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The benefits of being a climate optimist

Even as political leaders dithered, technocrats and entrepreneurs toiled to assemble a climate-solutions toolkit equal to the enormous task. I believe they succeeded.

Will optimism solve climate change? | Image of a person on a wind farm wearing a red cape

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

I began my hunt for solutions to the climate crisis more than 15 years ago with no clear idea what I was looking for. 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. And it would soon achieve net-zero 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. Most of the world had paid little but lip service to the climate crisis, which few even called a crisis yet. And here was a thriving net-zero community in prosperous Denmark to lead 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 lead? The few of us who knew of Samsø’s ambitious experiment hoped it was a snapshot of our future, but there was no clear path from there to anywhere at all.

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 a floating Hoover Dam. This is the backbone of a new kind of national grid, an engine of climate optimism built to global scale.

The decade and a half between my visits to windy Danish isles may well have looked from some angles like an escalating climate catastrophe. But even as wildfires, floods and hurricanes took their brutal toll and political leaders dithered and corporate beneficiaries of the fossil-fuelled status quo dragged their heels at every turn, there were tinkerers, technocrats and entrepreneurs toiling hard to assemble a climate-solutions toolkit equal to the enormous task. And the reason I call myself a climate optimist is because I believe they’ve succeeded. 

The past 10 years has seen the launch of a truly global energy transition. 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 patterns of rapid cost declines and unprecedented growth have been seen for battery storage, green building design, even the humble heat pump (which enables the electrification of interior heating and cooling). 

The state of the planet’s ecological health, to be sure, remains deeply troubling. Globally, greenhouse gas emissions have only just begun to reach a plateau, and the goal of keeping global warming below 1.5°C (the target agreed upon by virtually the whole world at the 2015 Paris climate conference) looks less likely to be achieved by the day. But the older target of 2°C is looking much more viable than it did just a few years 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 passed (which, as I said, exceeded most expectations on nearly every front) was mere prelude; the next 10 years are certain to see much more dramatic changes in how the world generates and uses energy, accompanied by steadily declining emissions. 

There is a mounting sense of inevitability around this transition, and intangible as that might sound, it is the key to its success. This is because inevitability generates the vital climate-solution fuel of political will. Too often in the climate discussion over the past decade, political will was treated as an afterthought, intoned as if it was some incidental feature that would emerge naturally from the sheer volume of damning climate data or non-binding climate-emergency declarations. 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 energy of inevitable change is a more powerful magnet for political will. 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 true and harrowing facts. They are signs of catastrophic 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, too, are all true 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
How to Be a Climate Optimist was released on May 17. Enter our Instagram contest for your chance to win a copy.

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