Congratulations everyone, we made it through the first and most depressing month of 2023. While “Blue Monday” isn’t actually a thing — there’s no one day in January more depressing than any other — the whole month can feel miserable, a dark slog between the Xmas cards and the Valentines.
And in January 2023, the news didn’t seem like it was helping. War and mass shootings dominated the headlines. As did storms and floods and cold snaps, all made worse and more frequent by the growing specter of climate change. Meanwhile the entire U.S. economy was under threat from Republicans in Congress, who appeared to want to throw the government into default.
But do the headlines give us the full long-term picture? They do not. For that, you have to look at overall trends: the news climate, not the news weather. And more of the trends are more optimistic than you might expect.
So here, at the end of the first round of ’23, let us warm your worst month with reasons to stay sunny in your soul — along with a cautionary “what we’re waiting to see” in each case. Because it’s important to remember how bad things can get, and could still get, in order to properly see the best of this moment.
1. There are more electric cars on the road than in 2022. A lot more.
It may not look like it just yet — well, maybe it does if you’re living in a country like Norway, which just passed a milestone (80 percent of all Norwegian cars sold last year were electric). But we’re in the midst of a revolution on our roads. Electric vehicles are going mainstream, and the trend is spiking.
There were 7.8 million EVs sold around the world in 2022 — a year-on-year growth of 68 percent, blasting through projections, even as auto sales overall fell one percent. We’re now in a world where one in 10 new cars sold is electric. In China, where EV sales have doubled in a year, that number is one in every three. This is really, really good news about the country with the largest carbon emissions.
The U.S. was lagging, but EV subsidies in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) just kicked in on Jan 1. For the first time ever, Americans in the market for a used car can get that sweet US$4,000 federal tax credit for EVs. There are a record 43 EV models going on sale in the U.S. by the end of 2023. For 90 percent of Americans, a new study says, it’s already cheaper to operate an EV than a gas car. The sidelining of combustion engines is happening sooner than we knew.
What to watch: EV sales would be growing a lot faster if the U.S. had a public charging infrastructure to match. The IRA offers tax credits for 30 percent of charging station construction costs (in rural and poor communities). But that isn’t the same as giving local authorities the desire or understanding necessary to build the damn things.
2. Coal is dying out faster…
Having a fleet full of EVs won’t help the climate if the electricity in them came from dirty energy. Thankfully, coal makes up less of a share of our electric grids than ever before. The U.S. just started its first year in history with renewable energy generating more power than coal. Around the world, coal plants are getting hard to fund and harder to insure.
What to watch: China’s coal extraction, which hit record highs at the end of 2022. A new “unified electricity market” means Chinese coal will be forced to compete with Chinese solar on price, a losing proposition for the blackstuff — but that won’t kick in until 2025.
3. …while solar power is exploding.
More than ever, in 2023, humans are sun-worshippers. Solar panel manufacturers churned out almost 295 Gigawatts’ worth of solar panels in 2022, a 45 percent increase in capacity in just one year. The 2023 forecast — 319 Gigawatts — may be an underestimate. The projection for 2025 says that year will see 940 Gigawatts’ worth of panels built, or roughly as much solar power as exists in the entire world right now.
And is it the cheapest energy source out there? You bet. It’s now 33 percent cheaper than natural gas in the U.S., and will only get cheaper as the IRA’s solar installation incentives kick in this year. It’s cheaper in China too, where nearly half of the world’s solar panels were installed last year.
What to watch: How fast the U.S. can ramp up its solar production industry to compete with China. Incentives are one thing; global supply chain problems another.
4. Energy is more renewable than ever — especially in Texas.
It’s not just solar. Wind, hydro, and all other renewable sources are on the march, even in the depths of winter. In the U.S., battery production is going strong and is also about to be supercharged by the IRA. That makes storing power easier, which lets local grids supply us with more clean electricity. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, renewables’ share across the country will rise to 23 percent in 2023, while natural gas is falling to 37 percent.
