The Times They Aren’t a-Changing: More Carbon, More Heat, More Hot Air Expected in 2024

Mill, West Linn, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

A rising global temperature is no joking matter, but one has to wonder when the president of the annual UN conference on climate change is also the head of an oil company. My father liked to joke in his typical impish style, “I’ve seen a lot of changes in my time … and I was against them all.” There are also hundreds of apt lightbulb-changing jokes, such as “How many Irish mothers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? … Ah sure you go out and have a good time, I’ll just stay here in the dark.” Indeed, change is never easy, whether denial about the need, overriding the status quo of a multi-trillion-dollar, carbon-spewing industry that underpins the entire global economy, or challenging the ongoing inanity of oil and gas companies pretending to “transition away” from fossil fuels.

Established by the UN in 1988 to assess the science, impacts, and risk of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has now written 6 reports, which make for increasingly alarming reading. The latest iteration, the Synthesis Report for the Sixth Assessment (AR6), states at the outset that “Global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase, with unequal historical and ongoing contributions arising from unsustainable energy use, land use and land-use change, lifestyles and patterns of consumption and production across regions, between and within countries, and among individuals.”[1] And yet, there are those who still pretend not to believe in a human contribution, purposely undermine change, or just don’t give a damn.

The French mathematician Joseph Fourier (1768-1830), Anglo-Irish physicist John Tyndall (1820-1893), and Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927) all helped to establish the now well-known, heat-trapping properties of water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane (CH4). Fourier noted that the temperature change between night and day (and winter and summer) was minimal because of an insulating atmospheric blanket of “greenhouse gases” (GHGs), a term he coined. If not for our GHG-filled atmosphere, our “pale blue dot” of a planet would be uninhabitably cold. Tyndall noted that varying amounts of GHGs could be responsible for past ice ages – evidence of which was only recently discovered in his time in the scarred glacial landscapes of northern Europe – after setting up his own “artificial sky in a tube” in the basement of London’s Royal Institution. Arrhenius established the first direct link between GHGs and temperature, for which he is mostly remembered today. Thanks in part to Arrhenius’s analysis, it was known by the early 1900s that burning coal would produce enough atmospheric carbon dioxide to raise global temperatures beyond safe limits.

As noted in a 1912 Popular Mechanics article, the atmosphere at the time contained 1.5 trillion tons of CO2, which would double in two centuries at the then industrial emission rates, “unless it is removed by some means in enormous quantities.”[2] Alas, Popular Mechanics couldn’t have anticipated the extraordinary growth of the fossil-fuel industry in the twentieth century as emissions doubled faster (40 years at 1.5 trillion tons/37 billion tons per year). Currently the amount is over 422 parts per million and increasing by about 2 ppm per year[3] (2 ppm is also annually absorbed in the oceans and biomass). In a 1975 Science article “Climactic change: Are we on the brink of a pronounced global warming?” Columbia University geophysicist Wallace Broecker introduced the term “global warming,” noting that man-made carbon dioxide (and now methane) would soon contribute to an exponential rise in global temperatures as indeed is occurring.

Many of those who support the continued status quo of an unchecked global petroleum industry claim the increase in temperature is due to natural changes in the earth-sun distance (eccentricity, tilt, and precession), regularly rising and falling. Indeed, the sun’s irradiance on earth is cyclical, giving us intermittent ice ages and interglacial periods (more pronounced in the larger land-mass northern hemisphere), albeit over millennial-long timeframes. Today’s increased heating, however, is coming faster and more furiously because of industrial carbon-burning, too much for earth’s ecosystems to handle. If we don’t change soon, more heating, more melting, and more flooding will put us all in uncharted (and rising) waters. Space is not the final frontier for earth-bound humans, change is.

Bill McKibben, co-founder of the “” group (the name derived from NASA’s projected safe threshold for CO2 levels), has estimated that 80% of fossil fuels must remain in the ground to avoid the worst. Although McKibben believes that changing to LED light bulbs and putting a price on carbon are both excellent ideas (among others), more than $20 trillion worth of stored “carbon bombs” around the world will wreck the planet if they are dug up and burnt (e.g., Arctic and Caspian Sea oil, Eastern European fracked gas, Canadian and Venezuelan oil sands, and Western Australian, Indonesian, Chinese, and Powder River Basin coal[4]), sending the atmosphere spiralling well beyond the 400-ppm mark.

The group cites major achievements in its goal to “keep it in the ground” — such as stopping the Keystone XL pipeline (only 3% of Alberta oil sands extracted), shutting down development in the world’s largest coal mine (in Queensland, Australia’s Galilee Valley), and a growing fossil-fuel divestment campaign started in 2012 at Unity College in Maine, which first sold off fossil-fuel stocks in its own $13-million portfolio, and now includes universities around the world, significantly impacting the bottom lines of companies with fossil-fuel investments.

And still some wonder about the causes and effects. Initially skeptical about anthropomorphic global warming (AGW), Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller showed how climate and weather can easily be misconstrued. His research team extended the temperature record back to 1753, using station data and “proxies” such as tree rings and choral growth. His Berkeley results corroborated IPCC data, but importantly tied the increase in the average global temperature to an unmistakable increase in atmospheric CO2. As Muller stated in Energy for Future Presidents: The science behind the headlines, “The exquisite agreement between the warming and CO2 suggests that most – maybe all – of the warming of the past 250 years was caused by humans.”[5] Furthermore, the Berkeley analysis showed no correlation to sunspot activity, and predicted a further increase of 1.6 °C every 40 years if we continue to burn carbon-based fuels as we have been doing.

Interestingly, Muller noted from the data collected around the world that temperatures had only increased at two-thirds of the study’s 36,866 recording stations, but had decreased at the other third, underlining how local temperatures cannot be used to extrapolate to an average global temperature. Indeed, climate cannot be confused with weather. It isn’t bad weather, it’s bad climate that is causing today’s troubles with 2023 the hottest year since records were kept, hotter on average than 2022 (alas not as hot as 2024 if nothing changes). The sobering state of our warming planet is regularly reported on here in CounterPunch, including an annual summary of the everyday devastation.[6]

As for the annual COP talking shop, the oil industry has taken over. Last year’s COP28 was hosted by the United Arab Emirates with Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) president Ahmed Al Jaber as band leader Harold Hill. “Abated” versus “unabated,” “phase out” versus “phase down,” and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin were debated by over 70,000 delegates, not all of whom came and went by plane. “Abated” is the new industry buzzword as in “captured” carbon emissions during or after combustion to keep us burning more fossil fuels. A record number of almost 2,500 oil, gas, and coal industry lobbyists ensured the proceedings stayed on message.

Unsurprisingly, the ADNOC boss conducted regular oil company business during the conference and stated there was “no science” behind the phase-out of fossil fuels. Nonetheless, almost 200 parties signed up to the declaration to “transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems.”[7] The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning? Convoluted language of change or business as usual?

The next meeting slash “global trade show”[6] is planned for Baku, Azerbaijan, where the Nobel brothers cut their business teeth ferrying kerosene to the Russian market in the 1870s. Azer means “fire” and the name of a god the locals worshiped for millennia. Expect more discussions on carbon capture, “green” hydrogen, and pipeline routes out of the oil-rich Caspian Sea. Alas, emissions will continue to rise as in every year since the first COP in Berlin in 1995. As the former German politician and early renewables champion Herman Scheer noted years ago, “While the delegates have been debating over the past decade, emissions have been rising by an unprecedented 30 per cent.” Sadly, Scheer surmised that “The effect of the climate change negotiations has thus been to preserve the status quo.”[8]

Scheer was responsible for the 2000 German Renewable Energy Act, which spurred on an avant-garde approach to energy technology via consumer subsidies and grid buybacks, transforming Germany into a world leader in solar power, all in a country with a mean latitude of 51.5° and a daily average of 4.1 hours of sunshine. Thanks to Germany’s Green party, California’s sunny innovation factories, and China’s increased investment in photovoltaics, solar panels are now one hundred times cheaper than two decades ago. Solar-powered electricity is now cheaper than traditional power production, having already reached “grid parity” with nuclear and coal in 2013 and natural gas in 2015.[9]

Alas, 2024 will still see temperatures rise, sea levels rise, and Arctic ice shrink to its smallest extent as more fossil fuels are burned. Although not adding to sea-level rise since Arctic ice already floats, dark waters absorb more, while ice and snow reflects more (easily tested by putting a black and a white sheet of paper in the sun). GHGs will also grow from the increased burning of fossil fuels and stored methane loosed from the melting tundra. More coal will be burnt this year than last, increasingly so in the developing world.

