Like the curve of Earth we can’t see from the ground, we’re on a curve in history that we won’t fully recognize until decades in the future.
Driving the news: The inauguration of President Biden completes an economic and political consensus that climate change is an urgent threat the world should aggressively address. Whether this consensus produces action remains deeply uncertain.
The big picture: Sometimes history is recognized instantly, like the Capitol insurrection or the pandemic. Because climate change is inherently gradual, history happens so subtly that we may miss it in a world gripped by faster-moving crises.
I asked Daniel Yergin, an energy expert famous for writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the history of oil, how he thinks historians in 2050 will look back on this time for energy and climate change.
- “History curving,” answered Yergin, whose consulting firm, IHS Markit, has traditionally been most focused on the oil and gas sector but whose fastest-growing business today focuses on climate change.
- 2050 is a common benchmark year by which climate change progress is measured. It’s a generation away for us humans, but a blip for our planet.
Flashback: This historical curve began with the Paris climate agreement in 2015, which prompted investors, corporations, the public and politicians to prioritize the problem.
- Those shifts cemented the curve in history, despite President Trump vowing in 2017 to withdraw America.
- Biden, who officially announced on his first day in office that the U.S. is rejoining the accord, will accelerate policies and technologies that have been growing over the last six years.
But, but, but: Evidence indicating the world is beginning to address climate change doesn’t actually make the challenges easier. In fact, some are getting bigger and others are merely becoming clearer.
Where it stands: Oil, natural gas and coal accounted for 81% of the world's energy consumption in 1990. Thirty years later — in 2020 — that figure dropped to 80%, mainly because of the pandemic, according to the International Energy Agency.
The challenges are many and overlapping. Read my full column to look at two foundational ones: Politics and technology.
The bottom line: We’re on the curve, but we don’t know its destination.
“Optimistically, historians will say that the Biden administration was able to create a sense of collective urgency that enabled the U.S. to take the kinds of risks that ultimately solved the problem,” says Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
- "The other path would be that the U.S. squandered its last opportunity to change the structure of its economy in time to avoid the worst effects of climate change."