But those numbers mask a huge surprise: Renewable energy in Texas is growing so fast, it’s set to beat natural gas this year. Texas, once the poster child for carbon-based fuel, is outpacing California when it comes to renewable installations, mostly in wind power.
The largest red state isn’t going green for political reasons, but for financial ones; even GOP Governor Greg Abbott has changed his tune on renewables a year after blaming them for winter storm outages. It’s simply cheaper and easier now to make money exploiting the state’s abundant sunshine and fast-moving air than to keep going at the dirty, expensive and dangerous activity that is drilling.
What to watch: Renewable project construction is currently trending down thanks to regulatory and supply bottlenecks — temporarily, we hope.
5. The ozone layer is healing, and should soon heal faster.
Remember that time humanity almost killed Earth’s main layer of protection against UV radiation? A UN report released this month says we can pat ourselves on the back: our efforts to heal the ozone layer by banning dangerous CFC gasses in a 1987 treaty, actually worked.
The hole we punched in that layer is on course to completely heal over by midcentury, and progress should be even faster now the U.S. Senate has (finally, and in a bipartisan vote!) ratified an amendment to the international treaty tightening curbs on HFCs. That’s another nasty atmospheric gas, used in AC units, which also contributes to climate change.
What to watch: All that progress could be rolled back if the world needs to geoengineer its way out of climate catastrophe. Seeding the upper atmosphere with sulfate particles, a proposal that would reflect sunlight and cool the world, could also rip another hole in our collective UV protection.
6. The bees just had a big win.
Score one for our hardest-working pollinators. In January, the European Union’s highest court banned all exemptions to an EU regulation outlawing three popular pesticides, all of which are lethal to honeybees and were implicated in colony collapse disorder. That’s on top of new regulations that just kicked in, banning all but trace amounts of bee-killing pesticide residue on food or feed imported to Europe – which should have a chilling effect on the pesticides’ use in the developing world.
What to watch: The U.S. is painfully slow to do anything about the pesticides, although a few states have banned them and California is poised to do the same.
7. Inflation is coming down.
That vertigo-inducing rise in prices we call inflation? The thing we were worried about for pretty much all of 2022? It hasn’t vanished, but it is easing faster than we feared. Prices of consumer goods rose by five percent in December, an improvement on November’s seven percent inflation. In fact, inflation has been falling for six months in a row, so barring any sudden new shocks to the economy, it’s falling as you read this. The Fed expects inflation could drop as low as two percent per month by the end of 2023 …
What to watch: …although the rate could bounce back soon after that, presenting a whole new set of challenges for the economy.
8. Ukraine is still winning.
It’s the David vs. Goliath story of our age. A nation that had been invaded by its neighbor, one of the world’s most feared military superpowers, beat it back with an indomitable spirit and a steadily increasing amount of technical support. Ukraine’s slow-motion success against Russia has been going on for so long, we’re likely to miss it, especially in winter when progress is naturally slower.
But make no mistake, Ukraine is still winning in 2023 — to the point where Russia is running so low on ammunition, it’s digging up 40-year-old shells. The U.S., Poland and even once-reluctant Germany have decided to supply Ukraine with tanks. The U.S. is set to send long-range missiles that could help Ukraine retake Crimea, an outcome that would have been unthinkable a year ago.
What to watch: The increasing number of nuclear threats coming out of the Kremlin. It’s saber-rattling – such extreme mad-bomber tactics would rebound on Russian territory, destroy Russia’s relationships with remaining friends like China, and not even help on the battlefield — but it’s still chilling. After all, 70-year-old Vladimir Putin is sending ever more inexperienced men to a pointless meat grinder; he clearly doesn’t give a damn if he destroys giant chunks of Russia in pursuit of victory.
9. The world is weaning itself off Russian fuel.
Time was when European countries were terrified of poking the Russian bear because of their dependence on cheap Russian natural gas and oil. But Russia’s energy exports have fallen by a stunning nine percent in the last month, ever since the EU banned crude oil imports. The U.S. is now poised to become Europe’s largest gas supplier. That’s what you get for invading sovereign nations.
