The Good News About Climate Change
An episode of PBS Energy Switch on rarely discussed climate science
I am currently appearing in Season 2 of the PBS show Energy Switch. It’s not Succession or Yellowstone, but it is an extremely rare sighting of me in a TV studio, and maybe just as good. The short discussion (26 minutes) can now be seen in full at PBS.org. In the US, it is scheduled to air on your local PBS station on May 7, 2023.
Here is the episode description:
Recent IPCC reports show less warming than predicted a decade ago. Emission growth is slowing, but has not yet plateaued, and while climate scientists say we’re not on track to meet Paris climate goals, the news is better than we often hear. Roger Pielke, Environmental Studies Professor at UC Boulder, and Daniel Cohan, Environmental Engineering Professor at Rice, discuss.
We recorded about 2 hours of discussion and the show’s editors boiled that down to less than a half hour for the show. They did a nice job. I thought Professor Daniel Cohan was on point, and the show’s host, Dr. Scott Tinker, asked great questions. It was a deep discussion of climate science topics rarely seen on TV.
For the readers out there, I’m happy to share below the full transcript. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always identify the speaker by name, but I’d guess most THB subscribers will readily identify my statements!
To watch the episode, head over to PBS — and then please come back here to comment, discuss and ask me any questions.
TRANSCRIPT: The Good News About Climate Change
[Scott] Next on "Energy Switch," we'll hear about some surprising trends from two climate experts.
- When you hear rhetoric talking about climate change as an existential threat, the first thing to understand is that doesn't square with where the science is at.
At the same time, we can hold, you know, these two thoughts in our mind.
It's a hard slog to decarbonize the global economy.
We need more options on the table, more options for energy consumption, more options for energy production.
- We've already, fortunately, gotten ourselves off of the worst-case scenarios.
When things just become gloom and doom, you almost lose agency.
[Scott] Coming up on "Energy Switch," the good news about climate change.
[Announcer] Funding for "Energy Switch" was provided in part by The University of Texas at Austin, leading research in energy and the environment for a better tomorrow.
What starts here changes the world.
And by EarthX, an international nonprofit working towards a more sustainable future.
See more at earthx.org.
- I'm Scott Tinker and I'm an energy scientist.
I work in the field, lead research, speak around the world, write articles and make films about energy.
This show brings together leading experts on vital topics in energy and climate.
They may have different perspectives, but my goal is to learn and illuminate and bring diverging views together towards solutions.
Welcome to the "Energy Switch."
We've heard plenty of bad news about climate change, so it may surprise you to hear from our guests that there's now some good news.
Emissions growth is slowing.
It may soon plateau.
Many climate scientists now agree that global temperatures are in the lowest window of the UN's future warming scenarios.
Over the last century, we're learning to adapt to extreme weather events, reminding us that humans are good at adaptation.
We'll talk about these and other positive trends with Dr. Daniel Cohan who is a climate scientist specializing in atmospheric models.
He's an associate professor at Rice University, on the EPA's Board of Scientific Counselors, and author of the book, "Confronting Climate Gridlock."
Dr. Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, author of two books on climate change, and formally a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
They'll join me on this eye-opening episode of "Energy Switch," The Good News About Climate Change.
We'll get right into it.
The IPCC report, most recent one, kind of shows less warming than previously projected.
What's going on there?
Why is that?
- Right, so it's not so much that the science has changed.
It's that our emissions trajectory has changed.
We're seeing coal use start to plateau and renewable use accelerate faster than was thought before as they've become cheaper than was previously anticipated.
And so that's put us on a path now where emissions are trending to a point as we look decades ahead where we're probably going to see them peak and start coming down sooner than might have been thought before, not fast enough to meet Paris Agreement goals, but not some of the worst-case scenarios that was thought a decade or so ago.
You see similar things?
- Yeah, I do.
Our view of the trajectory of future emissions has changed dramatically in the last 20 years.
Whereas, we once thought the curve was gonna look like this up, up, and away, now we're looking at a long plateau, still not Paris Agreement targets, but I think the news is it is even better than Dan suggested.
- So, CO2 emissions are falling where?
- The United States has been falling since a peak that came around 2006 or so.
European Union has been bringing its emissions down, Japan.
So most of the wealthiest countries have been reducing their emissions, and it's been offset by emissions growing in the fastest-growing parts of the world.
And so it's left the world with a very slowly growing emissions that haven't quite reached a peak yet, but are getting close.
- You know, we mentioned countries on track to meet climate pledges.
There been lots of different pledges going on.
