Sunburst: September 2019

Public Sentiment for Tackling the Climate Crisis is Growing


The public voice demanding that government decision makers around the world address the growing threat of climate change has been getting much louder over the past year. The rising volume comes especially from young people who feel particularly threatened by the lack of action shown by governments to adequately address the human caused climate crisis. The evidence of the crisis is mounting, manifested in some notable weather-related events (droughts, floods, polar vortices, forest fires), as well as in new and compelling evidence from the scientific community, such as the IPCC’s 1.50C report.

This voice reached a crescendo these past weeks, particularly when more than 2500 student strike events involving an estimated 4 million people of all ages, took place around the world on 20 September. The strikes were inspired by the Fridays for Future movement and its activist founder, 16-year old Greta Thunberg of Sweden. Greta herself led one of these strikes, a massive event in New York City ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit, held at UN Headquarters on 23 September, where she also gave an impassioned and emotional 5-minute speech to the General Assembly

The importance of this public voice cannot be overstated. In so many ways the world is becoming more deeply divided in political, economic, and cultural views. Despite the preponderance of scientific evidence on human-caused climate change, sharp divisions remain on whether to accept the science and whether governments should be required to take meaningful steps to mitigate climate change. For example, the current party in control of the U.S. Executive Branch and the Senate has made the denial of climate change public policy. Despite the mounting evidence that has been accumulating since before the start of his term, President Trump has consistently undone virtually every climate mitigation initiative undertaken by previous administrations (even those from his own party), including his misguided withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, the unraveling of President Obama’s Clean Power Initiative, and the rollback of automobile fuel standards. Similar policy reversals are occurring in other countries as well, and despite the call for greater ambition at the 23 September UN Summit, many of the major greenhouse gas emitting economies are falling far short of committing to achieving the goals of the Paris Climate Accord to cap global warming to at least 2 0C, and preferably 1.5 0C.

It is true that the global community faces an immense challenge to reach the goals of the Paris Accord, and some politicians find it preferable to appease populist pressure to avoid the transformative policies required for addressing this challenge. Nearly three fourths of all human-cause carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere are the result of our end use energy demands, which are still provided largely from fossil fuel sources[1]. But the reality, as stated so many times in this column, and of course throughout the literature, is that achieving a zero-carbon clean energy economy powered predominantly by renewables is actually the remedy to the challenge, because achieving this goal will also provide immense long-term economic and energy security and access benefits to all of society, even (and perhaps especially) to those who fear the transformation will undermine their livelihoods and lifestyles the most.

The ever-lowering cost of renewable technologies (wind and solar in particular), the advances in incorporating large amounts of variable renewable energy into electricity grids (especially with the help of increasingly reliable and efficient storage systems), and the growing use of electricity to meet our end-use energy requirements in the heating and transport sectors as well as expanded use of renewable technologies in these sectors, all contribute to significant carbon emission reductions and to vibrant economies where these systems are in place.

But, as reported previously, the trends in reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions have recently reversed. And the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) targets provided by all countries that signed the Paris Agreement, even if fully implemented, will get us only part way to the 1.5 0C goal. So, the 23 September UN Climate Summit focused on increasing the ambitions of countries to pledge deeper carbon emission reductions when they resubmit their NDC’s to the UN’s IPCC over the next year. But, any significant changes from the major emitters was largely absent at the Summit, and some countries, such as the U.S., were not even at the podium on that day.

Even a new International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) report, ”Transforming the Energy System”, concludes that low-carbon energy investments have stalled over the past three years. The report calls for an urgent redirection of the USD $95 Trillion energy investments planned over the next three decades to clean energy technologies. The report states that “USD $3.2 Trillion – representing about 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) worldwide – would have to be invested each year to achieve the low-carbon energy transformation. This is about USD $0.5 Trillion more than under current plans.” The report further shows that renewable energy investments must double over current levels, and energy efficiency investments must increase four-fold in order to achieve what the report refers to as a “climate safe future”.

Young people see the climate crisis as by the most important issue affecting their future, and their voice was made loud and clear at the UN and around the world these past weeks. ISES is also at the forefront of addressing these challenges through its publications, conferences, and global outreach. I am impressed to hear stories from ISES members around the world participating in these student strikes[2]. Through its combination of technical information sharing and social activism ISES is a leading organization in defining the renewable energy pathways that will tackle climate crisis.

Thank you all for the work that you are doing to accelerate the transformation.


[1] The other one quarter is due to agricultural practices and land use changes, which also must be addressed urgently to meet the 1.5 0C goal. 

[2] Our HQ staff participated in a massive event in Freiburg, Germany on 20 September, and Board Secretary Paulette Middleton and I were at the event on the University of Colorado Campus here in Boulder, USA.


This article was written by:

Dr. David Renné

ISES Immediate Past President