What to watch: Some oil experts suggest Europe will hook itself back up to cheaper Russian gas, shunning the pricey American liquid stuff, as soon as the war in Ukraine ends.
10. We’re in the first year of the fusion age.
The breakthrough nuclear fusion experiment announced by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory a month ago has been compared to the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk. That event didn’t change the world immediately, but it did lead ineluctably to our present-day reality of commercial flights everywhere. If we start to see nuclear fusion reactors appear in a few decades’ time, providing virtually limitless clean fuel for the entire human race, we can say it started here.
What to watch: Research dollars will make the difference. Does the divided U.S. government have what it takes to agree to more fusion R&D to speed the process along? Will politicians and the public understand the difference between basically safe nuclear fusion with minimal environmental impact, and nuclear fission with its far larger spent fuel problem?
11. The GOP insurgency is weaker than it might have been.
Yes, the Republican-led House of Representatives is already forcing a showdown with the Biden administration over raising the debt ceiling, threatening to tank the global economy if the U.S. goes into default.
But compared to previous GOP efforts to extract concessions from a threatened debt default, this one is a damp squib. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, elected to that role only after 15 votes, finds himself incredibly weak. Serial fabulist George Santos is a daily reminder of the majority’s lack of ethical standards. McCarthy’s caucus is divided. They can’t even agree on what they want from the White House in return for a debt ceiling raise, and the administration isn’t in a bargaining mood anyway.
If Kevin McCarthy blinks and loses the fight, we can all enjoy another round of schadenfreude as the House majority tears itself apart again, and maybe even tries to elect a new speaker.
What to watch: Maybe the GOP is just unhinged enough to tank the global economy this time?
12. Trump is in trouble…
Prosecutors are closing in on the former president from all angles, and legal experts expect Trump will be fighting off multiple criminal indictments by the end of 2023. So many chickens are coming home to roost, it’s already hard to keep track. Witness the judge who this month imposed a US$1 million sanction on Trump and his legal team for a frivolous lawsuit against Hillary Clinton back in 2016. The wheels of justice grind slowly, but still they grind — and even Trump’s reinstated Facebook account can’t hold them back forever.
What to watch: Will the Supreme Court, including the three conservative justices Trump himself appointed, make a Bush v Gore-style ruling — basically and conveniently holding that indictments cannot be brought against a former head of the executive branch?
13. …as is Bolsonaro.
Moving faster than their American counterparts, Brazilian authorities have already launched an investigation into their coup-fomenting former president. Jair Bolsonaro’s defeat in the presidential election last year may have helped to save the Amazon rainforest, but it also led to thousands of protestors smashing up government buildings on January 8 – protestors who believed Bolsonaro’s long-standing claims that elections could be rigged.
What to watch: Just how much was Bolsonaro directing the protests from his self-imposed exile in Florida, and will the U.S. allow him to be extradited to face charges in Brazil?
14. Twitter remains undefeated.
Speaking of right-wing leaders beset by legal troubles, Elon Musk is in the midst of an embarrassing trial over his 2018 tweet claiming that he had secured funding to take Tesla private — a possible manipulation of the stock price. Lawsuits against him are piling up, including one over his Twitter firings and a couple over Musk’s deadbeat approach to paying rent.
Meanwhile, despite a troubling outage at the end of December, Twitter the service is still standing strong. All of Musk’s efforts to bend the site to his will — banning parody accounts, banning journalists, banning links to other social networks — were reversed. His version of Twitter Blue, with paid checkmarks, stalled. Advertisers are fleeing. Tesla stock has had a bit of a rebound in January, but it’s still worth just over half what it was when Musk took over Twitter.
In 2023, either Musk steps back, sells Twitter to his fellow investors at a loss, or faces the legal and financial consequences of owning a service he never understood. Whichever one it is, the criticism factory of Twitter will be there to mock its fragile narcissist owner at every turn.
What to watch: Whether the next owner of Twitter, or Musk’s handpicked CEO, will be someone even worse for the service.
