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Starting Off 2023 With Climate News: It’s Mostly Bad

We greeted the New Year with a flurry of reports about the ongoing climate crisis. Most of the news is disheartening, with a few bright spots to show us what is possible to mitigate the crisis if only we take the bad news seriously.

We learned once again this year that fossil fuel companies have known all along that their industry is the cause of the climate crisis. An analysis of internal documents by scientists at Harvard University showed that “Exxon scientists accurately predicted the pace and scale of climate change more than 40 years ago…” This of course flies in the face of the public story fossil fuel company executives try to portray of unsettled climate science; in fact, they knew all along that global warming was certainly occurring as a result of human activity. That science is indeed settled and does not require any further debate.

What we need to do instead of pondering if climate change is real is to face the mounting and inescapable evidence that things are truly getting steadily worse and at a frightening pace. Even though renewable energy sources have now surpassed coal as generators of electricity in the U.S., carbon emissions rose in 2022 nationwide. There was a pandemic-associated reduction in carbon emissions beginning in 2020 due to decreased travel and other energy-demanding activities, but the hopes that this trend would continue were dashed when new statistics were released earlier this year. Right now, wind, solar, and hydropower contribute about 22 percent of energy generation in the U.S., compared to about 20 percent from coal. But that is not enough to offset the effects of burning oil and gas. Countries agreed in the Paris conference in 2021 that we need to rapidly reduce greenhouse emissions if we are to have any chance of avoiding some of the devastating consequences that will inevitably follow continued global warming. Sadly, however, we are not now on a trajectory to meet the agreed-upon goals and in fact we are in many ways going in the opposite direction.

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The Earth Continues to Heat Up

The last eight years were the hottest on record, and 2022 was the fifth-hottest year on record. The Washington Post reported on January 11 that “The amount of excess heat buried in the planet’s oceans, a strong marker of climate change, reached a record high” in 2022. Arctic, Antarctic, and Greenland glaciers and sea ice continue to melt, causing rising sea levels, and showing us, as scientists recently wrote in the journal Science, that “the ‘climate emergency’ has never been clearer.”

An important strategy for reducing the warming impact of released greenhouse gasses is called carbon capture, the process of actually removing carbon dioxide from the earth’s atmosphere. We are currently removing about 2 billion tons of CO2 every year from the surrounding air. While that may sound like a lot, it turns out that experts tell us it is not nearly enough to enable us to hit climate goals, like keeping the rise in global temperatures below 20C (3.60F) above pre-industrial temperatures. To do that, these experts estimate that by 2030 we would have to extract an additional 0.96 billion tons annually. Right now, most carbon dioxide removal is accomplished by conventional means such as planting trees and restoring damaged forests. New carbon dioxide extraction technologies are needed to get to the level needed to help lower the risk of catastrophic climate change. Those technologies only account for about 2.3 million tons of CO2 removal right now, so a vast increase is clearly needed. This would take a major effort by industry, scientists, and governments and it is currently unclear how possible such an undertaking will be. For now, we are going to have to rely on strategies to reduce the release of greenhouse gasses in the first place rather than extraction technologies, but we also need to pressure relevant bodies to move much faster to develop and implement carbon dioxide removal efforts.

A Smattering of Bright Spots

It is true that there is some good news and some hope. The U.S. government sporadically announces steps to pursue climate saving policies and procedures. In January, for example, the Biden administration announced the appointment of Elizabeth Klein, a critic of fossil fuels, to lead the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, considered to be a “powerful offshore energy agency.” Klein is a strong advocate of sustainable energy and has come under attack by “right-wing groups” according to the Washington Post. The move to appoint her is taken as further evidence that the Biden administration is serious about doing what it can to develop off-shore wind turbines as a source of sustainable power.

The same scientists who wrote about the continued loss of sea ice in Science also noted that there is still time to stem the tide. They wrote “Although it is too late to avoid losing many glaciers, any effort to limit global mean temperature rise will have a direct effect of reducing how many glaciers will be lost.” In other words, we need to stay focused on the fact that every effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming will have a potential impact on mitigating the climate crisis.

Yes, the news is dire and there is no backing away from that conclusion. Greenhouse gas emissions are up, temperatures continue to rise, oceans continue to heat up, and carbon capture efforts lag way behind what is needed. We are right to feel anger at the duplicity of fossil fuel companies who, as tobacco companies once did, try to convince us that the science is unsettled while all along they themselves are generating evidence proving that the damage they are causing is very real. Fear and anger, however, are poor motivators for taking action. We have some good news. Sustainable energy is gaining traction and becoming economically and technically feasible. Governments, including the Biden administration, are doing some of the things needed to mitigate the climate emergency. And scientists continue to tell us that if we work hard, we can successfully protect ourselves from some of the worst predicted ravages of global warming.

We continue to feel compelled to bring all the bad news about climate change to the forefront, lest we lapse into stasis and lassitude in the work needed to confront it. At the same time, we want everyone to know that we are not at the point where we should or can give up because the news is so bad. Rather, we must redouble our efforts to switch to sustainable energy and develop more carbon capture technologies.

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