130 Degrees

For one thing, engineers have done their work and done it well. About a decade ago the price of renewable energy began to plummet, and that decline keeps accelerating. The price per kilowatt hour of solar power has fallen 82 percent since 2010—this spring in the sunny deserts of Dubai the winning bid for what will be the world’s largest solar array came in at not much more than a penny. The price of wind power has fallen nearly as dramatically. Now batteries are whooshing down the same curve. In many places, within a few years, it will actually be cheaper to build new solar arrays than it will be to keep running already-built-and-paid-for gas and coal-fired power plants. (That’s because, when the sun comes up in the morning, it delivers the power for free.) Because of this, and because of strong campaigns from activists targeting banks and asset managers, investors have begun to move decisively toward renewable energy. Such activist campaigns have also begun to weaken the political power of the fossil fuel industry, which has used its clout for three decades to block a transition to new forms of energy.

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At two degrees’ elevated temperature, “scientists are now confident” that we will see an Arctic Ocean free of ice in the summer—when already the loss of ice in the North has dramatically altered weather systems, apparently weakening the jet stream and stalling weather patterns in North America and elsewhere. A two-degree rise in temperature could see 40 percent of the permafrost region melt away, which in turn would release massive amounts of methane and carbon, which would whisk us nearer to three degrees. But we’re getting ahead of the story. Two degrees likely also initiates the “irreversible loss of the West Antarctic ice sheet.” Even modest estimates of the resulting sea-level rise project that 79 million people will be displaced, and protecting vulnerable cities and towns just along the Eastern Seaboard of the US behind dikes and walls will cost as much as $1 million per person. “I suspect no one will want to pay for sea walls at such vast expense, and the most vulnerable (and the poorest) communities will simply be abandoned,” Lynas writes.