Like it or not change has to come. We simply can’t keep burning away our future. In his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, philosopher and science historian Thomas Kuhn stated “Paradigms gain their status because they are more successful than their competitors in solving a few problems that the group of practitioners has come to recognize as acute.”[10] Prior to the internal combustion engine (ICE), horse manure bunged up the works in the congested streets of the late nineteenth century causing an acute health issue (3 million pounds/day alone in the 1870s in New York City), which is now “shifting” again because of another acute need to stop greenhouse gases and particulate-matter pollution bunging up the air even more.

Others have noted similar routes to change as if in a 12-step self-help program (AA’s first step is to admit “that our lives had become unmanageable”). Social historian R. A. Buchanan cites three conditions for change: (1) “key groups of people who are prepared to consider innovations seriously and sympathetically,” (2) “technological innovation is being encouraged to match social needs,” and (3) social resources such as “capital, materials and skilled personnel.”[11] To turn the revolutionary into the mundane, however, takes more work. Sustainability expert Chris Goodall lists four phases for universal adoption of new technologies: too expensive, waning enthusiasm over the slow progress, gradual acceptance by skeptics, and finally a dawning sense that we can do without what came before, in this case fossil fuels.[12]

The first step is always the hardest and scariest. Early adopters are often considered heretics, only recognized years or centuries later. The devout Polish cleric and parttime astronomy hobbyist Nicolaus Copernicus – from whom we get the word “revolution” via his 1543 publication of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres – was published only after his death for fear of pushback from religious authorities. Considered the last of the old rather than the first of the new, it took more than a century for the revolutionary to become the mundane, thanks to the work of others who followed such as Galileo, Kepler, and Newton.

The new always come mixed with the old. Kepler did astrology tables to make ends meet, Newton believed in alchemy. In the modern era, the first Philips light-bulb factory in Eindhoven was initially lit by gas because electricity was not yet available, while the electric bulb was considered by some to be too dim for comfortable reading.

Of course, China and other emerging economies continue to grow and increase their carbon emissions at record rates. The International Energy Agency predicted that emissions will almost double in the next 20 years, three-quarters coming from China, India, and the Middle East. China now emits twice as much CO2 from coal as does all of Europe. To simplify the numbers based on population alone, “an increase in use of only 5% in Brazil, Russia, India, and China is equivalent to a 50% increase in the United States.”[13]

So what changes are essential? According to You Xiaoying, the “new three” are solar panels, chemical batteries, and EVs, a.k.a. “xin san yang,” which are increasingly replacing the “old three” (clothing, home appliances, and furniture) that helped to remake China’s failed economy on the backs of cheap imports to the West. Today, China produces more than 80% of the world’s solar panels, 50% of the lithium-ion batteries, and 20% of its EVs.[14] More EVs, more batteries, and more wind, water, and sun (WWS) means less inner-city pollution (9 million deaths a year[15]), fewer wars over petroleum supply chains, and reduced warming. No more bigger-is-best, super-sized, centralized answers that trucks in or wires in resources from afar yet conveniently forgets about the impact of our actions.

Many countries are planning to ban ICE car sales by 2035 and even sooner in some places, yet still lack sufficient charging infrastructure. In an early example or “range anxiety,” steamships originally couldn’t hold enough coal to cross the Atlantic. Range anxiety is in fact charger anxiety or fuel anxiety, just as in the time of Bertha Benz who had to stop along the way at local pharmacies in the first ever long-distance ICE drive from Mannheim to Pforzheim to refill her 50-km-capacity Ligroin fuel tank. The first coast-to-coast American gas-filled journey took two months, at times managing less than 6 miles per hour on roads rated as “average to non-existent.”[16]

Of course, change always takes time, money, and effort, while a new set of challenges will arise. EVs have to be cheaper to increase adoption. Change, transition, (r)evolution can’t happen without middle-class prices. Battery materials must also be responsibly mined, ecologically and socially. Build it and they will come, whether an Iowa baseball field, a better mousetrap, or affordable EVs and battery supply chains.

