Tom Toro cartoon

Picture it this way just for fun: Three scientists walk into a bar.

They join a few more, early arrivals, and soon after are joined by yet a few more; like them, perhaps, taking a respite from the intensity of consecutive long days of highly technical PowerPoint presentations at an annual year-end mega-conference.

The casual talk soon turns to their views of 2019’s most ENcouraging and most DIScouraging developments in their field. (Part II explores scientists’ and crystal ball visions of the coming new year’s major developments – hoped-for, feared, or just expected best they can see down the road.)

Actually, of course, that’s not at all how it happened in what follows, not even close. Instead, those quoted below, each invited by the author, responded to an email seeking their views of high and low points of the year just ending, and their outlooks for the year just about to start.

Bright spots in an otherwise dim 2019 climate year

Perhaps not surprisingly, the youth movements – personified by, but not limited to, Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg, Time magazine’s 2019 “Person of the Year” – get several mentions, kudos.

Thunberg’s “Fridays for Future” international movement “changed the conversation in useful ways,” said Jeff Severinghaus, PhD, of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego. “Instead of half-hearted national ambitions, the focus is now on the spectacular failure of today’s adults to solve a problem that will primarily impact the future of today’s children.

Youth movement highlights ‘spectacular failure of today’s adults to solve a problem’ primarily affecting children’s futures.

“It highlights the moral dimension of the climate problem,” according to Severinghaus, a member of the National Academy of Sciences: “One group harming another by abdication of responsibility is widely considered to be immoral.”

Maureen Raymo, PhD, of Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, along with Alan Robock, PhD., of Rutgers University and National Academy of Sciences member Peter H. Gleick, PhD, president-emeritus of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, also single out Thunberg and youth activism for praise. Raymo wrote that she is “heartened by the rapidly expanding engagement of youth and young adults in the climate movement. They appreciate that it is their future at stake.”

Going beyond the youths’ activities, Don Wuebbles, PhD, University of Illinois, said he finds particularly encouraging “the new science and technology developments being discussed that may help greatly reduce future greenhouse gas emissions.” He singled out developments in solar energy “in and of itself, and also the potential to use solar energy for high-temperature industrial applications.”

Katharine Hayhoe, PhD, of Texas Tech, said that, looking beyond the U.S., she is very encouraged by real-world, large-scale, system-wide actions that are being taken by countries around the world. For example:

  • Canada (my home) has a federal price on carbon and re-elected the party that introduced it (as compared to Australia where they were voted out and the carbon tax was flushed down the toilet).
  • The United Kingdom has (at least temporarily) imposed a moratorium on fracking.
  • Finland is phasing out coal and it will be banned by 2029.
  • Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is divesting from companies dedicated to oil and gas exploration.
  • Ireland became the first country in the world to divest from fossil fuels entirely (they voted on it in 2018 but I am counting it for this year since it takes a while to accomplish!).
  • New Zealand has committed to being carbon neutral by 2050, and Scotland by 2045. Additionally, nearly 70% of Scotland’s electricity is already green.

Hayhoe said she is encouraged by “the increasing awareness of the climate crisis and its coverage by the media,” and she pointed to youth protests, major IPCC and National Climate Assessment reports, and “the Trump Administration’s rejection of the science and rollback of environmental protections.” She also said public awareness of climate change implications has been driven by “the increasingly severe events we have been experiencing as a result of climate change loading the natural weather dice against us.”

Social scientist and international relations expert David Victor, PhD, of UCSD and Scripps, said he finds satisfaction in 2019 from “the expansion of carbon neutrality goals across more of the U.S. states.” And Andrew Dessler, PhD, of Texas A&M University, pointed to “the continued reduction in the price of renewables” as especially encouraging. “This alone might keep us below the RCP4.5 trajectory,”* Dessler wrote. “That’s good news!”

Finding yet more “good news,” Gleick pointed to “serious efforts by some Democratic presidential candidates to develop real climate plans.”

