December 11, 2013
Snow outside the Capitol! See? Climate denialists are right! (AFP photo/ Jim Watson)
Snow outside the Capitol! See? Climate denialists are right! (AFP photo/ Jim Watson)

Today, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology held a hearing on the link between weather and climate. The committee is riddled with GOP climate deniers, so the testimony came from a few cherry-picked scientists who question the link between extreme weather and climate change, or climate science generally. One witness, under questioning from Rep. Lamar Smith, ventured that nearly half of scientists doubt human activity causes global warming.

Republican climate denial is extraordinarily frustrating. But the good news is that it matters less and less every day.

Here’s why: climate change is all about getting rid of fossil fuels as fast as possible, which is mostly about energy. But the energy ground is shifting under everyone’s feet. The truth is that a carbon-free future is getting more feasible at high speed.

For President Obama, this means he should not fear to set the EPA loose on carbon emitters, especially coal-fired power plants. Chances are that The Almighty Market will take them out soon anyway, putting them out of their misery. Despite Republicans’ feeble efforts to attack climate science, renewables are poised to take over the energy market. Here’s how:

1) The price of renewable energy is plummeting. Solar panels have shown the most staggering price decline: down 99% since the 70s, and down 60% since early 2011. Wind has been falling steadily as well, but not as fast.

2) U.S. renewable investment is skyrocketing. Here’s a representative fact: This year, the U.S. will probably beat Germany in total yearly installations. In some ways this isn’t so surprising — the U.S. is much larger, and German insolation is comparable to Alaska — but on the other hand, Germany has been a world leader in solar due to an extremely aggressive feed-in tariff policy. Here’s another: last year, nearly 10 percent of Texas’s electricity was generated by wind.

3) Renewables are nearly in a position to start edging out fossil fuels on electricity generation. Already, 329 coal-fired units aren’t competitive compared to natural gas. Solar is reaching “grid parity” (meaning, competitive without subsidies) in particularly sunny spots, and is projected to hit grid parity nearly everywhere by 2017. This is why coal export terminals keep failing — they’re likely money-losers. It’s worth remembering that carbon pollution is the greatest unpriced externality in history, so what this means is that renewables are actually dramatically cheaper than fossil fuels would be if they had to pay for the damage they are doing to the economy.

4) China is moving very aggressively on climate. China by itself could easily blow through the world’s carbon budget. But carbon pollution and related side effects are already at emergency levels there. Just for starters, unabated coal-fired electricity has polluted the bejesus out of its cities, and the resulting chronic disease is already causing millions of premature deaths. This is why the Chinese government just released a “blueprint” to start coordinating the country’s response — and when the Chinese government acts in concert, the results are dramatic.

The underlying truth here is that China, being still relatively poor, with its marginal farmland, unsteady water supply, and enormous population, is a lot more vulnerable to climate change than the United States. Galloping desertification and sea level rise will strangle the Chinese economy in the cradle, and they know it.

GOP climate denialism remains a serious problem, obviously. But a carbon-free future, enabled by hesitant but strengthening world policy, and heroic scientists and engineers at renewable energy companies, is within our grasp. President Obama should reach for it.