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Opinion | The Climate Summit Has Me Very Energized, and Very Afraid

I spent last week talking to all sorts of people gathered for the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, and it left me with profoundly mixed emotions.

Having been to most of the climate summits since Bali in 2007, I can tell you this one had a very different feel. I was awed by the energy of all the youth on the streets demanding that we rise to the challenge of global warming and by some of the amazing new technological and market fixes being proposed by innovators and investors. This was not the old days — everyone waiting for the deals cut by the priesthood of climate diplomats huddled behind closed doors. This was the many talking to the many — and I am buoyed by that.

But for me, there was one question that hovered over every promise coming out of this summit: When you see how hard it’s been for governments to get their citizens to just put on a mask in stores, or to get vaccinated, to protect themselves, their neighbors and their grandparents from being harmed or killed by Covid-19, how in the world are we going to get big majorities to work together globally and make the lifestyle sacrifices needed to dampen the increasingly destructive effects of global warming — for which there are treatments but no vaccine? That’s magical thinking, and it demands a realistic response.

Here’s my reporter’s notebook that produced those conflicting emotions:

For the first time, it felt to me that the adult delegates inside the conference halls were more afraid of the kids outside than they were of one another or the press.

Clearly, the internet and social media are super-empowering young people, who daily are manifesting that power in Glasgow to call out the adult negotiators — who clearly don’t want to be flamed, blamed or shamed as “blah leaders,” or “bleaders,” who just “blah, blah, blah,” as wall posters slapped around Glasgow suggest. I was warned before a panel I was on that if any young protesters disrupted the session, simply let them have their say.

Gen Z — all those who were born between 1997 and 2012 and grew up as digital natives — is now the world’s largest population cohort, 2.5 billion strong, and their presence is palpable at the summit.

They know that later is over, that later will be too late and that sticking to our business-as-usual trajectory could heat up the planet by the end of the century to levels no Homo sapiens have ever lived in.

One day last week, Greta Thunberg, the 18-year-old Swedish climate activist, and hundreds of other youth gathered at a Glasgow park for a snap rally to call out global leaders with the chant, “You can shove your climate crisis up your. …”

I watched the video and couldn’t make out the last word. Must have been “glass.”

“These young people don’t just want to purchase your products or vote for you. They want to take action with you,” argued Molly Voss Fannon, C.E.O. of the Museum for the United Nations — UN Live, an independent organization that works to help people all over the world discover and flex their own power. “My oldest daughter, who is only 10, is the person who got me to become a vegetarian. My middle daughter recently ran for student council at her school on the platform of: ‘Vote for me because I can talk my parents into anything.’ With her, it’s like raising Al Capone with a heart of gold.”

Good news, Gen Zers: You won the debate on climate change. And thanks for that. Both governments and business are now saying: “We get it. We’re on it.” The bad news: There is still a huge gap between what scientists say is needed by way of immediately reducing use of the coal, oil and gas that drive global warming and what governments and business — and, yes, average citizens — are ready to do if it comes to a choice of heat or eat.

As energy experts point out, it is never a good idea to take off your belt until your suspenders are on tight. Governments will not quit dirty fossil fuels until there is sufficient clean energy to replace them. And that will take longer or require much greater sacrifices than are being discussed in any depth at the summit.

Read this from CNBC’s website on Nov. 3 and weep: “The global supply of renewables will grow by 35 gigawatts from 2021 to 2022, but global power demand growth will go up by 100 gigawatts over the same period. … Countries will have to tap traditional fuel sources to meet the rest of the demand. … That shortfall will only widen as economies reopen and travel resumes,” which will spark “sharp rises in prices for natural gas, coal and electricity.”

We need to stop deluding ourselves that we can have it all — that we can do foolish things like close down nuclear plants in Germany that provided massive amounts of clean energy, just to show how green we are, and then ignore the fact that without sufficient renewables in place, Germany is now back to burning more of the dirtiest coal. This moral preening is really counterproductive.

Energy is a scale problem. It requires a TRANSITION, and that means a transition from the dirtiest fossil fuels to cleaner fuels — like natural gas or nuclear — to wind and solar and, eventually, sources that don’t today even exist. Those who propose ignoring that transition risk producing a huge backlash against the whole green movement this winter if people can’t heat their homes or run their factories.

No, but now would be a good time to start praying. Pray that technology plus artificial intelligence can close that gap between what today’s Homo sapiens are actually willing to do to mitigate climate change and what is actually needed. And pray that Homo sapiens start to understand that preserving our future almost certainly will require some pain. Because right now, without sacrifice, our only hope is to design and deploy technologies that allow ordinary people to do extraordinary things at scale.

My first day in Glasgow I was walking into the New York Times media hub when I passed a gray-haired security staffer explaining to her much younger colleague what this conference was all about. She said in a thick Scottish accent, “There was this guy, Al Gore, and he predicted all of this before anyone.”

Opinion Conversation
The climate, and the world, are changing. What challenges will the future bring, and how should we respond to them?

You know you’re old when a young person at a climate summit has no idea who Al Gore is.