A flood of bad news from the year now ending

All that is not to put too rosy a picture on a year that also had abundant disappointments on climate change issues.

Turning to that side of the ledger, Wuebbles singled out as “most discouraging” the lack of progress on policy issues by the U.S. “and around the world.” Agreeing, Severinghaus decried “the current U.S. administration’s rollback of dozens of Obama-era positive climate mitigation” initiatives. “And the increasing use of disinformation on many fronts to weaken our democracy, and push the U.S. toward becoming a petroleum autocracy like Russia or Saudi Arabia.”

Bad news: a close second is ‘hollowing-out of government’s ability to use science to make decisions.’

Lack of federal action in the U.S. is “obviously” a major disappointment in looking at 2019, according to Dessler. “A close second is the continued hollowing-out of the U.S. federal government’s ability to use science to make decisions.” He said he fears many senior federal scientists are being driven to leave civil service and added: “This will make it easier for politicians to make decisions that go against science and satisfy narrow constituencies rather than society as a whole. … Don’t expect things to snap back to the way they were before Trump.”

Those losses of federal scientific expertise come just as “new science is pointing to climate change actually being an even larger issue than we already thought,” according to Wuebbles. He pointed in particular to “more significant severe weather issues and higher climate sensitivity in new models suggesting longer-term impacts.”

‘So many depressing scientific studies’

“There ARE no encouraging advances in climate science in my opinion,” said Hayhoe. “just more bad news, punctuated by the occasional not-so-bad news.”

“It is truly hard to choose among so many depressing new scientific studies, so I would say in general: the trend towards recognizing that, increasingly and in many (but not all) ways, the scientific consensus has under-estimated the rate, magnitude, and/or extent of climate impacts on both human systems and the natural environment,” Hayhoe said. “This is not new – we’ve been seeing this for a number of years already – but there were a number of studies this year that continued to reinforce this discouraging trend.”

“Also discouraging,” she said, “is the fact that our carbon emissions continue to rise, globally, despite so many efforts that are being made to reduce them.”

Victor characterized as discouraging the U.S.’s formal notice of withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. But he cautioned that “it is easy to overstate that” because he expects the U.S. will rejoin “when Trump is gone.”

An enduring concern, Victor said, is that “actions on Paris undermine U.S. credibility, and the damage from that will be lasting – as they will from our actions in Syria and many other places.”

In addition, Victor cautioned that “the ongoing (often petty) expansion of the trade war with China will amplify the damage to the U.S.-China relationship. That relationship is fraught with challenges that go far beyond the Trump administration, but it is impossible to get serious about climate without a serious engagement with China.”

Katharine Hayhoe’s concerns that our fears ‘could doom us’

What is it that makes Hayhoe “profoundly discouraged” right now? Hayhoe, seen as one of the nation’s most effective climate science communicators, spelled it out this way:

“I am profoundly discouraged by how quickly this [increased popular awareness of climate change] turns into fear, and fear turns into judgment, and judgment turns into circling the wagons and attacking each other.

“Climate fear is turning into a new religion (because what is religion other than a set of behavioral rules we obey because we believe they will make us right in our own eyes, and perhaps those of others and/or a god?) with a brand-new set of 10 commandments: Thou shalt not eat meat or animal products, thou shalt not fly, thou shalt not use any mechanized transportation, thou shalt not have a child – that we then use to persecute any we perceive to be heretics with the zeal of the Spanish Inquisition.

“If there is any trend I am most discouraged by this past year, it is this. I used to fear that apathy could doom us – now, I fear that it is our fear that will.”

*Editor’s note: RCP4.5 is an IPCC scenario in which average global surface temperatures would rise about 3 degrees C (about 4.8 degrees F) by 2100.

Tom Toro is a cartoonist and writer who has published more than 200 cartoons in The New Yorker since 2010.

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...