Climate Corner: Stubborn optimism

Dec 9, 2023

Rebecca Phillips

As I write this column, the first week in December, the COP28 conference is underway in Dubai. This event is, in part, a follow-up to a treaty that the U.S. and 194 other nations signed in 2015, the Paris Climate Accords.

Unfortunately, recent climate news is not good. The 2023 State of the Climate Report, issued by the National Climatic Data Center with input from fifty other countries, warns of a “climate collapse” brought on by the failure to meet the goals agreed to in 2015. The report’s detailing of emissions, losses, and disasters makes for depressing reading, and its photos are devastating. Given the fact that emissions this year reached a record high after the pandemic-induced reduction, is there any reason to hope that the situation can improve?

It happens that I had begun reading “The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis” by Paris Accord architects Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac a few days before the conference began. The book calls for “stubborn optimism,” a refusal to believe that humans are helpless in the face of even existential challenges. In it, the authors remind us of progress that has already been achieved.

As they note, the U.K., birthplace of the industrial revolution, gets 50% of its power from clean sources. Figueres’ native Costa Rica has achieved 100% clean energy. The cost of solar panels and electric vehicles has dropped, as has the price of electric vehicles. Since the book’s publication, in the U.S. the Inflation Reduction Act is accelerating clean energy development and making it easier to purchase efficient appliances and vehicles. While much remains to be done in terms of strengthening our nation’s electricity transmission grid, renewable energy development is increasing.

COP 28 has the potential for many positives, and despite the inevitable problems that arise when dealing with groups of humans and the determination of fossil fuel lobbyists to prevent a phase-down of such fuels, the first days of the conference have brought some good news. On Nov. 30, participating countries created — and donated to — a climate fund to help low-income nations recover from the climate disasters that are occurring with greater frequency. On the second day, international development banks introduced a plan to reduce poor nations’ debts in exchange for protecting the natural areas that serve as carbon sinks. Such exchanges have already been successfully implemented in Belize and the Galapagos Islands and look to be a win-win.

Individual countries are bringing forth their own proposals and pledges. Indonesia will be closing its first coal-fired power plant. Brazil’s president has pledged to use that country’s oil revenues to fund green energy development, and last week Brazil’s national development bank launched an effort to restore 23,160 square miles of land — an area larger than Croatia, Costa Rica, or Switzerland — in the Amazon rainforest by 2030. Since the Amazon region is sometimes called “the lungs of the planet,” this is good news indeed.

Methane is the most potent greenhouse gas, remaining in the atmosphere far longer than CO2. Last week, the U.S. EPA announced a plan to reduce methane emissions from gas and oil development by 80% over the next 15 years, equivalent to the annual GHG emissions of 300 million cars. China, the world’s largest emitter, last month issued its first methane control plan. With livestock responsible for around 30% of global methane, six of the world’s largest dairy companies have joined a global alliance to reduce methane emissions from their industry. In many places, regenerative agriculture is becoming more widely practiced. Again, more good news.

People being what they are, we have no guarantee that any of these pledged actions will be carried out, and given the urgency of the problem, no guarantee that they are enough to solve the climate crisis. Still, combined with all the small individual actions that so many of us take, these pledges demonstrate that we can make a better world for future generations, especially if we hold our officials accountable.

As Figueres and Rivett-Carnac write: “We still have a choice about our future … [W]e are capable of making the right decisions about our own destiny. We are not doomed to a devastating future … if we act.”


Rebecca Phillips is a WVU Parkersburg retiree and a member of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action and the Green Sanctuary Committee of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta.