Prime among the bits of good news is that the cost of solar power keeps falling, and not just a little. The price of solar panels has fallen by fully 75% in just the past decade alone. That will make a dent in our collective, unconsidered spewage of greenhouse gases notably CO2 emissions from coal-powered power plants.
Climate policy dismal pessimist Paul Krugman was even moved to write: "Thanks to this technological leap forward, the climate panel can talk about "decarbonizing" electricity generation as a realistic goal and since coal-fired power plants are a very large part of the climate problem, that's a big part of the solution right there."
Lest we falsely feel the cool breeze of relief, however, please note that a 'goal' is not a 'reality.' In California, All renewable energy currently generates only about 30% of our electricity with hydropower accounting for more than half of that minor fraction (Interestingly, we are second to Texas among all states in total, non-hydro renewables generation. Most of theirs comes from wind, which, if you know many Texans, may make it less surprising).
Further, as Krugman warns in the same article: "The science is solid; the technology is there; the economics look far more favorable than anyone expected. All that stands in the way of saving the planet is a combination of ignorance, prejudice and vested interests. What could go wrong? Oh, wait."
'Oh, wait' was the inspiration for Jared Diamond's book of a few years ago: "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed." In it, he examined the reasons why a dozen past civilizations thrived, and then disappeared (Easter Island, Mayans, Greenland Norse, etc.). Those societies often grew over long periods of time, but then failed abruptly. He was looking for threads that might inform our current deliberations on threats to the now-worldwide civilization. He ended-up (and remains) 51% optimistic about humanity's chances in confronting several current crises (including, but not limited to warming).
Diamond identified several determinants of success in confronting societal challenges. Two in particular are relevant here, and they give me less cause for optimism than he seems to feel (but then, he's 75, and as a Much Younger man I have a longer expectancy over which to worry).
His first concern is with conflicts of interest between near term customs and what needs to be done. Quoth Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his paycheck depends on his Not understanding it." He finds this especially troubling if the decision-making/influencing 'elites' are able to insulate themselves from the consequences of indecision. In America's increasingly oligarchic society, those conflicts are deep, and the wealth that underwrites the oligarchs also buys ample insulation.
In a nation where a majority of Congressfolk are millionaires, and their influencers are now effectively unbridled in bestowing largess via thinly-veiled bribes, those who profit mightily from the status quo have power out of all proportion to their numbers. Under such influence, the cap-and-trade platform of Mr. McCain in 2008 can devolve into unyielding, unthinking, intractable opposition to anything vaguely resembling it by 2010 (and more so recently, in case that's possible). Without decision-makers who can see beyond the well-cooled confines of their gated intellectual communities, the US is unlikely to address Warming effectively, or in time. I repeat plaintively, (and will again) where have you gone, Teddy Roosevelt?
Second, Diamond suggests that the greater the gap between qualities that characterize and helped build civilizations, and the qualities Now needed to address current challenges, the lower will be the probability of success. Here we have a very mixed bag.
On the one hand, we Americans have traditionally been known for a can-do spirit that can conquer The Wilderness and split the atom. Or put men on the moon, unless you want to deny that, too (there's significant overlap between devotees of both denials). On the other hand, that urge to compete and dominate can work at cross-purposes in an era where the frontiers have closed, living In-Concert With the natural world is needed, and atom-smashing's dark side perpetually threatens mass destruction.
Further, the American preference for isolationism over sustained engagement is a deep source of concern in today's global village and the 'interconnected web of all existence.' The US, which was only recently supplanted as the world's greenhouse-gassiest economy by China, and is the undisputed per capita emissions champeen, cannot solve the global warming crisis alone. This is a slow-mo, global crisis, that can only be surmounted by sustained, global cooperation. Our isolationism, however, can lead us directly away from such engagement, and even provoke comments like the stunningly simple-minded "The 'warmists' (really? not the Marxist-warmistas?) need to focus their effort in China, India and Indonesia. Good luck with that."
That's the very height of folly; as countries develop, their emissions inevitably climb, as ours did. Unless ways are found and shared, to create and promote less-carbon-intensive growth, we will All be heirs to a world with crippled carrying capacity, and all the war and tragedy that inevitably shall ensue. The difference is that we have the opportunity to lead, if only we'll take it. If only …
I am frankly not optimistic on that score, either. There comes a time in the famous 'frog in a warming pot' analogy when the frog is past the point of no-return he's dead, he just doesn't know it, quite yet. Are we there yet, fellow frogs? It's something to ponder this week, while mopping your brow and, just maybe, ordering solar?