That is if there is no European-style “e-fuel” exception to keep Germany’s ICEs on the road. Biofuels are the new abated nonsense. E-scooters (displacing 4 times as much oil as 4-wheeled ICE vehicles[6]), vehicle sharing, and dynamic pricing are also on the rise. Some changes are to be welcomed, but we must also mind whose coffers are enriched. The annual Oxfam rich list table shows the usual increase in wealth to fewer people as technology grips along with the emissions of the rich and infamous. Alarmingly, Oxfam reported that a single billionaire emits one million times as much GHGs as the average consumer (2.76 tons).[16] Messing around in yachts is a disaster for the environment.

One must also beware the deniers and delayers. Fox News doesn’t like wind power under a supposed pretext of saving whales from offshore wind turbine foundations. Denmark figured out how to tame the wind long ago, safely grid-tying its first wind turbine over a century ago and now enjoys regular 100% wind-powered days via its numerous onshore and offshore wind farms. Spain just passed 50% renewables. China’s Wind Base program expects to reach 400 GW by 2030 and 1 TW by 2050, two-thirds of its existing grid. In the United States, change often comes harder, but increased investment is helping, including the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act that earmarked $369 billion over 10 years for greener investment, the first long step to the next generation of energy infrastructure, albeit with the usual side deals, privatization schemes, and O&G “abatements.”

Personally, many of us try the usual resolutions each new year: more exercise, more restraint, more effort on what we can change. Less red meat, less alcohol, less worry about what we can’t change. Standard leaf-turning stuff that might not make it to February. My ten simple ways to cut down won’t change the world but can help change old thinking: 1) Walk, use the stairs, take public transport, 2) Use a bedtime hot-water bottle, 3) Recycle as much as possible, 4) Convert old bulbs to LED, 5) Dry clothes in the sun, 6) Collect rainwater, 7) No single-use plastic, 8) No palm oil (or saturated fats), 9) No junk fast-food or processed food, 10) Think twice/thrice before buying anything. You will have your own green-saving ideas that help slow the machine. As ever, I will try to stay the course and increase my contribution to use less. Sure, the big boys have to change, but we can all do our bit to help.

As we think about change this new year, the old saying rings true, “Each journey starts with a single step.” Or perhaps another lightbulb joke is apt: “How many psychiatrists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? None, but it has to want to change.” Sad that simple truths should be so hard.


[1] “Synthesis Report for the Sixth Assessment,” UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 58th Session, Interlaken, Switzerland, March 13-19, 2023.

[2] Molena, F., “Remarkable weather of 1911,” Popular Mechanics, pp. 339–342, March 1912

[3] “CO2.Earth,” Pro Oxygen, Victoria,  British Columbia.

[4] McKibben, B., “Why we need to keep 80 percent of fossil fuels in the ground,” YES! Magazine, February 15, 2016.

[5] Muller, R. A., Energy for future presidents: The science behind the headlines, p. 48, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 2012

[6] St. Clair, J., “Sleep Now in the Fire: the Year in Climate,” CounterPunch, December 28, 2023.

[7] “OP28 Agreement Signals ‘Beginning of the End’ of the Fossil Fuel Era,” UNFCCC, December 13, 2023.

[8] Scheer, H., The Solar Economy: Renewable energy for a sustainable global future, p. XI, Earthscan, London, 2002

[9] “Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis 2021,” Lazard, Version 16.0, April 2023.

[10] Kuhn, T. S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed., p. 23, The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, 1970.

[11] Gimpel, J., The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages, pp. 229–230, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, NY, 1976.

[12] Goodall, C., Ten Technologies to Save the Planet, p. 5, GreenProfile, London, 2008.

[13] White, J. K., Do The Math! On Growth, Greed and Strategic Thinking, p. 9, Sage, 2013

[14] Xiaoying, Y., “China is still playing the long game with its ‘new three’: solar cells, lithium batteries, EVs,” Energy Post, December 12, 2023.

[15] Lelieveld, J., Klingmüller, K., Pozzer, A., et al., “Cardiovascular disease burden from ambient air pollution in Europe reassessed using novel hazard ratio functions,” European Heart Journal, 40(20):1590–6, March 12, 2019.

[16] Yergin, D., The Prize: The epic quest for oil, money, & power, p. 207, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 1991.

[17] Oxfam, “A billionaire emits a million times more greenhouse gases than the average person,” November 7, 2022.


John K. White, a former lecturer in physics and education at University College Dublin and the University of Oviedo. He is the editor of the energy news service E21NS and author of The Truth About Energy: Our Fossil-Fuel Addiction and the Transition to Renewables (Cambridge University Press, 2024) and Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). He can be reached at: