A COVID Inspired Solution to Climate Change?
Much can be debated about how countries responded to the pandemic, the United States perhaps worst of all. Yet Operation Warp Speed has been an extraordinary success — and may prove to be the model for avoiding an even greater climate catastrophe. The program of cooperation between government regulators and pharmaceutical companies, with relatively modest financial support, has been able to bring about effective vaccines in a matter of months — a process that under normal circumstances would have taken years. Final regulatory approval is expected shortly and distribution of at least one and perhaps two vaccines will begin in the United States and the EU by the end of this year. Perhaps no enterprise other than development of the nuclear bomb at Los Alamos during WWII is comparable in American history. The precedent may be just what the world needs to address climate change and to save the planet from what increasingly appears to imminent catastrophe.
Lest there be any doubt, without dramatic action climate change will be much worse than the pandemic. The planet is approaching tipping points like the melting of the permafrost, which will release massive quantities of methane and carbon dioxide — once started, irreversible. Temperatures have already exceeded human tolerance in some parts of the world and will become much hotter. Changes in the jet stream are already changing weather patterns, ironically, in parts of the Midwest, resulting in record cold. The coral reefs are dying as the oceans warm and shellfish are in decline due to acidification. Island nations will disappear and tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of people will be forced to migrate. More severe, slower moving hurricanes are a regular occurrence.
The time left to avoid disaster depends partly on the sensitivity of earth systems not fully understood. But scientists estimate we may have only one decade before multiplying disasters take the planet down an inescapable, bottomless hole. There is no possibility of a climate vaccine — after climate changes occur, its consequences will be irreversible. And there is no straightforward, easily-administered cure. Reducing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, the largest source of warming, can only be done gradually. The gas remains in the atmosphere for centuries, such that even the estimated 9 percent reduction in US emissions due to the pandemic-induced economic shutdown had little effect.
Fortunately, there are other climate pollutants with much shorter atmospheric lifetimes, including methane, primarily released from natural gas leaks and ruminants; black carbon, particles released into the air from incomplete combustion of biomass and fossil fuels; and HFCs, widely used as refrigerants but now being gradually replaced by international agreement.
Due to the gathering climate crisis, a Climate Operation Warp Speed is humanity’s best hope of avoiding existential disaster. It could include several elements modelled on the process adopted to halt the pandemic.
What will it take? A diverse portfolio of technologies and strategies. The program needs to consider safety and efficacy issues, but also include measures to identify and mitigate possible economic dislocation. Besides the invention of governments around the world, the private sector will need to be supported financially and technically to develop, improve, and implement the products and services to reduce climate pollutants generally, but especially the climate super pollutants — methane, black carbon, , and HFCs. As with the search for a COVID vaccine, the goal from the outset should not be perfection but rather a high degree of efficacy.
To this list I would add two additional principles. First, to be effective, a US climate operation warp speed needs to be implemented in cooperation with China, India, the EU, and other nations responsible for most global greenhouse gas emissions. (Many argue the absence of this international cooperation has been a significant omission from the approach to vaccine development). Second, emphasis should be given to individual as well as business participation as many of the necessary measures will not be fully effective without behavioral changes.
A warp speed program for climate has some advantages and disadvantages relative to that for vaccines. The most obvious disadvantage is the absence of the sense of urgency necessary to support dramatic political action equivalent to the threat of death posed by the pandemic. On the other hand, many of the necessary measures need not be costly and even offer other economic and health benefits. For example, both methane and black carbon are air pollutants that contribute to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses. And solar and wind energy employs vast numbers of people, while the very air they breathe is being improved.
President-elect Biden has promised that responding to climate change will be a priority from his first day in office. Many of the necessary actions including massive investment in clean energy remain critical but will not help avoid catastrophe for decades. A Climate Operation Warp Speed focused on reducing short-lived climate pollutants becomes the least expensive, most feasible path forward. Despite all current indications to the contrary, the pandemic may yet prove to be the source of something beneficial to humanity.
Alan S. Miller is a consultant on climate finance and policy. His career has included positions in the Climate Business Department of the International Finance Corporation and teaching on environmental issues at ten universities.