The quest to continue life on Earth, beyond ourselves, requires some assumptions. One is that people who will eventually exist deserve our ethical consideration. Another is that we can, with some level accuracy, predict the future and so shape it. There is no entirely satisfying defense for either of those two assertions, except, maybe, that ignoring the future is a very poor way of going about life and a foolish way of going about governance.
Since the election of Donald Trump there has been a concern, sometimes manifested as abject terror, among environmentalists that this is the end of any work towards preserving the earth for future generations. In writing for an article for Science, Barack Obama sought to assuage this fear by describing the unstoppable trend of the US economy and government towards clean energy. It could be this was a cynical attempt to let the life on Earth know he saved it, or at least that it could save itself from people who aren’t like him. That’s immaterial to the underlying question: will the world actually be saved, or melt to a nightmarish hell-scape?
Spoiler alert: the answer is maybe.
Walking through Obama’s article helps to show why. The title article is, “The Irreversible Momentum of Clean Energy.” Mr. Obama identifies four properties of this phenomenon of unstoppable, sustainable energy growth. The first is that while the US economy grew, from 2008-2015, the US emission of greenhouse gases dropped, showing that destroying the world does not have to go hand-in-hand with how our country does business. The second is that the private sector is following practices that reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions the world over. This has been accomplished, in part, through emission standards and similar government enforced encouragement, but, in a lot of instances, it is a product of a genuine altruism from business leaders. The third is that capitalism is actually doing what is best for people. The percent of energy consumption met by natural gas has increased dramatically, as has the cost of green energy products dropped. The sun will be in our sky a lot longer than coal will be in our ground, people will find a way to exploit this. The fourth is the Paris Accord, which will still be there even if the United States abandons it, as will the global concern over climate change.
Mr. Obama’s assertions aren’t the product of wishful thinking or cherry picking. They are based on government reports and peer reviewed articles. It is a thoughtful and honest explanation of something that most people would really like to be true. What is unfortunate is that it is impossible to make such broad assertions without stepping into an ocean of caveats.
The article focuses on the progress made in the US, which is great- but the US really isn’t the world. CO2 is the same molecule if it comes from a SUV in Michigan or a coal plant in India. The economic progress, which coincided with emission reductions, occurred as we were recovering from the recession. That makes it atypical, as opposed to prophetic of an ongoing trend. In the end, the article can only be said to be aspirational, not definitive or comfortingly enlightening.
In saying Trump doesn’t really have the power to destroy the world, Obama is tacitly admitting he didn’t have the power to save it. It will be a different world in 2016 than it was in 2008, in part because of Obama, but God knows what it will be in 2020. This is the heartbreaking beauty of studying the story of how people interact with the environment. To understand it you have to consider everything; if everything goes well nothing changes, and if it goes poorly, everyone dies. I’ve spent a moderate amount of time reading and writing about it and the only thing I can say I have learned, with any certainty, is that it is a worthwhile thing to write about.
So, again, maybe the world is coming to an end. It is debatable whether or not the actions that have to be taken to prevent destructive climate change are compatible with democracy and the free market. Maybe it isn’t worth living in a world without liberty as provided by those institutions. It is a dark debate to have, and the author of “The Irreversible Momentum of Clean Energy” would rather we didn’t have to have it. But ignoring the future is a foolish way to live.