15. COVID is rolling back in the U.S.
There was a troubling spike in COVID-19 cases at the beginning of the year. With yet more new variants making the rounds, health officials around the country were braced for a rough month. Since Jan. 5, however, every trend line is in the right direction: deaths, hospitalizations, cases, and positive tests. It’s not the state of equilibrium required for authorities to declare COVID officially endemic, rather than a pandemic, but it is a very encouraging sign — and European countries are seeing the same trend.
What to watch: There was a global spike in COVID cases later in January, much of it apparently related to China lifting its “zero COVID” policy in December. That seems to be receding too, but the world may not be out of the woods yet.
16. Vaccines are quietly saving lives.
Despite what you might have heard from the vaccine-denier crowd that Musk allowed back on Twitter, the COVID-19 vaccines are still doing what vaccines always do: save lives. A recent study from the Yale School of Public Health concluded that the U.S. would have suffered 3 million more deaths without them in 2021 and 2022. By that measure, January 2023 would have contained somewhere around 125,000 more deaths in a vaccine-less world. Moreover, there’s a growing body of evidence that vaccines may significantly reduce the risk of long COVID — especially if you get another shot after you get sick.
What to watch: Only about 14 percent of eligible U.S. adults have had both booster shots, which help tackle the more recent variants of the virus. With COVID apparently fading in the public mind, chances of increasing the uptake on boosters seem grim.
17. The outlook for abortion rights is improving (but the battle is just beginning).
The year 2022 saw a great leap forward in access to safe and legal abortions — if you lived in Colombia, France, Spain, Finland, or any of the other countries where lawmakers passed pro-choice legislation. In the U.S., of course, it was a year that will live in infamy: A hard-right Supreme Court erased the rights of millions of women by striking down Roe v. Wade. But voters arguably punished the anti-abortion GOP at the midterm elections, and everywhere abortion rights were on the ballot — even in deep-red Kansas — they won.
In January 2023, there were more incremental wins for the pro-choice side. The FDA expanded access to medication abortion, the most commonly-used procedure. President Biden directed the government to do everything it could to support that access. New York lawmakers voted to codify abortion rights in the state constitution, pending likely voter approval; Virginia is getting started on the same process; New Mexico is looking to get its rights enshrined faster.
What to watch: Undeterred by the midterms, red states are set to introduce a wave of anti-abortion bills in their coming legislative sessions. Some will attempt to curtail that medication access via local pharmacies. This battle is shaping up to be a long one, and it’s just beginning.
18. Tech layoffs aren’t telling the whole story.
On the surface, the numbers coming out of the tech world are brutal. Salesforce recently announced layoffs covering 10 percent of the company. Meta is in the midst of a 13 percent cut. Elon Musk’s Twitter is down to a skeleton staff. Google and Amazon are slashing many thousands of jobs too.
But don’t break out the violins for tech workers yet. There is nothing approaching a recession in the industry. The unemployment rate in Silicon Valley is a mere 2.3 percent, lower than the 3.5 percent national average. California overall, and the Bay Area in particular, are still adding jobs. So is the tech sector, according to the latest analysis.
Large layoffs at giant firms are best seen as a correction to the overly optimistic hiring spree those companies went on during the pandemic, when we needed their services more than ever. There are no signs of a recession in this industry that is increasingly important to the economy as a whole.
What to watch: If the tech giants get a bad rep among engineers for poor planning during this pink-slip parade, they may find it harder to attract talent in the future. When there are an array of intriguing startups, who would want the hassle of working for someone as mercurial as Musk — or any of the other tech titans using workers as pawns in their ongoing battle with organized labor?
19. California got the water it needed.
You didn’t have to live in the Golden State to see the havoc that climate change wrought in January: increased and repeated rounds of storms, leading to flooding and mudslides. Here’s the upside, though: Record levels of rainfall have replenished the reservoirs and built up the all-important snowpack in the Sierras. Gavin Newson’s state will need a lot more water to get out of its years-long statewide megadrought — which, yes, is still ongoing — but the largely unexpected storms have helped make its 2023 outlook more rosy.
