Polar bear mom and three cubs snuggling

Photo: Daniel J. Cox

Sharing Climate Hope Over the Holidays

By Barbara Nielsen, Senior Director of Communications



12 Dec 2023

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless when facing a problem as big as climate change, an issue that not only impacts polar bears, but people too. Thankfully, there are fewer and fewer climate deniers. But progress can also be stalled by those mired in climate despair or critical of the solutions at hand.

As we gather with friends and family over the holidays – raising a glass or sharing a holiday meal – we have an opportunity to instill hope and dispel myths and misinformation. And we can make these conversations a habit in the new year and beyond.

In this Q&A, Dr. Flavio Lehner, our chief climate scientist and assistant professor in earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University, shares his thoughts on the state of climate progress and the changes taking place. He also responds to the most frequent misconceptions about climate solutions.

A polar bear walks along the sea ice

Photo: Jenny Wong

Q: You’ve been studying climate science for 15 years now, and in that time you’ve witnessed a seismic shift in public opinion from climate change denialism to climate despair. Can you tell us about that? And why do you see climate despair as a hindrance to success?

Indeed, it seems the broader public perception of the issue has shifted. One way I personally experience this shift as a climate scientist is that I used to get asked by family, friends, and strangers whether I “believe” in climate change, often coming from a place of skepticism. I would gently answer that it’s not about “believing” but about “knowing,” based on science. Nowadays, the question I get most often is whether we are “doomed” given the ongoing climate change.

I see climate despair as a hindrance most clearly when teaching students at Cornell University and elsewhere. Many of them are very bright, care about environmental issues, and have an excellent chance to meaningfully impact the world; yet, they sometimes express hopelessness with regards to the challenges of climate change. We can’t afford these young people to start out their careers with such a mindset. Instead, we need constructive optimism to help bring about the changes we need.

Q: Over the course of your career, you’ve also seen a shift in progress being made. We still have far to go, of course, but what is better than you thought it would be 10 years ago?

I was a grad student in 2009 when the Copenhagen climate conference failed. In some ways, this was my own moment of despair. Now we have international agreements, such as the 2015 Paris climate targets, which can be used to drive national policy on emission reductions and expansion of renewable energy production. We’re seeing it happen. Specifically, the price of renewables is declining faster than we thought it would 10 years ago, making fossil fuels, especially coal, less economically attractive. This has led the worst-case climate change scenario from 10 years ago to become distinctly less likely. Unfortunately, we’re not progressing fast enough, so the best-case scenario is also slipping out of reach. The recent COP28 climate summit serves as a good example, where countries agreed to “transition away from fossil fuels” but did not explicitly state that we need to “phase out fossil fuels.” It’s a reminder that many different interests govern the world and that only through sustained efforts can we avoid climate change impacts getting worse.

Q: Are there any exciting technology developments with respect to emission reductions?

The expansion of renewable energy is very encouraging, led by the falling costs of solar panels but also other technologies such as wind turbines, better batteries, and generally higher energy efficiency in transportation and housing. There is also a lot of hype around technologies that try to capture greenhouse gas emissions, at their source or even after they have been emitted, so-called carbon capture and storage. However, these still have a long way to go.

Q: Often with advances, success isn’t linear but instead has sudden surges. Do you think that’s the case with climate change?

On the side of energy production, that seems like a possibility – just looking at humanity’s history of invention. But it requires favorable conditions for innovation, which rely on the right policy. With climate change, though, we have to remember that it’s really a cumulative problem. Carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas we are changing right now, stays in the atmosphere for centuries to millennia, so even if we suddenly stop emitting it, the amount that’s up there will continue to warm the planet for a very long time, locking us into the negative effects of climate change we already see today. But a technological breakthrough would at least prevent us from warming much more.

Q: Given the above, how can your Uncle Joe or your friend Sarah make a difference? What are some efforts that people can support?

There are so many ways to get involved. You can talk about climate change with friends and family. You can vote with the climate in mind. You can support politicians and local initiatives that aim to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and create support for renewables. 

We often see that the main obstacle to renewables is that people don’t want them in their backyard, for example an array of solar panels or wind turbines. What they don’t see are the health and wildlife impacts of our existing energy generation. Air pollution from fossil fuels, for example, is responsible for 400,000 deaths per year in the U.S. alone. Renewables can reduce this to zero. This is something tangible that every citizen can benefit from immediately. There’s no need to wait decades to reap the benefits. 

Also, new research shows that leading by example — adding solar panels to your home, riding your bike to work, or switching to an electric vehicle — can have a direct and powerful impact on the people around you. One study of solar panels found that a single rooftop installation led to a 50 percent increase in solar projects within a half-mile radius!

Photo: Marissa Krouse

Q: Thanks for that – all really helpful! Now I’d like to do a speed round on climate solutions and some of the questions surrounding them. 

Electric cars: how feasible are they?
Transportation is one of our largest sectors in terms of carbon emissions, and a shift to electric vehicles will make a big difference in meeting our climate goals. Some people say that electric cars are worse for the environment because of the mining we need to do, but that’s simply not true. While some mining will be needed, people are also working on improving the recycling of these materials. Keep in mind, too, that mining fossil fuels is itself a hugely destructive enterprise that pollutes our air and causes climate change, so if we need to do some mining then we should do it to stabilize rather than destabilize our climate. 

