The international conversation regarding climate change often turns to solutions: how to reduce (and eventually eliminate) the use of coal, natural gas (methane), and oil; enhance the use of wind and solar; and conserve energy. Scientists have calculated that the Earth still contains enough available coal that, if burned, could melt a sizable chunk of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, as Ricarda Winkelmann et al. note in “Combustion of Available Fossil Fuel Resources Sufficient to Eliminate the Antarctic Ice Sheet.” Further, reducing coal use may still prove tricky, as Ottmar Edenhofer suggests in “King Coal and the Queen of Subsidies,” stressing the commodity is still an important energy source in many developing economies.
As of 2021, thirty years’ worth of international meetings have been held, a wide range of papers presented, and extensive volunteer agreements made (and violated), from the Kyoto Protocol to the Paris Agreement, to address this threat. In the process, much jet fuel has been burned amid noisy politics hobbled by nationalism, as exemplified by the US first joining the Paris Agreement under Obama, leaving under Trump, and then rejoining under Biden.
As President Biden might say, “Here’s the deal.” Since about 1960, the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere has blown through the 300s and even past 400 ppm, reaching perhaps more than 420 ppm by the time this essay is published. This is as high as it was about three million years ago, during the Pliocene, when temperatures were much higher. Given the role of thermal inertia, air temperatures may reach Pliocene levels in a century or two if serious actions are not taken now. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases do not care what effect any of this will have on human beings, other animals, or plants. They merely hold heat, and the more of it that humanity creates, the warmer and stormier the atmosphere and Earth’s surface becomes.
Recognizing this, many people are trying to take action, both informally through civil protest and more officially though public campaigns. Helen Davidson highlights one instance of protest in her 2014 article “Pacific Islanders Blockade Newcastle Coal Port to Protest Rising Sea Levels,” documenting an effort to raise awareness of how climate change has led to loss of land and culture for many Pacific Islanders. Coral Davenport and Laurie Goldstein detail efforts from higher up in “Pope Francis Steps Up Campaign on Climate Change, to Conservatives’ Alarm,” recounting the Pope’s efforts to urge world leaders to sign the Paris Agreement in late 2015.
One important avenue of change is ongoing resistance to oil pipelines, perhaps most prominently exemplified by the fight against the Keystone XL Pipeline, which was killed during June 2021, as documented by Carol Berry in “Tribal Members Sign Treaty Calling for an End to Alberta Oil Sands Development and Keystone XL,” Sarah Wheaton in “Keystone XL Pipeline Fight Lifts Environmental Movement,” and Andrew Nikiforuk in “A Forest Threatened by Keystone XL.” Carol Berry also covers the equally controversial struggle over Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline in Canada in “Alberta Oil Sands Up Close: Gunshot Sounds, Dead Birds, a Moonscape.”
Some people believe the solution to climate change’s destructiveness lies in nature, taking the example of some corals’ ability to heal themselves when earlier conditions are replicated. Charles Schmidt depicts growing hope amid such discoveries in “As Threats to Corals Grow, Hints of Resilience Emerge,” as does James P. Gilmour et al. in “Recovery of an Isolated Coral Reef System following Severe Disturbance.” The 2015 Nature article “Sea Creatures Adapt to Acid” also notes this marine resiliency.
Yet, the existential threat remains, evidenced by T.V. Padma’s report of plant species’ upward migration in elevation to escape warming conditions, despite the risk of extinction, in “Himalayan Plants Seek Cooler Climes.” Additionally, Edwin Dobb’s 2013 National Geographic article “The New Oil Landscape” details the harm of fracking, a destructive extractive process that continues today.
Rapid change is needed to improve the chances of a sustainable future, but it must involve a swift switch from coal, oil, and other fossil fuels to clean, renewable sources, such as wind and solar, as well as many types of conservation and political protest against oil pipelines. As Hannah Hoag’s piece “How Cities Can Beat the Heat” demonstrates, not all efforts are as effective as planned, no matter how well intentioned. Still, the necessity of enacting change is ever more pressing, as underscored by Michael Greenstone’s New York Times article, “If We Dig Out All Our Fossil Fuels, Here’s How Hot We Can Expect It to Get.”
By 2015, the costs of producing solar and wind energy were beating fossil fuels in the marketplace, which Diane Cardwell addresses in “Solar and Wind Energy Start to Win on Price vs. Conventional Fuels.” This is one of the most important turning points in our energy future. Quirin Schiermeier spotlights an important bid for more renewable energy in “Solar on the Steppe: Ukraine Embraces Renewables Revolution.” This is a growing trend around the world, as illuminated by Diane Cardwell’s New York Times articles “Green-Energy Inspiration off the Coast of Denmark” and “Solar Power Battle Puts Hawaii at Forefront of Worldwide Changes,” and NASA Earth Observatory’s report “Growth of Solar in the Gobi Desert.”
Ultimately, as this essay demonstrates, everything in the realm of climate change is not only connected but changing rapidly. The sources outlined here cover only roughly the past ten years, underscoring this whirlwind change. Changes to offset global warming must thus be equally swift.