Against Climate Optimism—Because “Team Normal” Won’t Save the World

Liz Cheney, the anti-MAGA yet deeply conservative outgoing representative from Wyoming, may have said it best: The midterm election results were “a clear victory for team normal.” The center held. “Democracy,” such as it is, held. Even stalwart progressive comrades of mine in the climate movement found the results reassuring.

And, yes, now that Raphael Warnock has held his Georgia seat, full control of the Senate will help the Democrats defend the past year’s legislative gains. But even if they had managed to hold the House as well, US climate policy—at both the national and global level—would remain far behind where it needs to be.

At the same time, yet another UN climate conference—the 27th—produced little or no progress on global emissions. The goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius hangs by a thread. So let’s be clear: If there’s going to be the slightest chance of salvaging the now all-but defunct Paris Agreement goal of averting catastrophe for a vast portion of humanity, overwhelmingly in the Global South—catastrophe that is already underway—something will have to give.

A great many words have been written recently (including by me) about reasons for political and climate despair—the two are inseparable—and reasons to resist them. And along with the post-election relief at a seeming return to political “normalcy,” there’s an equally premature sense of optimism among climate pundits and movement insiders—as though recent progress has bought us some breathing room. A sense that we might finally be winning.

It may be true, as David Wallace-Wells reported in The New York Times in October (in what is probably the year’s most influential piece of climate writing), that thanks to scientists’ revised climate and energy models—plus totally unforeseen technological and economic progress on renewables—it appears humanity has “likely” escaped the very worst-case, “truly apocalyptic” scenarios. Rather than a civilization-ending 4- or 5-degree Celsius warming by 2100, we are now looking at the prospect of a mere 2 to 3 degrees, based on current policies and pledges (that is, words on paper). This was what most commentators and interviewers took away. But as climate science makes clear, given the expected impacts of 2-plus degrees of warming—and the fact that impacts are already far more severe than predicted at just 1.1 degrees—this will be a very rough ride, especially for those who don’t live in the wealthier parts of the Global North. Thus the rising intensity of the demands at COP27—and the surprise baby-steps agreement—for “loss and damage” payments to poor and vulnerable countries already suffering unprecedented extremes.

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