Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and co-founder of 350.org and ThirdAct.org. His most recent book is “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
Cross-posted from Common Dreams
Monday July 3 was the hottest day anyone had ever measured on planet Earth. True, our system for measuring the global average temperature—a network of weather stations, ocean buoys, and satellites—only dates back to 1979, but that means that at a bare minimum it was the hottest day a large majority of the Earth’s population had ever been alive to witness.
And in truth, we have good proxy records—things like ice cores and tree rings—that take that record far back in time. The best estimate of climate scientists is that Monday was the hottest day since sometime in the last interglacial period 125,000 years ago, right about the time that other scientists think humans etched the first symbols onto bone and started wearing shells as decorations. In other words, a pretty significant record.
A pretty significant record that lasted 24 hours.
In effect coal and oil and gas have moved us closer to the center of our solar system.
As of now, July 4 is the new record holder, (editor’s note: a record July 5 tied), with 57 million Americans under an extreme heat watch, China enduring an epic heat wave, and temperatures in North Africa nearing 122°F. Saudi authorities had been reporting scorching heat for the hajj all week, the mercury was spiking in Greenland, and at least one research station in the Antarctic was reporting a new July record as winter temperatures there reached well into the 40s.
We also got the news that June 2023 was the hottest June ever recorded on our Earth, crushing the old record (set in 2019) by what one scientist called a “staggering” 0.16°C, and likely putting this year on the path to being the warmest ever measured. June found both ice caps setting new records for the lowest sea ice ever measured, and sea surface temperatures were at an all-time high. Canada’s wildfires were already smashing annual records with many months yet to burn; in Siberia authorities declared a state of emergency as blazes spread.
All of this is unprecedented, shocking, insane—“clearly out of the envelope,” as one scientist put it.
And all of it was entirely predictable and completely unmysterious. Human beings have burned enormous amounts of fossil fuel, producing great quantities of carbon dioxide; it has accumulated in the atmosphere (the most recent readings are about 420 parts per million, almost exactly 50% higher than before the Industrial Revolution). Since we know that the molecular structure of CO2 traps heat that would otherwise radiate back out to space, the heat we’re seeing is the simple result of physics at work. Our Earth has great forces at work (the jet stream, the Gulf Stream, the trade winds) and it runs on a series of cycles (the El Niño Pacific warming currently ramping up, for instance) but behind it all is the fact that our centuries of burning coal and oil and gas have, in effect, made the sun a more powerful force.
In effect coal and oil and gas have moved us closer to the center of our solar system. This has now—in the spring and summer of 2023—reached the entirely predictable point where it constitutes a grave emergency. And it will—beyond any doubt—get worse; if Tuesday’s record isn’t broken in the coming days, it will almost certainly fall in the next few weeks, and then again next summer, in a year when the Earth seems likely to breach the 1.5°C temperature increase that we set, just eight years ago in Paris, as a kind of red line to avoid.
But as the heatwaves have revealed the new power of the sun to inflict enormous human suffering, they’ve also revealed the power of the sun to come to our rescue.
Back in 1978, as scientists were cobbling together the Earth’s temperature measurement system, the first solar-powered calculator was introduced; we knew the sun could provide power, but… not much. In the years since, though, there’s been steady progress, and by now we live on a planet where there’s no cheaper way to make electricity than to tilt a panel in the sun’s direction. (The only challengers are wind turbines, which—since breezes are born from the different heating of the planet—just represent a different form of solar power.)
Solar panels could, in effect, start to push us a little further away from the sun.
That economic reality has, in the last few years, begun to finally translate into meaningful amounts of solar power feeding into the electric grid, and during the massive heatwaves of this spring it’s that energy that has come to the rescue. Texas has been the center of America’s heatwave this summer, as a vast heat dome has perched above the Lone Star State, and it’s provided a remarkable experiment, since Texas, alone among states, has an electric grid unconnected to the rest of America. And that grid now has a substantial amount of solar power: 16,800 megawatts worth on some days this year, up from 2,600 in 2019. In the last few weeks, in the words of one state energy expert, solar has been making a “massive, determinative difference” in preventing rolling blackouts.
As The Washington Postreported in late June, “when demand soared to an all-time high, wind and solar farms accounted for about 35% of the state’s energy supply. And at one point yesterday, wind turbines were generating more power across the state than any other source, including gas plants.” The state’s gas, coal, and nuclear energy plants have been straining to deal with the heat, but “wind and solar are giving us a big enough buffer that even when we have a handful of power plants go offline, it isn’t causing disruptions,” said Dan Cohan, a Rice University professor of civil and environmental engineering. Almost by definition, a solar panel does well in a heatwave, and it’s incredibly simple—you can take a hammer and smash it, but you’d need an awful lot of hammers to make a real impact.
“You hear these talking points all the time that renewables aren’t reliable. But there’s little that’s more reliable,” said Doug Lewin president of the Austin-based clean-energy consulting firm Stoic Energy. And the rapid rise in battery storage means that the setting of the sun no longer means the power goes away. It’s not just Texas—a fascinating study released last week showed that solar panels in New England were now, unexpectedly, strengthening the stability of the region’s electric grid, even during the low-sunlight winter.
In other words, the power of the sun gives us a chance to allow the functions of the world as we know it to continue, and to continue without increasing the temperature of the Earth. In New England, for instance, as Benjamin Storrow reported, “the influx of solar has paved the way for the retirement of one of New England’s dirtiest power plants. Mystic Generating Station, the third-largest power plant in the region, is slated to close next summer.” Solar panels could, in effect, start to push us a little further away from the sun.
But for that to really matter the transition has to happen much much faster than it’s going now. It will perhaps not surprise you to learn that the Texas legislature spent much of last session trying to figure out ways to promote fossil fuel and handicap more renewable development, taking time from that task to make sure that local cities couldn’t mandate water breaks for workers during heatwaves; the political power of the oil and gas industry is a force almost as implacable as physics on this Earth.
And even leaders who have done much to liberate the power of renewables are subject to that political gravity: Joe Biden, for instance, has a real claim, thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, to being the greatest climate president by far, but he has also approved new oil projects in Alaska and gas pipelines in Appalachia, and may be poised to permit new LNG export terminals along the Gulf; that’s why activists are scheduling a “march to end fossil fuels” for New York during the U.N. General Assembly in September—we’re past the point where we need to both radically drive up renewable energy and radically drive down the use of fossil fuels. That’s the only way the math might work.
And the math might not work even then. This week’s heat shows that we’ve reached a junction in the story of the planet’s climate—a “step change,” as temperatures surge to new records where they will trigger new changes that will in turn produce more warming. (Canada’s wildfires have so far put more carbon into the atmosphere than all the fossil fuels that Indonesia burns in a year.) This season’s hellish heat simply has to move us into action; if it doesn’t—well, the White House took its first tentative steps this week towards embracing the possibility of tossing huge amounts of sulfur into the air to block incoming sunlight, despite the incredible risks that would entail. Our relationship with the sun is going to change one way or another; now is the time to make it our salvation.