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Jon Chait wrote an optimistic take on climate change. Is it justified?

Here comes the sun.
Here comes the sun.

Jonathan Chait has a big cover story on climate change in New York magazine: "This Is the Year Humans Finally Got Serious About Saving Themselves From Themselves." As the title indicates, it is an optimistic take on the state of the climate fight.

Several people have asked what I think of it. Mostly I think it's great! If even half of mainstream political pundits understood climate as well as Chait, the world would be a better place (literally).

Predictably, my favorite part is Chait's straight talk about the Republican Party:

The entire world is, in essence, tiptoeing gingerly around the unhinged second-largest political party in the world’s second-largest greenhouse-gas emitter, in hopes of saving the world behind its back.

Well put! And he calls climate denialism "a regional quirk in the most powerful country on Earth," which captures both the absurdity and danger of it.

My least favorite part of the piece was the big, gaping hole in the middle of it, which we'll get to in a little bit.

Mostly, though, people have asked whether Chait's optimism is justified. Unfortunately, there's no simple answer to that question. Climate change presents an interpretive dilemma that translates into endless, unresolvable fights between different interpretive communities.

Everything in the realm of political possibility today is woefully inadequate to the challenge of climate change. From that perspective, it's all a bunch of craven, corporatist, sheeple-distracting nonsense, unworthy of praise and a far cry from grounds for optimism. They refuse to grade on a curve.

But if you cast that big net over the entire political process, you miss a lot of important nuances and distinctions. You might be right on climate change, but you will not be a particularly effective or insightful participant in the political process, where everything is measured against the status quo, not the ideal.

Others prefer to assess sociopolitical progress in the context of a particular historical trajectory, a particular set of institutions, and a particular political economy. From that perspective, any progress that breaks free of the extraordinary weight of status quo bias is a win —it is, explicitly, grading on a curve.

Which interpretive community you choose largely reduces to temperament and tribal affiliation. Both are correct in their own way. Chait's piece measures progress against the baseline status quo, and I will mostly assess his premises from that perspective.

So let's be scientific about this and break it down into multiple optimisms, with separate plausibility ratings, from 1 (never going to happen) to 10 (a sure thing). Also, it's the weekend, so let's keep it short.

It turns out, Chait's optimisms decline in plausibility as the piece goes along.

Technological innovation: 8

A primary source of optimism for Chait is the rapidly advancing state of clean energy technology. And there is certainly reason for optimism in the world of electricity, including the plunging costs of renewables and the buzz of innovation at the distribution edge of the grid, where electricity use is getting smarter and more efficient.

But as our own Brad Plumer is fond of reminding us, there's more to energy than electricity. Electricity accounts for around 40 percent of America's energy consumption and a roughly comparable slice of its carbon emissions. Most of the rest is oil for transportation, along with oil and natural gas for the industrial sector. In many ways, those are more daunting challenges than electricity. There are increasingly economic sources for clean power, but energy for heavy transportation (planes, trucks, trains) and high-intensity industrial applications remains stubbornly liquid and fossil. The fight to kill dirty electricity is only the beginning.

That said, the past few decades have seen one story after another about clean energy outstripping projections and expectations. Chait is right that clean technology development seems to have entered into a mutually reinforcing cycle with policy development. Things will only speed up from here.

So Chait's technological optimism is legit, earning a solid 8 on our plausibility scale.

US policy progress: 7

One thing Chait is correct to emphasize is that recent progress in clean energy technology has been driven not by the magic invisible hand of the market, but by policy. Though the cap-and-trade bill failed in 2010, the stimulus bill gave a huge boost to renewable energy, and EPA regulations have played a key role in shutting down US coal and boosting renewables. And fuel economy standards have helped begin the long task of squeezing oil out of the transportation sector.

There is good reason to believe that policy will continue to drive a shift to clean energy, and that the shift will in turn make further policy progress easier. But there is a very large caveat:  Because most of Obama's clean energy policies have been accomplished through executive action, their survival depends entirely on the next executive.

Hillary Clinton has said that protecting the Clean Power Plan will be a top priority. Needless to say, President Trump will not look upon it so kindly. And the next president can sabotage fuel economy standards, ozone rules, and any of a dozen more small-bore actions the Obama administration has taken in the past few years.

If another Democrat wins the presidency, the current dynamic will likely continue: slow, incremental progress in coal-heavy states, driven by federal standards, alongside more rapid, ambitious progress in states like California.

International political progress: 6

International climate meetings have always been frustrating, more squabbling and grand declarations of intent than concrete policy agendas. But Chait is right that things seem to have shaken loose lately. The long and futile quest for the Ultimate Binding Treaty seems finally to have been abandoned, in favor of a framework whereby countries make voluntary pledges and commit to transparent monitoring and verification of their progress.

This lowering of expectations has, in a somewhat paradoxical way, allowed countries to emerge from their defensive crouches and begin showing some ambition, led by the recent bilateral pact between the US and China — countries that until recently used one another as excuses for inaction, but now seem to be doing the opposite.

However, as any climate activist will tell you, all those voluntary pledges do not yet add up to action sufficient to meet the 2 degree target on which all countries have, at least symbolically, agreed. Adaptation funding, via the Green Climate Fund, remains gummed up and inadequate. And of course there are plenty of people who still think that the lack of legally binding protocols render the whole exercise little more than symbolism.

So international climate talks are doing better than they typically have been (a low bar), but it's a little early to say that the world has truly gotten serious about tackling the problem.

China political progress: 5

Chait is right to mock Republicans for saying that US action won't make any difference because China won't reciprocate — and then ignoring or dismissing it when China reciprocates. In fact, China is dumping enormous resources into clean energy and placing increasingly stringent limits on coal. China's coal use declined in 2014, for the first time this century.

That said, let's be real: China's coal use remains monstrous — it uses over half the world's coal — and all the new coal plants it has built in the last decade will remain in operation for 40 or 50 years, putting a floor on its efforts to reduce coal use. For all its recent movement on carbon ambition, which will probably end up exceeding what it says are its official targets, it is still a long, long way from a trajectory commensurate with 2 degrees. And its overriding goal remains economic development.

Developing country progress: 4

Chait says:

The energy revolution in China has laid the groundwork for a future scarcely anybody could have imagined just a few years ago. For most of the 1.3 billion people globally without access to electricity, building new solar power is already cheaper than fossil-fuel generation. And so, the possibility has come into view that, just as the developing world is skipping landlines and moving straight into cellular communication, it will forgo the dirty-energy path and follow a clean one. The global poor can create a future of economic growth for themselves without burning the world.

That's a lovely idea, and I hope it's true. Last year, I wrote a pair of posts — one, two — addressing this set of issues: energy poverty and the dilemma of getting energy to the poor without frying the planet. It is thorny and complicated, to say the least.

It is very difficult and expensive to extend the central power grid to poor people in the rural hinterlands of Africa and India. For many of those people, there is an increasing array of choices available for small-scale, affordable clean energy. That clean energy — not only solar panels but solar hot water, solar stoves, solar lamps, and other modular solar tech — can help offer rural residents basic services like light and refrigeration. That's nothing to sniff at. A little bit of energy makes a life-changing difference at that level.

So sure, the 2 billion or so who lack energy access can get started, now, with distributed clean energy technology.

But that's a very different undertaking than lifting all those people — or empowering them to lift themselves — to a level of energy access and affluence that matches, or even approaches, that enjoyed by citizens of developed Western nations.

Clean energy is a road out of abject poverty, but is it a road to full industrialization? That remains very much an open question. Right now, as Plumer has reminded us, even as coal is peaking or declining in the US and China, it is on the rise in growing economies like Vietnam and Indonesia. And it is on the rise globally.

So in a sense it's too late for developing countries to "leapfrog" over the dirty energy path. They are already on the dirty energy path. Their task, like everyone else's, is to drag themselves off of it. And they have to do it in a context where economic development is, morally and pragmatically, the overwhelming priority.

It may be possible. But it is way, way too early to say so for sure, much less to say that it's happening.

The f'ing movement: 9

The gaping hole in Chait's piece? He has written the grassroots climate movement(s) out of existence. All he says about environmentalists is that they "sank into despair" after the cap-and-trade bill failed.

Activist Tim DeChristopher's rant about Chait's piece is completely over-the-top and paints an absurd caricature of Chait, but he's justifiably angry about this. As he says, it's not just "environmentalists" now — the climate justice movement is far broader than that and includes many other constituencies. And they did not sink into despair when the cap-and-trade bill (which they hated) died; they organized. Chait may not like the fact that the movement rallied around Keystone XL, but rally it did. And it's beyond absurd that Chait mentions the closing of hundreds of coal plants in the US without mentioning the grassroots Beyond Coal movement that was so crucially instrumental in bringing it about.

Chait has always had a beef with the left activists in general and climate activists specifically. I personally think it's gotten a bit personal with him and distorted his otherwise typically lucid political analysis. But psychologizing aside, it's a little crazy to write about humanity getting serious about saving itself without even mentioning the growing grassroots movement that has dedicated itself to doing just that.

Overall optimism verdict: 7

Based on the complex mathematical modeling underlying my plausibility scale (please see appendices for more), and assessed from the standpoint of present-day political economy, Chait's piece receives an overall optimism plausibility score of 7, which is pretty dang high. It's certainly a hell of a lot higher than would have been possible even a few years ago.

The big picture on climate change remains overwhelming and fairly depressing. Even with all the positive developments Chait identifies, the status quo trajectory still leads to disaster. But he is right that, for the first time in my lifetime, it looks like it might be a real fight.

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