Climate crisis: 4 reasons for hope in 2023
This article first appeared in The Hill and is reposted with permission.
As we enter another year of a climate crisis, there is reason for both worry and hope. Looking back, 2022 leaves no doubt that the climate crisis is accelerating: We experienced worsening cases of extreme summer heat, winter cold, droughts, wildfires, intense rainfall, floods, hurricanes and coastal destruction underpinned by sea-level rise. Human-caused climate change is creating major humanitarian, water and biodiversity crises.
But despite these harbingers of doom, I remain hopeful: The past year highlighted reasons for optimism that we will tackle the climate crisis before it’s too late. Here are four big reasons for hope in the coming year.
1) The reality of climate change is sinking in
More than ever, people in the United States and globally are listening to science and taking action to stop climate change. Public opinion research highlights that fewer than 10 percent of Americans are dismissive of climate change, and that majorities in all states think global warming will harm future generations, support regulating CO2 as a pollutant and think corporations should do more to address global warming. This engagement has grown particularly among young Americans (ages 18-34). And globally, young people are demanding action on climate change and having real impact. Their voices are carrying increasing weight: For the first time, UN climate policy negotiations officially recognize young people as stakeholders.
2) Climate action across the U.S. is now very real
States, cities, corporations and universities are leading the way in showing how the transition to a clean energy future can happen. For example, in Michigan, the state-level government is committed to carbon neutrality as a member of the United States Climate Alliance (24 states with 58 percent of the national economy and 54 percent of the population). Many cities in Michigan, including Ann Arbor, are taking real steps toward carbon neutrality, just as the corporations in the state (e.g., the top five: Ford, General Motors, Lear, Whirlpool and Meijer) are working to rapidly reduce their carbon emissions.
From my vantage point at a large public university, I know firsthand how activism and energy of students, with support from faculty and other university communities, has galvanized our institution to make real commitments and progress toward carbon neutrality. But our work in this area goes far beyond our own emissions. Universities, and schools like my own, are preparing the next generation to lead the transition to a more just and sustainable future.
My university, the University of Michigan, provides a great example. We offer hundreds of courses, dozens of traditional and professional graduate programs, and many graduate certificates related to climate, environment, sustainability, social justice and engineering solutions. The university’s commitment to research will speed the global transition to clean energy, electrified mobility, sustainability and more. We partner with community organizations, governmental partners, and other stakeholders to move the needle in society. We are committed to complete carbon neutrality across all our campuses.
And we are not alone: UM plays a lead role in the University Climate Change Coalition (UC3), a group of leading research universities committed to accelerating climate action. We are a founding member of the Midwest Climate Collaborative, which includes universities, NGOs, state and local governments, as well as corporations, committed to working together to reduce carbon emissions. We are all in, as are hundreds of other universities and colleges, whose graduates will become the leaders of the 21st century.
3) The multiple economic benefits of clean energy are becoming too obvious to ignore
The costs associated with renewable energy continue to plummet and are already becoming cheaper than fossil fuels almost everywhere, even before taking into the account the increasing costs of climate change. Moving quickly into clean energy will not only stave off climate disasters but will enable us to thrive economically. The United States is not alone in this effort: European countries, China, India, Australia and many more are working to accelerate the global clean energy transition. Accelerating the clean-energy transition, as well as developing all the knowledge and technology involved, is essential if our states and nation are going to compete economically in a world that is going carbon-neutral.
Fortunately, across the country, state and local climate action is being supercharged by the biggest federal investments in clean energy ever made: the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. These two major funding packages enacted by Congress, plus many climate action initiatives driven by the White House, are by far the biggest federal push ever to reduce climate change and assist those who are already suffering from climate impacts.
The benefits of clean energy go well beyond halting climate change. Transitioning to clean energy will also eliminate an estimated 8 million premature deaths per year due to fossil fuel air pollution. And the latest 2022 research estimates that the clean energy transition will save the global economy trillions of dollars in terms of energy costs alone, because renewable energy sources are simply cheaper. Finally, the transition will save trillions of dollars associated with avoided climate change impacts, and will also cut dependence on petro-states that use their fossil-fuel profits for corruption and war.
4) Climate action is increasingly designed to be equitable and just
The foundation for a more sustainable planet needs to benefit not just the wealthy and comfortable, but those who have been historically marginalized. Here in the U.S., this includes urban, rural and Indigenous communities. In this clean-energy world, the countries that created the climate crisis will be the ones that help and empower the less affluent countries whose actions contribute little if any to the climate crisis, but who suffer the most.
In the coming years, we will create a clean energy world in which both people and planet thrive. What can we all do to make this happen? Talk about climate change in your own communities, support climate action initiatives with your time and resources, work to elect political leaders who will lead on clean energy, and most importantly: Don’t lose hope.
Jonathan Overpeck, Ph.D., is a climate scientist, professor, and dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. He has researched drought, climate variability and climate change on five continents. Follow him on Twitter: @GreatLakesPeck