Doubters also question whether we can build the charging infrastructure needed to make electric vehicles work, but that’s happening as I speak. In the U.S. for example, the number of public charging ports has nearly doubled in the last three years, now exceeding 140,000. Gas stations are adding chargers or are directly replacing old gas pumps, so much of the infrastructure around this already exists and can be repurposed. It’s really a relatively simple problem compared to other challenges with the energy transition – a low-hanging fruit so to speak. But we still need to pick it.  

Wind turbines: are they safe for wildlife? Wind power is clean and efficient, and is the second-fastest growing renewable energy source, behind solar. In an attempt to slow wind power, oil companies have been circulating misinformation, claiming that they are killing birds. Building tall moving structures has an impact on birds, no doubt, but studies show that wind energy is actually much safer for birds than fossil fuel production, killing more than 10 times fewer birds per the amount of energy produced. So again, wind energy is another common sense energy source that’s better for wildlife and the environment more generally.  

Solar panels: how reliable are they? Solar panels are making headway around the world as the leading renewable energy source. One benefit is their size and scalability; they can be deployed quickly on large fields but also on individual private homes. While they can’t work at night, battery systems have greatly improved over the last 10 years. In fact, combined with other sustainable energy sources, such as heat pumps, it is now technically and economically feasible to power private homes with 100% renewable energy. 

On a larger scale, investments into grid infrastructure and operations will improve our ability to distribute solar and other renewable energy when and where it is needed, increasing the reliability of our energy system. One of the many issues during the Texas energy crisis of February 2021 was that energy could not easily be imported from elsewhere, leading to blackouts and excessive prices for consumers.

Wind turbines and solar panels in the arctic

Nuclear power: how safe is it? Nuclear power has gotten safer and there are indeed high hopes for small modular reactor projects that can power individual towns in a flexible manner. However, these projects face two persistent problems: nuclear waste and costs. A promising U.S.-based small reactor project was just canceled amid escalating costs. Once all the costs of a nuclear reactor are properly incorporated into the price of the energy it produces, that price can be quite high. Then again, countries outside the U.S. or E.U. might pursue nuclear reactor projects with less stringent safety protocols, keeping the costs down. Or a technological breakthrough will increase their feasibility worldwide. It thus remains somewhat unclear what role nuclear will play in our energy future, though the current expectation is for it to remain a relatively smaller contributor globally.

The impact on jobs and the cost of the transition - can we afford this? The short answer is “we can.” Many studies, especially in the last few years, suggest that the damage from current and future climate change is substantially larger than the costs of decarbonizing our energy system. It’s akin to installing a sump pump in your basement if you live in a flood-prone area: it’s an investment that will pay for itself by preventing substantial damage to your house in case of flooding. As far as jobs go, it’s a no-brainer. Already today, more people work in clean energy than in the fossil fuel industry and that trend is going to continue. While some of the new jobs require retraining or new educational programs for people from historic fossil fuel jobs to switch to them, it is overall a real opportunity for an economic win-win situation.

Other countries – are they doing their part? Despite its reputation for now being the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China is investing heavily in renewable energy, leading the world in the production and deployment of renewable energy technology. If we’ve learned anything from the Walmarts and Costcos of the world, it’s that if you can scale up production, prices usually come down – and that seems to be happening in China and other big renewable markets. The key implication is that the quicker reliable and cheap renewable energy technologies become available around the world, the quicker fast-developing regions like India and much of Africa can adopt them. India is currently still expanding its use of coal (though expects to peak around 2030) but many countries in Africa, the continent with the largest expected population growth this century, might be able to effectively skip the fossil fuel era altogether if renewables can be deployed fast enough. Due to the global nature of the climate change problem, such developments would benefit everyone.

Photo: Emily Ringer

Q: Great feedback, Flavio. Do you have any parting thoughts?

An important prerequisite for fast and stable growth of renewable energy is the right policy environment. Just like the production of fossil fuels was favored by political and economical incentives, we now need a sustained switch towards incentivising renewable energy. The U.S.-focused Inflation Reduction Act contains a lot of such incentives and answers the E.U.’s ambitious energy plans, but it is vital that such political support is sustained through everyone’s votes.

A final point I want to make is that by providing incentives for renewable energy production and by redesigning our grid, we have a real chance to reduce major inequities that have existed for decades. First, air-polluting fossil-fuel-based power plants have historically been placed near poor communities; replacing them with clean energy will directly benefit the health of those communities and increase the value of their homes. Second, investments from the Inflation Reduction Act to build new factories that produce renewable energy technologies will create jobs in areas of the U.S. that have in the past suffered economic decline. Third, producing renewable energy locally reduces our vulnerability to global economics and conflict, paving the way towards energy independence. For example, the price to charge your car’s battery will not be dictated by the highly political day-to-day oil production in the Middle East.

Dr. Flavio Lehner is the chief climate scientist at Polar Bears International and an assistant professor in earth and atmospheric science at Cornell University.