settlement, the company will retire all of its coal-fired power plants by 2025 and install nearly 8,000 megawatts of solar power by 2040. The commission did approve Consumers Energy’s plan to acquire one existing fossil gas plant, but the company will not build any new fossil plants and or purchase any other existing gas plants under the settlement.

UCS joined with its coalition partners in the state to recommend improvements in the company’s plan by submitting and sponsoring expert testimony and generating hundreds of public comments. Our collaboration illustrates how efforts by public interest groups and community residents can go a long way to ensure an equitable transition to a clean energy economy. 

EN: There is another effort going on at the state and local level that bears mentioning. At least 20 cities, counties and states have filed lawsuits against ExxonMobil and other major fossil fuel companies for climate damages. Rachel, this is an issue that you follow closely. What can you tell us about these cases?

RL: When people think about what we call “climate governance,” they often focus on what is happening in state governments’ executive and legislative branches, not realizing that there are huge opportunities in the courts, too. Generally speaking, the cases you mentioned are seeking to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their role in the climate crisis, as well as the damages that communities are experiencing as a result.

They are also suing fossil fuel companies for consumer and investor fraud. Research has shown that the fossil fuel industry has known about the threat its products pose since at least the mid-1960s and intentionally misled the public about climate science and, in turn, stalled government action to curb carbon emissions.

UCS has been actively engaged in these efforts by, among other things, providing research  quantifying the amount of climate change that can be directly attributed to company product  emissions and documenting corporate disinformation practices. Our work is having a major impact. More than 70 percent of the climate litigation cases filed in the United States since 2017 have cited UCS research.

UCS’s role affords us the opportunity to target one of the systemic causes of the climate crisis: the fossil fuel industry’s undue influence. And we’re working to bring down these bad actors with science. How cool is that?

EN: Recent reports have found that the world is on track to surpass the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degrees Celsius warming over preindustrial levels this decade. Does that mean the game is over? What’s in store beyond the 1.5 degrees C target if we miss it?

RL: The game is definitely not over. It is certainly a big deal if we go beyond the 1.5 degrees C target because climate change is already adversely affecting communities around the world, and between now and the time we hit 1.5 degrees C, it is only going to get worse. There is no getting around that reality. And still, every fraction of a degree is worth fighting for, because it translates into avoided impacts. There is no threshold above which climate action stops mattering.

It is also important to consider the fact that policymakers use thresholds as a tool and a goal. Thresholds prod countries to take action to try to meet that goal. The thresholds in the Paris Agreement—1.5 and 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels—are based on science. Scientists warn that it is critical to keep global average temperatures below those levels because they expect climate impacts to become even more severe for much of the world above them. But it is not a black-and-white situation. World temperatures are below those thresholds, but we are already experiencing devastating climate impacts.

Ultimately, there is no threshold above which all that we love about the world becomes less worth fighting for, so we will just have to have to fight harder to protect the planet.

EN: Finally, Rachel, as a climate scientist, what motivates you to stay the course on this issue when climate impacts keep piling up and there are so many obstacles—mainly political—in the way? And what can our members and supporters do to avoid frustration and despair about the pace of progress?

As for me, being engaged, having community, learning to take the good with the bad and everything in between—and really enjoying the good things—keeps me motivated.

If I read an article about the climate crisis that makes me feel sad or mad, I can channel those feelings into my work, and that makes me feel effective rather than helpless. I also have a community—my UCS colleagues, our science network, UCS members and supporters, and my former colleagues at the various places where I’ve worked—that gives me energy and inspiration.

So, it might sound surprising, but the climate crisis actually weighs less heavily on me than many other societal problems that I’m not engaged in and feel helpless about—and there a long list of issues that I feel helpless about. As a result, I think I’m very practical about climate change on a day-to-day basis and tend to channel my German mother, whose approach is: “If there is a problem and we know what the solutions are, doing nothing will not do any good, so let’s roll up our sleeves and do something about it!” If you need a pep talk—also known in my family as a kick in the pants—I’ll have her call you.

The UCS Climate & Energy Program’s outreach coordinator, Alicia Race, and senior Midwest energy analyst, James Gignac, provided research for this column.