Last year was challenging to say the least, but as we begin 2021, we can look back on 2020 and see that in the midst of all the darkness and despair, there were largely unnoticed good news stories that give us reason to believe that better times are ahead. While many are ruing failed U.S. leadership and the pandemic, history may reveal that these dual hardships have contributed to the creation of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for pervasive change.
This hopeful narrative may seem anachronistic but when we peel back the dower headlines, we see that our prospects are nowhere near as gloomy as they may seem. As explained by Ola Rosling in his book “Factfulness”, the substantial improvements we have seen in poverty alleviation and health care suggest that these are far from the worst of times. While Rosling concedes that there are many problems in the world today, he thinks the main issue is our stubborn refusal to relinquish our negative assumptions. This point is borne out in a 2018 research paper published in Science, which showed that people tend to seek out and selectively attend to negative information.
Rosling says that we are currently living in the best of times, however, “most people can’t imagine that because of how our brains are wired…To realize how good the world is and how many things are improving, you first have to confront people’s worldview and show them that actually, no, you’re wrong a lot.” What may be even more interesting is the fact that there is no partisan or political divide on this propensity towards negativity. Both conservatives and progressives tend to underestimate the improvements we have seen.
There were a plethora of overlooked good news stories in 2018 and 2019. Among the most positive events in 2020 was the reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Last year may go down in history as the moment when the world finally got serious about global climate action. Perhaps most importantly, 2020 will be remembered as the year when a strong majority of Americans said no to authoritarianism and stood up in support of climate action. Americans have reached an inflection point and rejected the most corrupt and destructive president in the history of the republic. Although they often passed under the radar, there were many good news stories all throughout the year. From District Courts to the Supreme Court, America’s justice system repeatedly ruled against the Trump administration’s anti-environment agenda. Most recently, America’s institutions held fast despite the incumbent’s persistent attempts to subvert democracy.
COVID and energy
The malfeasance of the Trump presidency has drawn attention to the vulnerabilities in America’s democracy, and the combination of dystopian leadership and the pandemic have exposed fault lines. These issues command serious attention and demand redress. COVID-19 has taken a toll on treasure and human lives. With tens of millions of people infected and hundreds of thousands dead, it is easy to understand why we underappreciate the revolutionary upside to COVID-19. While it may be hard to imagine, this deadly plague may prove to be the catalyst that propels the world towards a paradigm-changing tipping point.
A massive transformation is already underway in the U.S. The coronavirus has increased support for facts and helped people to realize that we need leaders to make decisions that are informed by science. The pandemic has improved the way we work and even increased our appreciation of nature. Most importantly, the pandemic has driven down emissions buoying hope for climate action. Historically, major crises have been shown to decrease emissions and covid is no exception. Both the United Nations and the Global Carbon Project have indicated that CO2 emissions declined by 7 percent in 2020, making this the largest single-year reduction in history.
We are in the middle of a major reorganization of the world’s energy mix and early indications suggest that the pandemic may help renewable energy. Covid has caused massive job losses in the energy sector but they have proven to be disproportionately harmful to fossil fuels. The spate of industry bankruptcies is evidence of the beginnings of the demise of coal, oil, and gas.
The fossil fuel industry continues to drive emissions and in 2020 it became increasingly clear that the success of climate mitigation efforts is contingent on eradicating fossil fuels. Ongoing methane leaks from oil wells and spills in 2020 helped to reinforce the point.
Even before the outbreak investors, banks, and insurance companies were abandoning fossil fuels. Led by cities and academia the global divestment movement continued to grow in 2020. Recently the Rockefeller Foundation announced that it would fully divest from fossil fuels as did the New York State pension fund and Nest, the UK’s largest pension fund. The momentum to eliminate fossil fuels was also evident at the recent UN Climate Ambition Summit.
The trend towards decarbonization through electrification is proving to be a jobs creator that is driving changes in both the global energy mix and the transportation sector. Renewable energy is a fundamental part of decarbonization efforts and in 2019, clean power accounted for three-quarters of new energy capacity. The combination of declining prices and surging investment are making it increasingly clear that renewables are destined to supplant fossil fuels. In 2020 investors who have not heeded the writing on the wall were reminded about the risks from stranded fossil fuel assets.
Last year will also be remembered as the year that market forces pushed Exxon Mobil out of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. As an increasingly beleaguered fossil fuel industry faced an ever-increasing number of activist campaigns in 2020, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp. were overtaken by NextEra Energy Inc., making the wind leader the world’s most valuable energy company.
Protest and change
People all around the world are standing up to fossil fuel interests and making a difference. As Barry Lopez, the late author of American Geography explained, confrontation “is the road to our survival”. One excellent example comes from Canada, where protestors managed to diffuse a massive carbon bomb. Led by protests against the murder of George Floyd by police, people around the world rose up and demanded social and environmental justice. The success of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 was a clear demonstration of the power of protest to augur change.
National governments are increasingly listening to their constituents and enacting more environmentally responsible policies. Eighty percent of the world’s largest economies set net-zero emissions targets in 2020. The European Commission announced a Green Deal and Denmark adopted a new climate law that commits the nation to carbon neutrality by 2050 (70% reduction by 2030). The new law binds Denmark to the international climate process, including climate finance for developing countries. The ruling conservative government in the UK committed to a 68 percent reduction by 2030 and China has announced that its emissions will peak in the next decade and hit net zero by 2060. Even in the US, under an administration that is overtly hostile to the environment, there were signs of hope as Congress, American states, and cities put forward policies and practices to address climate change.
However, no single event augurs more hope than the recent U.S. electoral victory of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Biden and Harris are committed to science-based policy and they ran on the most ambitious program of climate action in the history of presidential politics. The Building Back Better recovery plan represents a seismic shift in American policy and Biden’s cabinet including his inclusion of John Kerry as Presidential Envoy for Climate, bodes well for the future of this planet.
Hope or surrender
These positive developments transform the way we look at the serious difficulties we face. Rather than being intractable obstacles, these problems are becoming a call to action that invites solutions. This includes reimagining progress and reconfiguring our economy in ways that factor both equity issues and the earth’s carrying capacity. If we take this work seriously and reorient our understanding of growth, we may be able to preserve some of the million species that are hurtling towards extinction.
Make no mistake, the road ahead is fraught with challenges that will not be easily overcome, but the constellation of current events gives us a chance. The deadly plague and the villainous demagogue that fueled many of the tragedies in 2020 are the same twin evils that inadvertently helped to create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to alter our perilous course. While it is hard to fathom from where we stand today, we may not have had this opportunity without four years of failed American leadership and a global pandemic.
If we shrug off cynicism and open ourselves to the possibility that we can seize the moment, we may be able to change the course of history. When we are receptive to more than just the dark truths of our ruinous past, we may even find the courage to hope, and in the immortal words of Greta Thunberg, we may realize that “hope is achieved through action“.
Like modern-day Scrooges in an updated version of the Dickens classic, we have been given a second chance. If we heed the warnings we may be able to pull ourselves back from the brink of calamity. The alternative is the path of surrender.