What to watch: Billions of gallons of water were still lost from the storms as they headed back to the sea without being captured. California is embarking on a series of new water-capturing projects, but it’s still anyone’s guess whether that will help end the megadrought in the longterm.
20. More artifacts are being returned to their rightful countries.
It began last year with the Benin Bronzes, sculptures that had been seized in Nigeria by British soldiers in 1897 and since dispersed into public and private collections around the world. Germany signed a deal to return 1,100 Benin Bronzes and “right a wrong” from colonial history. That started a groundswell. Museums and universities with Benin Bronzes in the UK, plus the Smithsonian, followed suit; a Houston museum returned a looted sarcophagus to Egypt – and though the British Museum is dithering about its Benin collection, it is at least negotiating with the Greek government about returning the Elgin Marbles.
It’s early days for what is likely to be a multi-decade process of deciding where looted treasures should go, but the museum world’s ethical arrows are starting to point in the right direction.
What to watch: The coronation of King Charles III in May, and specifically whether his Queen Consort Camilla will be wearing a crown with the Koh-i-noor diamond. If so — or even if she shuns it — that attention could raise the temperature on a heated debate about whether the Koh-i-noor should be returned to India (or Pakistan or Afghanistan, which also claim it.)
21. The air is getting cleaner.
In the U.S., in Europe, and yes, even in China, the trend is clear: you can see further and breathe easier with each year that passes. Fine particulate matter pollution has fallen by 41 percent in the U.S. since 1990, saving 370,000 lives a year – which means around 30,000 people this month are not dropping dead from gunk in their lungs). European clean air laws are now saving 700,000 lives a year (58,000 a month) in the same time frame. Meanwhile, China is soaking up its smog so fast (in part by planting a Belgium-sized amount of forest every year) that it has achieved the same percentage reduction as the U.S. – but just in the last 10 years, not 30.
What to watch: Megacities around the world are seeing worsening smog this winter, including Bangkok, Delhi and Mumbai. How bad will it have to get for their governments to take aggressive action?
22. More of the Earth’s non-human inhabitants are safe.
America’s Endangered Species Act turns 50 in 2023; the Center for Biological Diversity says it has saved 291 species so far, and that 80 percent of species on the endangered list are on the road to recovery. Just take a look at the announcements from the first month of the year: a sparrow in San Clemente, a rare butterfly in Oregon, and mussels in Virginia are among species to have officially bounced back from the brink, thanks to biologists (and in some cases, an assist from the Pentagon).
On top of that, a foal was just born to a critically endangered species of horse thanks in part to cloned DNA. Our species preservation know-how is just getting started.
What to watch: Montana, where an out-of-control hunting culture has killed vast numbers of recently delisted wolves – and may be coming for grizzly bears next.
23. AI continues to amuse and outrage — but not threaten creativity.
Finally, let’s look at the future fear du jour, artificial intelligence. January 2023 was prime time for OpenAI’s ChatGPT, which has seen a stunning adoption curve — and just passed the 1 million user mark. OpenAI’s previous and equally controversial product, DALL-E, synthesizes the work of online artists to create all the visuals a user can request. Both have inspired awe, fear, and outrage over their apparent capabilities to create texts and art like a human.
But do those capabilities stand up to scrutiny? Sure, ChatGPT theoretically enables student plagiarism — but it also works as a tool for teachers and professors to help them detect ChatGPT-written homework. Yes, it seems to help professionals write pro forma documents — January saw a flurry of stories about real-estate agents in particular loving it for property listings.
Try to make it write something creative or thoughtful and truthful, and ChatGPT flounders. Use it for a while and you’ll start to get bored by its grade-school story writing skills. You’ll spot more and more of ChatGPT’s alternative facts creep in; one Princeton professor calls the app a “bullshit generator,” and he’s not far from the mark.
What to watch: Two lawsuits targeting AI art apps that are allegedly using copyrighted material in a way that isn’t covered by fair use. A landmark court decision on the topic, whichever way it goes, could make the rest of 2023 very interesting indeed.