NY Mag: Future With Climate Change Not As Bad As We Thought

Shortly before Christmas, New York Magazine‘s deputy editor and author of a doom-and-gloom green manifesto, David Wallace-Wells, published a telling article that indicates elements of the Left might be conceding the apocalypse they had always pitched resulting from human-caused global warming might not pan out. Wonder of wonders!

We’re Getting a Clearer Picture of the Climate Future — and It’s Not as Bad as It Once Looked

By David Wallace-Wells, New York Magazine

For once, the climate news might be better than you thought. It’s certainly better than I’ve thought.

You may not have noticed it, amid the flood of bad news about the “Emissions Gap” and the collapse of the COP25 climate conference in Madrid, but over the last few weeks a new narrative about the climate future has emerged, on balance encouraging, at least to an alarmist like me. It is this: As best as we can understand and project the medium- and long-term trajectories of energy use and emissions, the window of possible climate futures is probably narrowing, with both the most optimistic scenarios and the most pessimistic ones seeming, now, less likely.

That narrowing contains both good and bad news — what was recently the best to hope for now seems vanishingly unlikely, and what was the worst to fear much less likely, too. But let’s start with the good news, since there is typically so little of it.

A few weeks ago, the International Energy Agency released its annual World Energy Outlook 2019. The IEA is not known to be optimistic, at least to climate advocates, who have, for years, mocked its projections for future renewable growth: Every year, the agency basically predicts a plateau for renewable use, and every year renewables keep dramatically growing. This made the most noteworthy prediction in this year’s report even more so. According to the IEA report, given only current carbon policies, which nearly everyone studying climate considers terribly weak, the world is on track for about 3 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100, which could, if existing pledges were implemented, be brought down as low as 2.7 degrees — about one and a half degrees less warming than is suggested by the U.N.’s IPCC reports in what is often referred to as the “business as usual” “RCP8.5” scenario.

Now, bear with me, because this is going to get a bit technical, but, I promise, it really does matter. That RCP8.5 scenario is one of four included by the IPCC in their last major assessment report, in 2014, to model possible paths forward — the worst one, tracing the highest arc of emissions and warming outcomes this century. It has shaped a lot of scientific research conducted in the interim; a very common approach is for a particular paper to highlight projected climate impacts in a low-end emissions scenario (either 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees Celsius) and a high-end one (somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 degrees), then describe the low-end outcome as the climate future “if we achieve the goals of the Paris accords” and the high-end one as “business as usual.”

Those deep in the weeds always knew there was something misleading about that characterization, but especially in the aftermath of that IEA report, a very public conversation began, especially on “climate Twitter,” outlining the deep — and perhaps fatal — problems with using RCP8.5 in that way. To begin with, three of the four climate scenarios in the IPCC report were originally devised as “business as usual” scenarios, because none of them reflected, at first, meaningful climate policy.

The assumptions about those factors represent a variety of different no-policy futures, each reflecting different assumptions about the way the world’s energy systems and economies will evolve over the next decades. And the assumptions about those factors which are baked into RCP8.5 seem, by the year, more and more implausible — chiefly that global coal use, which is growing slowly, would dramatically increase over the rest of the century. Given that China is still opening new coal plants, and much of the developing world has yet to reach levels of prosperity where energy use explodes, some growth in coal is probably inevitable, perhaps even dramatic growth. But by 2100, RCP8.5 would require 6.5 times as much global coal use as we have today. That may be possible, given how much we don’t know about the path developing nations in south and southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa will take. But given recent drops in renewable pricing, and the positive signs for coal decline in the developed world, as a prediction about energy use RCP8.5 is probably closer to a “worst case,” outlier scenario than anything it would be fair to call “business as usual.”