The Right Path Forward on Climate Change | Opinion

We finally seem to have passed the tipping point.

Not the climate tipping point we fear. The latest science demonstrates that we can avert the worst impacts of climate change if we act decisively.

I'm speaking instead of the climate action tipping point so many have long anticipated.

Newly elected President Joe Biden campaigned on climate action. He came in with a mandate to lead on climate. And he is making the most of it. He signed a slew of executive orders several weeks ago that restored our commitment to the Paris climate agreement, reversed Trump-era policies aimed at dismantling prior climate efforts, proposed massive jobs programs including a civilian climate corps and new hubs of economic opportunity to assist communities transitioning from a dying fossil fuel industry.

Biden's aggressive new policies restore the leadership on climate both at home and abroad—leadership that was lost under the past administration. Taken together it's the boldest climate plan in American history. The U.S. is back and ready to not only join—but once again help lead—the global effort to avert climate catastrophe.

This favorable shift in political winds coincides with a global youth climate movement that has focused attention on the defining challenge of our time. And unprecedented extreme weather disasters have forced a reckoning. Dangerous climate change is now upon us, and it's simply a matter at this point of how bad we're willing to let it get. We've looked into the abyss. Finally, a global pandemic has awakened us to the fragility of our existence on this planet while demonstrating that we can change.

As a result of this confluence of developments, we're finally seeing the collective will to act. Polluters haven't given up the fight of course. In my recent book, The New Climate War, I reveal the insidious tactics that fossil fuel interests and those promoting their agenda are still using to slow the inevitable clean energy transition. But they cannot stop it.

We are moving on. The real question is: Precisely where are we going? Two paths seemingly diverge in the horizon of potential ways forward.

One path is the technocratic one. It envisions climate action as a mere engineering problem. We need only unleash the all-powerful free market and technological innovation and leave them do their thing. In the past, Bill Gates, whose own book on climate change hit the stands, seemed to favor that path.

Gates has in the past argued that a technological "miracle" is necessary to address the climate crisis, and has funded research into risky "geoengineering" schemes. These include a relatively inert but prohibitively expensive proposition known as "direct air capture" (sucking carbon pollution back out of the atmosphere), and considerably more perilous in my view "solar radiation management"—a euphemism for schemes that typically involve injecting huge amounts of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to form a reflective blanket that might help cool Earth back down.

An iceberg that broke away from the Upsala glacier, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, is seen floating in Lake Argentina from a tourist boat on April 4, 2019, in the Los Glaciares National Park in Santa Cruz province, Argentina. David Silverman/Getty Images

The technocratic path is a treacherous one. Along it lie dangerous potential unintended consequences (worsened droughts, accelerated warming in some regions and cooling in others, and an exacerbation of ozone depletion and acid rain, among other perils) and moral hazard (the presumption that a simple techno-fix is available down the road could easily take the pressure off polluters to reduce carbon emissions now).

The alternative path is the sociopolitical one. It views the obstacles to climate action as ones of collective political will. No miracle needed. We already have the solution in our hands, in the form of sun, wind, geothermal energy. It's a matter of incentives—government policies that level the playing field and accelerate the scaling up of renewable energy and the transition away from fossil fuels. In my view, this is the far safer path forward. And it's the one I advocate in The New Climate War.

But perhaps the two paths are beginning to converge.

In his new book, Gates prioritizes many of the same objectives that I do. He emphasizes the importance of putting pressure on our elected officials to support climate-friendly policies. He advocates for a plan that will lead us toward zero net carbon emissions by mid-century, a goal that's critical if we are to limit warming below dangerous levels.

Gates, on the other hand, is too pessimistic in my view when it comes to the prospect of renewable energy getting us there (credible peer-reviewed studies indicate it can). And his continued dalliance with risky geoengineering schemes makes me uncomfortable (diverting resources for even the safest of these, such as direct air capture, potentially crowds out investment in better, clean energy solutions).

Gates' arguments in favor of nuclear energy are similarly unconvincing. Current generation nuclear energy is not competitive with renewable energy in the free market—it is only viable with massive government subsidies, and it carries unnecessary proliferation and safety risks. And it could take several decades for the "next generation" nuclear technology advocated by Gates to pass regulatory review, calling into question how this technology can help us decarbonize our civilization by 2050 as necessary.

There is still considerable daylight between the vision that Gates and I put forward for avoiding climate catastrophe. But let it be these competing visions that we argue in the halls of Congress. Some amount of compromise will undoubtedly be necessary. Whether we have a crisis is no longer a matter of worthy debate. Precisely how we solve it is.

Gates and I are both optimistic. We both see a path forward. And ultimately, it may be the same one.

Michael E. Mann is distinguished professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. He is author of the recently released book, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.