How's the pledge world going?
- The Glasgow meeting from 2021 saw a real ratcheting up of commitments.
Now commitments are commitments.
One of the things that we've seen is this dampening down of expectations for growth in emissions based not only on pledges, but what's actually happening in the real world.
So I think we can have some optimism that maybe the most aggressive pledges may not be met, but certainly we're headed in a direction that, you know, if we could get in a time machine and go 20 years ago, we'd be more optimistic than probably we were back then.
- How do we distinguish, sort of, let's call it, plausible scenarios?
How do you start to distinguish those plausible from implausible?
- Yeah, the IPCC, in order to really do its work, and for the scientific community to project long-term futures, needs scenarios -- of how the economy is going to develop, what energy systems we're gonna use, how much we're going to emit, what the economy is gonna look like, what global population is.
And the IPCC is using scenarios that were developed in 2005 and earlier, and these are getting pretty dated.
And so one question we might ask is, well, which ones of those still survive today?
So we've done a lot of research trying to quantify that question, and we've looked at which scenarios match the evolution of emissions from 2005 up to the current point in time.
- Matching history.
- Matching history.
- Same thing the climate modelers do with temperature.
We do that on emissions.
It turns out less than 200 survive our test of accuracy.
If you take a look at just that subset of less than 200, we get a median temperature projection for 2,100, it's a lot of numbers, of 2.2 degrees.
So it's not the Paris Agreement, which is two degrees.
It's not 1.5 degrees, but, boy, it's a whole lot better than the three, four, five degrees we were thinking about before.
So our argument is that if we look at plausible scenarios, the future doesn't look like the problem solved, but it looks less bad than it may have before.
And, you know, we would like to see the scientific community update research, so that we're not using those old scenarios anymore, and we start using the ones that look more and more plausible.
- Plausibility based, again, on its ability to do a good job with the past.
- Right, and the near-term future.
- Roger's been a leading and needed voice on this of pointing out that some of the worst-case scenarios that I think got mislabeled as business as usual or baseline scenarios in the wonkery of IPCC called RCP 8.5 scenarios, the highest emission scenario.
- Oh, yeah, those.
- These highest emission scenarios really don't look realistic anymore.
They have doubling or tripling of coal use beyond today, which I just don't see the world heading towards for a wide number of reasons.
And unfortunately, often you have to look under the hood deep into the scientific articles to see which emission scenario you're using.
And many of the times when they're finding the worst-case scenarios for hurricanes or droughts or flood, whatever the effect they're looking at, they're being driven by these very, very high emission scenarios that don't seem realistic anymore.
Then you see the headlines that come out of it.
And I think sometimes too much fear, too much of the doomism is coming from studies that are based on a world that we're not heading to anymore.
- It's interesting, I work with some climate scientists, climate modelers, and it's frustrating to them, you know, that some of the drama that keeps getting presented mitigates our ability to deal with maybe what's coming more and realistically than get behind it.
Why do we keep seeing the drama?
- If you're a physical science climate modeler, there's a good reason why you would pick the most extreme scenario because you're trying to do a run, and you're trying to differentiate, well, what's the, what's called the forced human part of the signal, and what's natural variability, and can I separate those out?
And so if you hit your model hard with a lot of CO2, big emissions, you can probably have a better chance statistically of separating signal from noise.
All right, so you do your study.
Unfortunately, as Dan said, in these studies, sometimes that carbon dioxide scenario is not labeled this is really extreme and we're kicking our model with it.
Then it goes to the university press office, and they write a press release, which says, oh my gosh, you know, big impacts in 2100.
The media picks it up.
And of course, you know, people want clicks.
Advocates love it.
[Scott laughs] And so I view this very much as a systemic problem.
There's not anyone kind of pushing on it, but it's very hard to break out of because all of our incentives kind of push us towards the extreme end of the-- - Drama sells.
Is that a fair summary?
- Drama sells.
And, well, if you push back on drama, sometimes you get criticized for not being alarmist enough or, you know, working against action, which is exactly the opposite of reality.
- I think that if you could get things tighter, we'd have more likelihood for action 'cause we'd see something we could actually accomplish.
You agree with kind of the drama piece?
- Right, when things just become gloom and doom, and, you know, people are worried this existential crisis or just the human race faced extinction from these outta control, you know, whirlwind scenarios, you almost lose agency.
The United States does a national climate assessment every several years, and for the most part, it does a good job of taking the available science.
But they do two scenarios, one they call sort of mid-level, one they call high-level, but the high-level would be a world that more than doubles coal, a world that we're just not heading towards and, in my mind, doesn't even warrant a place.
