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Can optimism solve climate change?

Can optimism solve climate change?

climate optimist

Chris Turner is the author How to Be a Climate Optimist.

My search for solutions to climate crisis began more than 15 years ago. I didn’t know what I was looking at when I started my quest. The first place I found myself was an island in Denmark — Samsø, a slight spit of flat farmland in the channel between the Danish mainland and populous Zealand, where Copenhagen is found. The year was 2005, and Samsø had been chosen by the Danish government as a showcase for its emerging expertise in renewable energy and other emission-cutting efforts. It would become the world’s first “renewable energy island,” completely free of fossil fuels. That was the promise.

The reality was impressive enough for 2005: some of the first industrial-scale wind turbines I’d ever laid eyes on, gathered in small clusters of two or three in farmers’ fields, solar thermal plants large enough to heat whole towns, and hyper-efficient district heating plants burning pellets made of waste straw. It would soon be net-zero in emissions. Fossil fuels hadn’t literally been eliminated, but Samsø’s energy planners added enough wind power to offset the emissions from the cars and ferries that continued to burn oil. The world had done little to address the climate crisis, which was still being called a crisis by most. It was a prosperous net-zero community in Denmark that led the way. 

Still, Samsø was a one-off, an eccentric slice of extravagant Scandinavian design on an island not even Danes thought much about except as a source of delicious potatoes in season. Who knew where it would take them? The few of us who knew of Samsø’s ambitious experiment It is hoped It was a snapshot of our future but there was no clear way from there to anywhere.

In 2019, I was reminded how remote from the centre of the world’s energy future Samsø had felt when I found myself on another Danish island with big ambitions. Bornholm isn’t much larger than Samsø, but from its western shore you can gaze at the horizon and marvel at the global energy transition Danish islanders helped launch, now reaching full stride. In the next few years, the Danish grid operator Energinet will build one of Europe’s largest renewable energy installations just over that horizon. This “Baltic Sea energy island” will consist of two mammoth gigawatt-sized offshore wind farms, connected to the Danish grid by a huge platform anchored offshore. 

This is no longer a handful of hopeful turbines spinning their blades in a Danish farmer’s field to keep the lights on in a nearby village. This is the floating Hoover Dam. This is the backbone to a new kind national grid. Climate optimism is a driving forceBuilt to a global scale

From certain angles, the decade and half that passed between my visits in windy Danish islands might have seemed like an escalating global climate catastrophe. Even though wildfires and floods caused massive damage and corporate beneficiaries of the fossil fuelled status quo dragged themselves at every turn, politicians remained apathetic and corporate shareholders dragged their heels, there were technocrats, entrepreneurs, and tinkerers working hard to create a climate-solutions kit that was up to the task. And the reason I call myself a climate optimist is because I believe they’ve succeeded. 

The global energy transition has been underway for the past 10 years. Year after year, renewable energy – wind and solar, primarily – has expanded at rates exceeding the estimates even of its boosters, driven by plunging costs; since 2015, renewables have made up the largest share of new electricity on grids worldwide. Electric transportation – from the heavily hyped Tesla to the simple e-bike – has also grown beyond all expectations, with pledges from pacesetting jurisdictions now in place to ban the sale of vehicles with internal combustion engines by 2035 or earlier, and automakers responding with plans to rapidly expand production of all-electric cars. Similar trends of rapid cost reductions and unprecedented growth can be seen in battery storage, green buildings design, and even the humble heat pump, which enables electrification for interior heating and cooling. 

The state of the planet’s ecological health, to be sure, remains deeply troubling. Globally, greenhouse gases emissions have just begun to plateau. The goal is to keep global warming below 1.5°C (the target agreed on by virtually the entire world at the 2015 Paris climate conference) looks less likely to be achieved by the day. However, the older target of 2 remains.°C looks a lot more viable than it did a few decades ago. And the global transition necessary to reach it – and perhaps even come very close to the more ambitious goal – is accelerating, and its progress is now guaranteed. The decade just past (which, as you can see, exceeded most expectations on almost all fronts) was just a prelude. The next 10 years will see more dramatic changes in how the planet generates and uses energy. There will also be steadily declining emissions. 

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This transition is becoming more apparent, and as ineluctable as it might sound, it is crucial to its success. Because inevitability is the key to climate-solution fuel, political will. In the climate debate over the past decade, politics was often treated as an afterthought. It was referred to as if it would be a natural feature of the overwhelming amount of climate data and non-binding declarations on climate-emergency. But political will is not a force that can be produced or sustained simply by insistent calls to “listen to the science” or wishing for the expediency of a “war footing.” In a disaster, political will can just as readily gather around reactionary calls to retrench around the old status quo, regardless of how precarious it might appear. 

The optimistic energyThe more political will is attracted to the possibility of unavoidable change, the stronger the magnet. It explains why the state of Texas became North America’s leader in wind installations, impervious to the rhetoric of local and national politicians touting the merits of “clean, beautiful coal” (as one former president liked to put it). It explains how Vietnam, seeking to expand its national grid, shifted investments from the coal-fired power plants it initially planned to solar installations instead – not because the Vietnamese government got wise on the climate crisis but because it was easier to get financing for solar from risk-averse international banks, and solar was competitive in terms of price. (In 2020, Vietnam exploded out of nowhere to become the world’s third-largest installer of new solar power.)

I like to think of it this way: You can gaze at the distant line where the sea meets the sky and see warming waters, declining ecosystems, an overheated sky overburdened with carbon dioxide turning the world’s oceans more acidic. These are all horrifying and true facts. These are signs of a severe crisis. But the solutions to the crisis don’t emerge from that view. I look to that horizon instead and think of Bornholm – its gigawatt-scale wind farms, its next-generation smart grid, its efficient buildings lit and heated and cooled by clean energy, and its place in a nation leading the charge to an emissions-free world in the decades to come. These are also facts about the scene. I choose the optimistic view not because it’s the only way to see that horizon but because it’s the only way to see it that leads somewhere better.

climate optimist
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