It’s the Best and Worst of Times for Climate Change
We’re worse off than ever — but on a better track.
What a strange time to be thinking about climate change. I can remember few previous moments where the danger of the climate threat was as apparent — or as inescapable.
A massive heat wave has covered much of the Northern Hemisphere, sending temperatures from Beijing to New York to Rome into the 80s or 90s. Phoenix, Arizona, has just recorded — for the first time ever — 19 days in a row with a high above 110 degrees Fahrenheit. On Sunday, a weather station in western China recorded that country’s all-time hottest temperature: 126 degrees Fahrenheit. Wildfires are raging across southern Europe and northern Canada.
Nor is the land alone aflame. The oceans have set an all-time heat record, smashing the previous record set in 2016 and continuing to meander higher. The Atlantic Ocean is particularly stricken: The water near southern Florida, normally in the mid-80s at this time of year, has reached a stunning 98 degrees.
Courtesy of the Climate Change Institute from the University of Maine
But this is only a symptom of a broiling year. Last month was the warmest June ever measured, and 2023 is now more likely than not to be the warmest year ever measured. The nine hottest years on record are now the most recent nine years. If 2023 sets the all-time record, we will go 10 out of 10.
Even the stranger symptoms of climate change are becoming apparent. Scientists have long warned that as the climate warms, the atmosphere will hold more moisture, potentially turning what were once “normal” rain storms — summer thunderstorms that did not originate as a hurricane or tropical storm — into torrential downpours. Well, a series of normal seasonal storms just deluged the Northeast, flooding Vermont’s capital and paralyzing regional travel. On Sunday, six inches of rain fell in less than one hour in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, killing five people. Although these extreme events have not been directly attributed to climate change, they are exactly what climate scientists expect to see more of as global warming continues.
The effects of climate change are becoming unavoidable, omnipresent. In Washington, D.C., where I live, we are locked in a particularly perverse summer pattern where the air will either be extraordinarily hot and humid (because a south wind is blowing) or cooler but filled with toxic wildfire smoke (because a north wind is blowing). There is, in other words, no respite from climate impacts for the next several months: We get extreme heat or dangerous air.
It is shocking, astonishing, almost unreal. The MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes has compared these weeks to the moment in the film Don’t Look Up, when a comet, bound for a collision course with Earth, first appears in the night sky. The thing that we — in the broadest definition of we — were warned about has arrived. It is all the worse for the fact that, in all likelihood, this is one of the chillier summers of the rest of our lives.
And yet — although this may strike some readers as delusion — I will be honest that I am not filled with despair. In all honesty, I felt far worse about our ability to address, deal with, and adapt to climate change last summer. My mood was blackest almost exactly a year ago.
Perhaps you have forgotten. For more than a year, Senator Joe Manchin had been negotiating with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer over a capacious spending package called “Build Back Better.” It was a messy and frustrating thing to watch. Manchin could be a fickle negotiator, backing programs one day only to renege the next, but Schumer too sometimes seemed incapable of understanding Manchin’s demands.
Then, on July 15, 2022, Manchin abruptly pulled out of the talks. It seemed like the effort to pass a reconciliation bill had fallen apart. For the third time in as many decades, the Democratic Party — and specifically the Senate — had blown its chance to pass a climate law. The United States would remain the global laggard, if not the antagonist, of the fight against climate change.
And I despaired. Even though I had reported on climate change for eight years, the outlook then seemed worse than during any moment of the Trump administration. At least during that farce of a four-year term, one could point to hopeful signs in the real economy — like the rapid growth and falling cost of renewables — and wonder if decarbonization might eventually win the day.
But Manchin’s betrayal was an irreversible defeat, one that would condemn the United States to a backwater and retrograde role in the global energy system. China and the European Union, it seemed to me, were now set to dominate the renewable and electric vehicle industries while their American competitors fell behind. As an American who wished to see his country play a positive role in the climate fight, that mortified me; as an American who had to live in the United States, it scared me. Oil and gas companies would now deepen their influence over national politics, I feared, turning America into the world’s most powerful petrostate. Manchin, almost single-handedly, had set back the global climate fight almost a decade and locked in millions of tons of dangerous, wasteful carbon pollution.
And then a miracle happened — one so familiar to us now that perhaps we have forgotten how astonishing it seemed at the time. In those final weeks of July, Manchin — motivated, perhaps, by the wave of popular revulsion that greeted his initial withdrawal — had secretly restarted negotiations with Schumer. On July 27, the two men unveiled a new deal on climate, healthcare, and taxes. The ever-canny Manchin christened it “the Inflation Reduction Act.”
More miracles, now. The Senate — the long-standing enemy of global climate policy, the legislative body that had euthanized climate bills in the 1990s and 2010s — quickly passed the IRA. The House of Representatives galloped behind it. Biden signed it into law. And suddenly, for the first time in my life, the United States had something approaching a climate policy.
As the one-year anniversary of the IRA approaches, we’re going to see many reflections on how the law is going. (I’ve already written one.) Is the IRA working?, we’ll ask. Will it decarbonize the economy fast enough? What other policy do we need?
Those are crucial questions — and questions that this publication was founded to cover. But I hope we can remember how astonishing it is that the IRA exists at all. In November 2016, in March 2020, in November 2021 — even in July 2022 — I was not certain that America would ever pass a climate law.
From 1990 to 2022, the defining and unavoidable fact of American climate policy was that it barely existed. That is — somewhat unbelievably to me — no longer the case. It cedes neither perfection to the IRA nor improper deference to the Biden administration to say that it is okay to feel pretty good about that. Progress is possible. The one sure thing about the status quo is that it will change.
And it will change again. In the coming years, America will discover what much of the world already knows, which is that decarbonization is an extraordinarily difficult task. It will be grueling as a political question, as a policy question, as economics, as engineering, as techne. Meticulous mineral, industrial, and agricultural supply chains must be spun up at the same time that others — primarily the fossil-fuel industry, but also the global steel and cement complex that breeds humanity’s environment — must be profoundly reformed or shut down.
And climate change’s impacts — many times worse than this summer’s — will keep afflicting us. Scientists have warned for 20 years about the “hockey stick” rise of global temperatures, but as the writer Tim Sahay has put it, we are about to get whacked by that hockey stick, over and over and over again. It will hurt. Future political ruptures and defeats are coming, too, perhaps even more dreadful and deadly than those of the 2000s or 2010s.
But when and if those calamities surround us, I will want to remember that progress is possible, and that we can be as astonished by grace and rescue as by anguish and peril. Years ago, I read about a newspaper headline that announced the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg. “TREMENDOUS VICTORY IN PENNSYLVANIA,” it said, and then, below: “Reverent Gratitude of the People.” Reverent gratitude — not a phrase that climate writers use too often, and not one that I would ever use to describe a politician. But when and if humanity triumphs over climate change, and brings our little biosphere into a peaceful and teeming bounty, I do think we will feel a reverent gratitude — for what we will have learned, for what we will have done, and for what we will have averted. And on that day, a billion anonymous heroes will have helped secure that victory, and a trillion contingencies will have whispered it into being.
Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the day is searing and the rains are agonizing. The way before us is long and darkening. If you find yourself surprised by gratitude, hold fast to it.