And you're only given these two.
And most people look at them and they say, well, the high, that must be the business as usual.
When I go through and make my slides for my students or when I give talk to the public, I just x that out.
I just said, "Fortunately, we're not on this path anymore, and let's focus on this is bad enough, this mid case, and let's do everything we can to move to cleaner energy, to reduce emissions to get to a better case than this."
- We have young people here in the US that are depressed and some suicidal and won't have kids.
I mean, I speak to them, and they say it's existential.
I had a class, one kid said, "Why does it matter?
We're all gone in 15 years."
And I said, "What do you mean?"
He goes, "Humans are gone in 15 years."
I said, "How many think this in the class?"
Half the class raised their hand in a modern public US university.
I went home so depressed.
- I say this as a father of two, and having met the two of you, I know you're fathers as well, and I'm optimistic that my children are going to be heading into a world that's better than now.
It is bad that it's going to be getting hotter, that they will have more severe heat waves, more severe droughts, extremes, that they won't enjoy as nice coral reefs as I enjoyed when I started scuba diving, but they're gonna have cleaner air than we ever had.
There should be, you know, less energy poverty.
We should be able to extend reliable electricity to more parts of the world, safer drinking water.
What I would prioritize are the measures we can take that are win-win situations that both lower the temperatures and that make life better in many other ways.
As an atmospheric scientist, the number one issue I look at is air pollution is something that's a killer of six or seven million people worldwide.
And much of what we're doing to address climate change is going to make the air much cleaner than it's been.
And so any of those solutions that can lead to a cleaner environment, that should be prioritized and can give us a lot of win-win scenarios out of addressing climate change 'cause too often that message is pushed by people who say, "Oh, climate change isn't real.
Oh, it's not CO2."
And we need to somehow balance the message that climate change is bad, we need to address it, but there are other things, can be better.
We need to see it as something we have agency to address.
- You who do it, I think, have the only shot at it.
You know, I really truly believe that, that those, the most respected modelers, have a very important role to play and a collective voice to say, "Hey, those scenarios are crazy anymore.
We're not headed there.
We still got work to do."
It'd be wonderful to see that.
You come back to COP 26 or Glasgow, seemed like the developed world, they're saying, "Well, yeah, but energy security matters to us."
Energy security being something affordable and reliable.
- Yeah, we've seen a very fascinating dynamic develop since the time of Glasgow, and that's efforts to constrain the development of fossil fuels in poor countries, and this occurs at the same time that rich countries, in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, are trying to secure fossil fuels for their own energy security.
And really the numbers are staggering.
You know, two to three billion people around the world lack access to the sort of energy services we take for granted.
They want those energy services, and they're gonna get them one way or another.
And it seems that, you know, the priorities of the developing world are overlooked by the rich countries.
It's, you know, fossil fuels for us, but not for you.
If countries that today have very low penetration of energy systems of any kind were to rely on fossil fuels, it would be a very small increment compared to what we in the rich world already emit.
- We made a film a looking at energy poverty, "Switch On," a couple years back and saw that bottom one or two billion, and they're just starting to go emerging, let's call it.
And then there's the developing world, which is another four billion people.
And their response matters 'cause per capita they're growing, et cetera.
How do you see that playing with the things we're discussing?
- The world is gonna consume massive amounts more energy in coming decades.
There's just no way around it.
Efficiency is great, and particularly in rich countries that consume a lot and maybe have some room to reduce, but, overall, the mathematics are overwhelming, and, as you say, it's not just the poorest billions, but there's those in the middle who want more access to energy services, more reliable energy, and everybody in this time wants more security of supply.
So energy is going to increase, which means, you know, the imperative for providing energy sources that don't emit carbon dioxide becomes that much more important.
- Right, they want it now.
Can that all come from non-emitting sources, solar, wind, batteries, or do you... How do you see that for the emerging and developing countries?
- Yeah, a lot of it can.
I mean, I think the analogy that's often used is, how do we help countries leap to the next technology, not go through the path of coal that powered so much of the electricity in the US, Europe, China as we developed and jump to the cleaner future maybe with a bit more emissions in developing parts of the world, but without going on the sort of curve that China went on where their emissions went to unprecedented levels?
Are there any benefits of CO2 rising?
Any benefits of it?
- If you take a look at climate modeling, look at the economic structures around the world, there are some places that benefit, Canada, Northern Russia, Siberia.
Places that are generally today quite cold will have better opportunities for agriculture.
