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Finding climate hope in an age of offhand miracles

In an excerpt from his new book, How to be a Climate Optimist, Chris Turner discusses one spark of his climate hope: how quickly the electric vehicle industry has grown since he first saw a showcase of prototypes 20 years ago

The fuel of my climate optimism, the reliable spark that keeps it moving, is a phenomenon I’ve come to think of as an offhand miracle.

That’s how I caught the bug. Way back in 2000, I was sent to Montreal by Time magazine to report on environmentally friendly cars. The occasion was one of those somewhat obscure trade shows that  would soon become central to my journalistic beat, an event called the 17th International Electric Vehicle Symposium—EVS-17.

Given what’s happened to electric vehicles in the 20 years since, I should set the stage here. As of 2000, nearly all the world’s major automakers had begun to tinker with the elusive promise of the emissions-free car, electric or otherwise. Toyota had the first version of the Prius there, and Nissan had a prototype of the Leaf. There were those little Smart cars alongside glorified golf carts, motorbikes and scooters. But this whole showcase was a minor sidelight on the heart of the automotive business. The major car companies had brought their prototypes and test models out to a racetrack in Montreal for us all to take for a test spin, but nobody was in any hurry to get those vehicles to a showroom near you.

The real star of EVS-17 wasn’t even a plug-in electric or hybrid. It was Ford’s P2000, an experimental sedan that ran on hydrogen gas and spat potable water and nothing else from its tailpipe. That was the car that attracted the crowd of journalists and motoring geeks at the racetrack, and it’s the one that I featured most prominently in my Time story. Because a fully functional Ford sedan whose only exhaust is water is pretty goddamn miraculous. And it was offhand, too, in the way that a test-lab engineer from Ford showing you the droplets of water on his hand as he squats next to a tailpipe on a racetrack at an obscure technical conference is intrinsically  offhand. It launched me on a quest — 20 years and counting — to find other offhand miracles.

That quest has been more fruitful than anyone’s wildest dreams that day in Montreal. Because here’s the thing: Everyone thought that day there would be Priuses and Leafs on the road before too long, maybe some little all-electric shoebox made in Europe for crowded city streets or a future car-share program. And some day someone might crack the range problem of fully electric cars and/or the cost problem of hydrogen-fuelled vehicles, and then those would find a place on a few roads away from a test track too.

Twenty years from then? Maybe 30? Sure, it could happen.

But no one had the slightest notion, not the vaguest inkling or the wildest premonition, that what would actually happen was some weird, megalomaniacal engineer who was working at the time on the thorny problem of small-scale internet business transactions at PayPal would cash out a couple of years later, use his dot-com riches to take over a fledgling manufacturer of experimental electric cars, and turn that company into not only the first successful automotive start-up in America in more than half a century but also the maker of the first mass-market all-electric sports car in history—all in barely more than a decade. But that’s what Elon Musk did with Tesla Motors. A fantastical idea too wildly speculative and distant-future-tense to even make it to a racetrack in Montreal in 2000 is now everyday reality. Keep that in mind as we discuss the limits of what’s possible for the next 10 or 20 years.

Now, if the miraculous rise of Tesla were the only story of its genre, the only wild arc from impossible fantasy to everyday reality I’d discovered in 20 years on this climate-solutions beat, I would have a hard time holding it up as the avatar of anything. Happily, that’s not the case.

The cover of Chris Turner's new book How to be a Climate Optimist
In his new book, How to be a Climate Optimist, Chris Turner Here, condenses the first quarter century of the global energy transition into bite-sized chunks of optimistic reflection and reportage, telling a story of a planet in peril and a global effort already beginning to save it.

My first focused reporting on this beat was a visit I made in 2005 to a Danish island called Samsø, which was endeavouring to become the world’s first island powered entirely by renewable energy. Fifteen years later, not only has Samsø surpassed its own goal, it is a pacesetter for the entire country and all of the European Union, which has pledged to duplicate the island’s achievement by 2050. (Denmark  itself  intends to eliminate all emissions from its electricity grid by 2030.) When I first began reporting on solar power in 2005, there were five gigawatts’ worth of photovoltaic panels connected to all the electricity  grids on earth, and it was common sense to suggest that solar would never amount to more than one per cent of the world’s electricity supply. It was at 0.2 per cent at the time. In 2020, China alone connected almost 50 gigawatts of new solar power to its grids, the largest share of 127 gigawatts added worldwide that year, for a grand total of 707 gigawatts — more than three per cent of global production and growing at a pace considered sheer fantasy back in 2005.The first bike-share system I ever encountered was a novelty at the Copenhagen train station, and I  rode my rented bike to the harbour and back on the first physically separated bike lane I’d ever seen. Bike and scooter shares are now commonplace in hundreds of cities around the world, including my own, where I can ride downtown and back on 10 kilometres of real separated bike lanes.

I went to the desert outside Taos, New Mexico, in 2006 to inspect a crazy hippie fever dream called an Earthship — a house designed to use the natural heating and cooling of the sun to achieve self-sufficiency for its energy needs. There is now an eight-storey apartment building in downtown Vancouver that uses “passive house” design principles to do roughly the same thing. By 2032, every  new building in the province of British Columbia will be built to a code broadly consistent with those “net zero” standards.I tracked a series of these victorious arcs in their paths from margin to mainstream. Offhand miracles, one after another.

Excerpted from How to Be a Climate Optimist by Chris Turner. Copyright © 2022 Chris Turner.
Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited.
Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Updated on May 27, 2022, at 10:52 a.m. EST: This story has been updated to remove a line that stated the Toyota Prius was not available in North America until 2003. The Prius was in fact available as of 2000.

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

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