Turning the Corner

Are we turning the corner on addressing climate change? After more than a century of research on human impacts on the climate system and more than twenty years after the nations of the world rallied around the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to confront the problem, have we begun to finally gain traction?  

The general atmosphere at the Energy and Climate Change conference I recently attended was a qualified but positive-leaning “maybe!” Hosted at a hotel near DC’s National Airport by the “other” NCSE—the National Council for Science and the Environment—about a thousand people gathered to share innovative strategies and get the latest updates from the movers and shakers of the climate world. 

Magical and wishful thinking was at a minimum. Everyone attending understood that we are currently still trending toward a “red hot” world of substantially more than 2 degrees Celsius over the coming century. We are not remotely out of the woods, with emissions continuing to rise above even the worst case scenario. 

Humans have added nearly three watts per meter squared to the climate system, mostly in recent decades, and we’re heading for a nearly threefold increase of added energy—8.5 watts per meter squared—by the end of the century.

Achieving a “Net-Zero” emission goal may seem far-fetched given where we are today. “Impossible dream?”  There may have been doubters at the conference, but I didn't run into any. 

The overall vibe seemed to be: “We can do this!” Exactly how remains to be seen.

There were certainly competing visions of how we’ll be able to put a dent in greenhouse gas emissions. Stanford’s Mark Jacobson promotes 100% renewables, which is the favored approach of the group Solutions.org. There were pro-nuclear attendees promoting the technology as a part of the solution. On the natural gas front, some said hydrofracking had to be part of the solution, while others said it’s too problematic and better alternatives exist. 

But the most impressive positive vibe came from women, like Keya Chatterjee, Executive Director of U.S. Climate Action Network and author of The Zero Footprint Baby. She described how many young women who have been involved with climate action for years retreated to rethink their priorities after the disappointment with COP15 in Copenhagen. Some of them, including Chatterjee, were pregnant not long after the conference and were confident enough in the future that they were willing to bring a child into the world. 

Other dynamic, inspiring women included Governor Jennifer Granholm, whose snazzy presentation on climate action at the state level was well received. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy gave a keynote talk laying out her agency’s aims to work with industry. Most attendees didn’t notice her conflating the two NCSEs when she thanked the “National Council for Science and Education.”*

Some of the optimism among the attendees was about the upcoming COP21, or Council of Parties, the twenty-first such gathering since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed by the nations of the world in 1992. The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg chaired a panel discussion on the “The Road to Paris” that examined how vastly different the landscape is now compared to 2009, when the disappointing COP15 was held in Copenhagen. 

My focus at the conference was on education. In addition to having a successful Climate Smart & Energy Wise book signing right after Amory Lovins’s relentlessly upbeat, fun-filled Reinventing Fire keynote talk, I also had the honor of running a symposium with Ebrahim Mohamed, Director of Education for Climate Knowledge Innovation Community (KIC) that explored climate innovation education. We were joined by Juliette Rooney Varga, yet another dynamic, driven woman and mom, who teaches at University of Massachusetts Lowell and is deeply involved with the Climate Interactive initiative at MIT. Most of the participants were women and, as discussions that followed reveaked, all are involved with innovative, successful climate education efforts. 

As a community concerned about and taking action to address climate change, we are more sober and perhaps more sane and mature than we were even a few years ago. No doubt there will continue to be disappointments and daunting challenges—like implementing and scaling up programs such as the White House’s Climate Education & Literacy Initiative, which John Holdren mentioned in his presentation that closed the conference. (As a related side note, on February 9, the White House celebrates Climate Education Champions at part of its Champions of Change initiative.) 

But twenty-something years on, we are making progress and, despite the massive challenges we face, many I spoke with and listened to had a spark in their eyes and expressed a sense that, even if we’re not all singing in perfect harmony, after years of struggle and discouragement, we are at least using the same songbook.

Now if we can just work on increasing our rhythm and sing with more gusto...

* Both organizations run into this common confusion over sharing the same acronym. In the runup to their annual January conference, we often get a slew of calls about the conference. Last year at its 2014 “Building Climate Solutions” conference, Andy “Dot Earth” Revkin of The New York Times suggested that the two NCSEs team up to host a conference on science education, an idea we continue to contemplate.


Photo by James Russel via Flickr Creative Commons

Short Bio

Mark McCaffrey is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.