Now, the bottom line is that the net result, once you net everything out, is negative.
- But that's not to say that there aren't regions around the world in particular countries that may see benefits.
This is one reason maybe we can understand why Russia sometimes seems like they're not, you know, super on board with climate action because they see themselves in the climate models of the IPCC, you know, becoming the bread basket of the world.
And maybe that's a good thing if you're Vladimir Putin.
- [Scott laughs] Who knows.
- The other unique feature of CO2 is that it's the food for photosynthesis.
And so it does cause trees to grow faster and crops to grow faster.
Unfortunately, it also causes the pollen to go up more quickly, the weeds, the invasive species.
At some point, sometimes you have a loss of biodiversity because different plants are affected in different ways, but to some extent, agriculture, forestry is benefiting from it.
On the flip side, the unique harm that CO2 does is that it's acidifying our ocean.
As someone who snorkels and scuba dives, it's devastating to see the effects that it's having on the coral reefs.
So there's, you know, the CO2 effects beyond the climate effects of it.
- What does it all suggest if you think about policy, you know, climate policy, other policies, environmental policies?
What do you see going forward?
- To me, what it comes down to is we need policy that does two things.
One is it needs to make clean energy cheap.
We need to improve the supply of the clean technologies.
We need the research and development.
We need what's sometimes called a technology push to push these technologies forward, push them through the various stages of the lab to testing out, and so forth.
But if all we do is push, then those technologies stay locked up in the lab.
And so what we also need is we need to pull.
We need policies and the behavior of all of us and businesses to pull those technologies forward, to create that demand pull.
And what we've seen with the technologies that have taken off, what we saw with wind, with solar, with lithium ion batteries, is that they undergo these learning by doing curves, and by some estimates for each doubling of deployment, you get about an 18% cut in cost.
And this isn't something magical about solar or lithium batteries.
If you look back when Henry Ford started mass producing cars, he had those same sorts of curves.
So, to me, it's what can pass that does that?
It could be a carbon tax that makes other things more expensive and thus drives demand towards the clean options.
It could be subsidies that incentivize us to buy them.
It could be mandates, regulation.
Anything that makes it cheap could create this virtuous cycle where once we start doing it enough, then these build on themselves and make it cheaper.
- How do you see it?
- Yeah, there's one thing that the world has done really well at over the last century.
It's adaptation to climate and climate change.
If you go back to the 1920s, in an average year, there were millions of people who died in extreme weather events.
In the 2020s, it's less than 10,000 a year.
I mean, that's several orders of magnitude decline.
It's still too many, but it's a huge, huge success.
We know what to do on adaptation, and that's a matter of policy implementation, of funding- - You said that's in the developed world?
- That's worldwide.
- One of the most incredible stories of the last 50 years or so can be found in India and Bangladesh with respect to tropical cyclones.
Just the incredible decline in the number of people who die because of better warnings, better infrastructure.
And, you know, there used to be in the 1960s tens of thousands of people in an average year would die from tropical cyclones in those regions, Bay of Bengal in particular.
That's gone way down.
So adaptation is a matter of taking lessons we've learned and deploying them elsewhere.
Now, energy policy and mitigation, we don't have all the answers.
And I, you know, agree a lot with what Dan said, but what we need, and if we look at the lessons of agriculture in medicine and how we have made advancements over decades and a century, we need more options on the table, more options for energy consumption, more options for energy production.
More options gives us more choice.
And we generally know through innovation and industrial policies how to use public monies to stimulate the invention of options.
And I often use the federal highway gas tax.
So you like roads, you like interstate highways, somebody's gotta pay for it.
Well, guess what?
We all pay for it.
When we fill up our cars, there's a gas tax that goes into maintaining that infrastructure.
For a long time, I and my colleagues have argued that to fund the production of new options in the economy, we need a low carbon tax.
And because the energy economy is so large, we don't need a large carbon tax.
We don't want anybody changing their behavior because we're taxing them.
That's a recipe for political strife.
If you had a $5 a ton carbon tax that was deployed, it would raise the price of gasoline in the United States about four cents a gallon.
All right, we've seen it swing by $2 and $2.50 in the last six months.
Four cents a gallon is probably in the noise for a lot of folks.
That raises $150 billion a year.
So that's some real money that could be used in a way that we do international agricultural research, generate new options, treat technologies on a level playing field.
Solar and wind are, you know, the favorite children these days.
That's one reason they've seen a great success, but there's a lot of other technologies -- geothermal, advanced nuclear, hydrogen, that might also benefit from some subsidies, and let's see where they take us.