Happily, Gore is still seeing around corners. We had a few minutes to chat in a hallway and he spent most of it telling me with great excitement about a data science project he was backing — Climate TRACE, which uses sensory data from satellites and artificial intelligence to do real-time monitoring of CO₂ emissions, especially those that never get reported by governments and business.

With 24/7 satellite coverage provided by the start-up Planet, whose hundreds of tiny satellites image the earth’s land mass every day in high resolution, we will be able to watch a logging truck go into the Amazon rainforest and cut a road and then count each tree chopped down. Or, conversely, we’ll be able to count trees that are planted and put a price on the carbon that each one is saving — instead of just a price on the lumber taken from the forest.

“The era of radical climate transparency is about to be born,” said Andrew Zolli, Planet’s chief impact officer. Everyone — your customers, your competitors, your employees and activists — will soon know exactly what you are emitting with one click. That is a big deal.

“You can have a scale impact on the climate when you can measure, monitor, manage and monetize the value of saving a forest or a watershed,” said Andy Karsner, who was the principal U.S. climate negotiator in Bali in 2007 and whose Elemental Labs is now building more tech tools for market-based solutions for climate change.

“We humans don’t have big claws or razor-sharp teeth to survive,” Karsner told me. “Instead, we were endowed with large brains, and I still believe the enlightened self-interest of our species will drive us to come together and use our collective brains to develop and deploy the tools” we need to thrive on this planet.

Yes! Plant a tree — or prevent one from being chopped down — by supporting Indigenous communities, whose territories contain 50 percent of all the world’s remaining forests and 80 percent of the healthiest functioning ecosystems, according to Peter Seligmann, a co-founder of Nia Tero, an organization recently started “to ensure that Indigenous peoples have the economic power and cultural independence to steward, support and protect their livelihoods and territories they call home” — which also happen to be home to some of earth’s greatest biodiversity treasures.

Seligmann (a donor to my wife’s language museum) introduced me to Teofilo Kukush, chief of the Wampis Nation, an Indigenous people, some 15,300 strong, who have been living for multiple generations on their own territory — 1,327,760 hectares (5,126 square miles) of mostly forest and watersheds, in the northern Peruvian Amazon. (When I wrote down on my notepad “1,327,000” hectares for short, Kukush pointed to the imprecision of my number and insisted that I write down the last 760 hectares.)

And no wonder. Speaking in Spanish and Wampis, his Indigenous language, through a translator, Kukush explained that every year their still largely intact forested region — with which they live in harmony, using rotating agriculture — absorbs 57 million tons of CO₂ from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and stores millions of tons of carbon by keeping those trees standing.

But like so many Indigenous communities controlling tropical forests, his faces daily attacks from human predators — miners, loggers, animal parts traffickers, drug smugglers and industrial farmers. Indigenous leaders were brought to Glasgow by Nia Tero to highlight their critical role.

“We have been taking care of this for the world, and our future generations, and we need to make sure that it is there forever,” said Kukush, who was hard to miss with his brightly colored headdress made of toucan feathers. “But we have not benefited one cent. The carbon credits all go to the government and not us.”

If you’re looking for an ordinary thing that could have an extraordinary impact, it would be protecting these biodiversity protectors.

“OK, climate change is real, but it is too late to do anything serious, so let’s stop with all the green stuff and focus exclusively on adaptation. What’s so bad about golf in Minnesota in February?”

If there is anything we should have learned from Covid-19, it’s that Mother Nature doesn’t play nice. Just when you think you’ve masked or vaxxed your way out of a problem, she surprises you with a Delta variant. “Adaptation” sounds so nice, so soft, so gradual — until it isn’t. Of course, we’re going to have to adapt, but I’d prefer to have to adapt by building a single sea wall than rebuilding Miami or New Orleans every three years. The difference will be what we do to minimize climate change now.

One of the most compelling voices on this subject in Glasgow was the earth system scientist Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Mother Nature, Rockström remarked to me, has evolved an amazing tool kit to keep temperatures from fluctuating too hot or too cold and maintain us in this Garden of Eden climate that we’ve enjoyed for the last 11,000 or so years — which enabled us to build civilization.

But if the warming of the earth’s surface continues at the pace we are on, and the Greenland and West Antarctica ice sheets melt and no longer reflect the sun’s heat away from the oceans, and the Amazon flips from a tropical forest that soaks up carbon pollution into a deforested savanna that produces it, and the level, temperature and salinity of the oceans dramatically change, affecting monsoons, ocean circulation in the Atlantic and the jet stream, WATCH OUT.

Our planet can go from a self-cooling, self-moderating system to a self-warming system. If that happens, adaptation will be a daily struggle for survival for hundreds of millions of people.

“We have more and more evidence that the planet is more fragile than we thought,” concluded Rockström. So, it may be hard, it may be impossible, but this is no time to give up on trying to phase out fossil fuels and prevent these tipping points from tipping.

Two planets are talking to each other. One looks like a beautiful blue marble and the other a dirty brown ball.

“What on earth happened to you?” the beautiful planet asks the brown one.

“I had Homo sapiens,” answers the brown planet.

“Don’t worry,” says the blue planet. “They don’t last long.”

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