The 12 Most Important Things You Need to Know About Climate Change and Energy

COP22 president Salaheddine Mezouar caresses a smiley Earth ball during a climate change summit
COP22 President Salaheddine Mezouar stands during a climate change summit. | Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images

Climate change is happening. It’s going to sink some cities and entire countries. Rising temperatures will result in catastrophic famines, droughts, and large-scale diasporas, the likes of which the modern world has never seen. Yet, many Americans brush off the problem. Some simply don’t believe it to be true. Others think there’s nothing that can be done to slow it down.

No matter what you believe, scientists are telling us we need to start taking action — years ago, preferably.

The effects can already be seen in some parts of the world. Islands are losing land mass, for example. And even in the U.S., parts of Florida are starting to sink below the waves, resulting in billions in lost real estate.

Our policies regarding the climate conflict with our energy policies. Energy production in the U.S. creates a lot of externalities in the form of pollution and emissions. It also creates a lot of jobs and wealth. This is one of the primary reasons we see so little action from our government regarding global climate change — it disrupts the traditional order. Still, something has to be done.

A new report — the result of a joint project between the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution and The Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago — has laid out a dozen baseline facts regarding climate change and energy production. Whether you’ve dug into the science for yourself or are wondering what we can expect in coming years, it’s worth a read.

So, what do you need to know, exactly? These 12 points are a great place to start.

1. The U.S. has ample affordable energy

a man plugs several things into a power strip
A man taps into the energy grid. |

Although many seem to think we’re short on energy supplies, it’s actually a misnomer. We’re rife with energy — be it from natural gas, renewables, etc. And our production levels are growing, largely due to drilling and fracking. This has created jobs, lowered domestic prices, and ultimately led to more money in the average American’s pocket.

Also, there’s this from the Brookings report: “U.S. production of renewable fuels, including biomass and wind and solar electricity, has surged in recent years, growing by 55 percent since 2000. The fastest growth has occurred in the electricity sector, where wind production has grown 30-fold since 2000, and solar power by a factor of nearly seven.”

Let’s check Mother Earth’s temperature …

2. Temperatures are on the rise

Midtown Manhattan skyline
Midtown Manhattan skyline |

As domestic energy production has been on the rise, so have global temperatures. And that’s not a good thing. The report said rising temperatures is the “most straightforward evidence of climate change,” and the 10 warmest years on record (134 years) have all occurred since 2000. “Using the 1951–80 period as a baseline, the current global average temperature is now elevated by 1.76°F (0.98°C). This increase has already had important effects on economies, infrastructure, and ecosystems,” the report said.

3. Use of all fossil fuel resources will raise temperatures 14.5 degrees

A pumpjack sits on the outskirts of town at dawn in the Permian Basin oil field
A pumpjack sits on the outskirts of town in the Permian Basin oil field. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

We have a finite supply of fossil fuels. That means we need to develop alternatives not just to reduce emissions, but also to replace resources we ultimately exhaust. But if we do work our way through the Earth’s entire supply of fossil fuels, it will lead to a dramatic temperature change. All told, combined emissions from the identified fossil fuel reserves of oil, gas, and coal will lead to global temperatures rising by 14.5 degrees.

4. China and India are just hitting their stride

Chinese commuters ride through polluted air
Chinese commuters ride through polluted air. | ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

The elephant in the room, when it comes to climate discussions, is the emergence of China and India as major industrial players. Although these two countries are already emitting, they’re nowhere close to reaching their full potential — and that could be disastrous unless we plan and coordinate carefully.

“By 2050 the shares of cumulative GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions accounted for by China and India will be larger, at 20 and 6 percent, respectively, while the U.S. share will have dropped to 16 percent. By 2100 China and India will have produced over one-third of global cumulative GHG emissions,” the report said.

Every state will be affected …

5. No U.S. state is immune

Weather-beaten farm buildings stand along Highway 6 in Iowa
Weather-beaten farm buildings stand along Highway 6 in Iowa. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Think you don’t need to worry about climate change because you live in Iowa? Or some other state that isn’t near a border or ocean? Guess again. Every state will suffer some sort of loss — some more catastrophic than others. At the very least, every state will experience rising temperatures, to some degree, within the next 70 years.

“Some states would experience even higher temperatures; for instance, Texas and nine other states would have summers comparable to summer in Sudan in 2012,” the report said. The average summer temperature in Sudan is around 110 degrees.

6. Our infrastructure probably can’t handle it

A cruise ship sails under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco
A cruise ship sails under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. |

We already have an infrastructure problem. Although our president and policymakers have promised some movement on this issue, we’re still waiting to see what will happen. And a lot of that infrastructure is vulnerable to climate change. Our bridges and roads can be adapted, of course, to deal with the effects. But the longer we wait, the more expensive it’ll be. Estimates for adaptation of 190,000 bridges, right now, is around $170 billion.

7. We don’t pay full price for fossil fuel use

Coal production at one of the open fields in the south of Siberia
Mining equipment |

We might not realize it, but we make out like bandits every time we pull up to the pump. That’s because we only pay a fraction of the actual cost of fossil fuel consumption. We pay for gas (or heating oil, electricity, etc.), but we don’t pay for the damage it causes in terms of pollution. There are social costs to our fossil fuel usage, and for that reason, renewables are actually cheaper. But again, it’s a cost that’s mostly hidden to consumers.

8. Renewables are growing — fast

A man inspects a solar power array in Nevada
A man inspects a solar power array in Nevada. | Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The good news regarding renewables is they’re growing fast. While they make up a very small percentage of our current energy production, renewable sources, such as solar and wind, are blowing up — putting hundreds of thousands of people to work and helping combat climate change simultaneously. According to the Brookings report, electricity production from renewables will pass generation from coal-fired power plants by 2050.

9. Most human CO2 emissions now come from vehicles

Los Angeles traffic -- a major contributor to climate change
Los Angeles traffic is a contributor to climate change. | David McNew/Getty Images

There are many contributors to climate change, including our eating habits, but CO2 emissions are right at the forefront of the problem. Previously, emissions from electric power production were the biggest contributor. But transportation emissions have now passed it. One of the main reasons that happened is we’ve switched to natural gas from coal, due to lower costs, and the influx of renewables onto the market.

10. Electric vehicles are a step in the right direction

A charging Tesla Model S
A charging Tesla Model S | Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Teslas, Chevy Bolts, and Nissan Leafs are a step in the right direction, but they won’t solve the issue at hand all on their own. The fact is, EVs are still running off of electricity. And that electricity is generated somewhere — often by coal-fired power plants. EVs consuming electricity produced by coal are still stuck on the grid to a certain extent. But we’re making progress, and that’s what really counts.

11. We need to invest more in developing clean energy

wind turbine
A wind turbine | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

All told, there’s a tough realization policymakers and experts are arriving at: We need to invest more in developing clean energy production. According to the Brookings report, our level of public investment into research and development for energy is “well below” levels in the ’70s and ’80s.

“Technologies, such as energy storage, advanced nuclear power, and carbon capture and sequestration, hold considerable promise for providing scalable, clean energy,” the report said. “However, the costs for all of these technologies require further reductions in order to be economically competitive. Increased R&D investment may help to achieve this goal.”

12. The right investments will help us in the long run

A "green" investment
A “green” investment |

Naturally, planning and investment tend to pay off. The same holds true for climate change. We know it’s happening, and we know it’s going to create a lot of problems. By planning for that, we can save ourselves a lot of pain and financial hardship. Ignoring it will only make it worse. There will be significant up-front costs, but those pale in comparison to the cost of doing nothing.

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