So I'm pretty bullish on the evolution of the energy system and also our ability to adapt.
I think it's a bright future.
- We just got a couple minutes left.
Been a great conversation.
Given all this, what are the things to be hopeful about regarding human impacts on climate, which is really what we're talking about?
- Yeah, we're finally setting the targets where they need to be of how quickly we're reducing emissions, the pledges of aiming to get to net zero.
And the science and the research is telling us that this is doable.
We know a range of paths to get there.
There's no one right answer, but technologies that either didn't exist or were wildly expensive 10, 20 years ago are now available to make it possible.
Now we need to get working to the point that we have the policies, the deployments, putting this into motion that makes that happen, and that not only can curb warming, I'm confident that we can hold warming to two degrees or less, but that in doing so, we're going to have a much better future than the world we grew up in.
We're gonna have cleaner air.
We're going to have cleaner water.
I think we need that sort of hopeful realism to see that it's within our hands that this is solvable, this is doable, but it's going to take a lot of work and a lot of benefits that can come from doing this in the right way.
Yeah, that's good.
- Yeah, there's a lot of wisdom in there.
What Dan said, that's great.
I would just add a couple things.
In my classes that I teach on climate and energy policy, I often start out with the unit on the global population crisis as it was viewed in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s to tell the students who, you know, are 20 years old, plus or minus, we've been here before.
We've felt, as a global society, the world's gonna end.
We have no control.
We have no agency.
And I asked them to think through, how do we, quote unquote, solve the population?
'Cause, you know, most people don't talk about it, maybe in college classrooms, but it's not something that you see Congress or the president or the United Nations talking about like they did 50 years ago.
And the answer is that we work really hard on agriculture, on women's rights, on access to birth control, and so on.
And it turns out we believe that population's gonna peak and decline this century.
You know, now we're talking about some countries having population shortages.
[laughs] That's right.
- So I tell the students, when you hear rhetoric, whether it's from the president or the head of the UN talking about climate change as an existential threat, I mean, that literally means, you know, we're gonna go out of existence, the first thing to understand is that doesn't square with where the science is at, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
At the same time, we can hold, you know, these two thoughts in our mind.
It's a hard slog to decarbonize the global economy.
And it's going to be incremental.
It's gonna take decades and, you know, maybe a century.
It's a big, big deal.
Energy transitions don't happen overnight.
So I try to balance the students out with a sense of realism like this is a big deal, but also not the apocalyptic version that you're not gonna have children and you're gonna die and the world's gonna end.
And I find that's actually a pretty big space once you lay it out and you look at the numbers and you do the math.
Our public debates and dialogues and social media may not be in that big space, but I think most of... You know, most people I encounter in the, quote unquote, real world, American citizens around the world, are in that big space.
So I'm pretty optimistic that there's... You know, people are ready to buckle down and get this done even as they're trying to pay their energy bills, feed their families, do their job, go on vacations, and everything else.
- Thank you both.
Appreciate your meeting with me.
- Pleasure to be with you.
- Thank you.
- Yeah, enjoyed it very much.
- Thanks, Scott.
- Thanks, Scott.
[Scott] In this episode, we learned that emissions are trending upwards in the developing world and globally, but down in the developed world and could soon plateau.
That's good news, and it's making extreme climate scenarios no longer realistic.
They're still used because the results show up more clearly in models, but then these sometimes get passed on to the media who inaccurately report the extreme predictions.
Both guests agreed importantly that climate change is not an existential threat to humanity, but one that humans collectively can address.
Now that's reason to be hopeful.
[dramatic music] ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ [Announcer] Funding for "Energy Switch" was provided in part by The University of Texas at Austin, leading research in energy and the environment for a better tomorrow.
Roger--I thought this was an excellent episode! I recently joined the board of Switch Alliance and am a huge supporter of the education mission. Your episode was well balanced. The Carbon tax is a tough political pill and I am highly doubtful it would pass. This tells you all you need to understand about how much the general public is willing to pay out of pocket for some of the changes being advocated. There is a widespread belief that any incremental cost associated with energy transition should be borne by the companies. This ultimately ends hitting the consumer pocket book but it's not an explicit tax. Thus its easier to find ways to force companies to internalize the cost of carbon through various rules and regulations and pass the cost on through increase price on products and services.
What a terrific and balanced episode. So glad PBS will be airing it next month. America and the world need more informed discussion like that and far less alarmism about climate change. You are to be commended for continuing to be a voice for truth and reason in the face of so much misinformation and hostility. Please keep doing what you’re doing.