The Cautious Case for Climate Optimism

Believing in a comfortable future for our planet probably means some giant carbon-sucking machines.


Photo-Illustration: Joe Darrow/Sven Schabbach/Getty Images

[Adapted from The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells, to be published on February 19 by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by David Wallace-Wells.]

It’s not too late. In fact, it never will be. Whatever you may have read over the past year — as extreme weather brought a global heat wave and unprecedented wildfires burned through 1.6 million California acres and newspaper headlines declared, “Climate Change Is Here” — global warming is not binary. It is not a matter of “yes” or “no,” not a question of “fucked” or “not.” Instead, it is a problem that gets worse over time the longer we produce greenhouse gas, and can be made better if we choose to stop. Which means that no matter how hot it gets, no matter how fully climate change transforms the planet and the way we live on it, it will always be the case that the next decade could contain more warming, and more suffering, or less warming and less suffering. Just how much is up to us, and always will be.

Since I first began writing about climate a few years ago, I’ve been asked often whether I see any reason for optimism. The thing is, I am optimistic. But optimism is always a matter of perspective, and mine is this: No one wants to believe disaster is coming, but those who look, do….Given only conventional methods of decarbonization (replacing dirty-energy sources like coal and oil with clean ones like wind and solar), this is probably our best-case scenario. It is also what is called — so often nowadays the phrase numbs the lips — “catastrophic warming.” A representative from the Marshall Islands spoke for many of the world’s island nations when he used another word to describe the meaning of two degrees: genocide.
….But this fall, the start-up incubator Y Combinator called for proposals in four areas, hoping to invest in companies that would suck carbon out of the atmosphere by expanding the reach of the ocean’s phytoplankton (which naturally absorb CO2 in the ocean and turn it into oxygen) or reengineer it to do so more prolifically; by making the world’s rocks massive carbon sinks; by inventing new enzymes that would filter the air; and by flooding large areas of the world’s deserts with beds of algae engineered to absorb all that CO2.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s