2018 to 2019 to 2020 on road

Projecting the future is by definition fraught with challenges. But after reviewing what they see as major ENcouraging and DIScouraging 2019 developments in the climate change field, some top scientists – they are citizens, after all – gave it their best shot.

Few will likely characterize the scientists’ expectations of the coming year as being optimistic; instead, hopeful in some cases, fretting in others, and in many ways fearful of unknowns and unknowables.

“I think there are tipping points in the climate system and in societies,” said Maureen Raymo, PhD, of Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. “I’m hoping we are near a societal tipping point led by youth, big business, local governments, and community leaders becoming increasingly engaged in collaborative thinking on how to transition to a carbon-free economy.”

Also expressing optimism about business’ changing attitudes on climate change was Katharine Hayhoe, PhD, of Texas Tech. “I think we will see many more businesses and economic institutions begin to consider the economics of continued fossil fuel investment in a more negative light,” Hayhoe said. She said she is optimistic also about prospects for “the continued and rapid decline in the cost of clean energy and storage.”

David Victor, PhD, of the Scripps Institution, University of California San Diego, agreed that the U.S. elections “will be important on many fronts for obvious reasons. If Trump loses, there will be euphoria in most of the rest of the world. How the new president uses that euphoria will be critical.”

Jeff Severinghaus, PhD, also of UCSD and Scripps, put an emphasis on youth: “To young people, I say that it is more important than ever to vote, even if it seems futile. It is not futile!

Scientists ‘may have to get into the streets in open protest.’

“Vote for candidates that will protect your future by ushering in the wind and solar era,” said Severinghaus, a member of the National Academy of Sciences. “If you don’t like any of the candidates, vote anyway. You are voting for democracy.”

Looking perhaps beyond 2020, Severinghaus cautioned that “At some point, I sense that scientists and indeed ‘we the people’ may have to get into the streets in open protest.” He elaborated:

Our governmental structures as they exist today may simply turn out to be too weak to fight the entrenched fossil fuel interests that are now the main cause of our failure to solve the climate problem. We do not have the luxury of another decade of wasted time.

Andrew Dessler, PhD, of Texas A&M University, while anticipating no “big changes” in 2020, said more extreme weather events “will continue to build support for action.” But in the same breath, he said “particulars of the U.S. political system” will lead to continued inaction in the Senate. “It may be that more states take action, which would be good news.”

Dessler said he anticipates “continued reductions” in costs of renewable energy, “which will put more and more pressure on fossil fuels.”

Worries about ‘social destabilization’ with eventual end of fossil fuels use.

Unable to project “exactly when things will come to a head and fossil fuels will really start to be phased out,” Dessler said, “it could happen rapidly in the next few years (or it could happen slowly over decades.)”

While that transition will be “good news for the climate,” Dessler said he is “very worried about social destabilization connected to a rapid end of fossil fuels.” If many retirement 401(k) plans and similar assets “suddenly drop in value, people are going to lose a lot of money for their retirement” leading to “destabilizing economic problems.”

Don Wuebbles, PhD, of the University of Illinois, wrote that new research throughout 2020 “will help us better understand the climate sensitivity issue.” He said he is “hopeful for advances in mitigation policy”… but in the end expects it to be “a depressing topic for the next year.” He too pointed to local and regional resilience initiatives as holding promise.

Big picture international outlook in 2020

Going beyond domestic election-year issues, Victor said that the Conference of Parties (COP)-26 international climate summit toward the end of 2020 will be important “regardless of what is happening at the federal level in the U.S.”

He pointed to the United Kingdom’s having “doubled down” on climate change strategy and remaining “deeply committed to success.” And he said Germany’s mid-year ascent to the rotating chairmanship of the European Union “bodes well – Germany is deeply committed to action, oriented outward toward leveraging action at home into an effective foreign policy strategy, and is willing to spend resources needed to bring along the rest of the E.U. (e.g., to buy off Poland, a coal-fired perennial blocker of E.U. policy.)”

Greta Thunberg
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, Time magazine’s 2019 ‘Person of the Year’

“Way off the radar” but potentially critically important, Victor said, is Abu Dhabi’s February plan to load fuel into Unit 1 of its Barakah nuclear complex, initiating criticality tests that Victor said could “lead to full power commercial operations a year or so later.”

“This is the first commercial reactor in the Arab world and is the most interesting nuclear project on the planet today,” Victor said, referring to the four Korean-designed units managed in the Emirates with a workforce drawn from 45 countries.

“Done well, it becomes the model for the region and for export of commercial reactors to countries that are new to nuclear power. And the quantity of carbon it will reduce – by displacing oil-fired electricity and gas-fired power – will be astronomical.”

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...