Alan S. Miller
Much can be debated about how countries responded to the pandemic catastrophe: the United States perhaps was the worst of all. Yet the development of multiple vaccines in record time by scientists and pharmaceutical companies in several countries has been an extraordinary success — and may prove to be the model for avoiding an even greater climate catastrophe.
Cooperation between government regulators and pharmaceutical companies brought about effective vaccines in a matter of months, a process that under normal circumstances would have taken years. Primarily through billions of dollars in advance orders the governments removed financial risks that would otherwise have prevented private investment. And the risks were real, as is evident from several vaccines that so far appear to be unsuccessful. Perhaps no enterprise other than development of the nuclear bomb at Los Alamos during WWII, a process that took 27 months, is comparable in history. The precedent may be just what the world needs to address climate change and to save the planet from what increasingly appears to be imminent catastrophe.
Lest there be any doubt, without dramatic action the consequences of climate change will be much worse than the pandemic. The planet is approaching tipping points like the melting of Arctic ice and the warming of tundra permafrost, raising sea levels and releasing massive quantities of greenhouse gases — once started, irreversible. Temperatures have already exceeded human tolerance in some parts of the world and will become much hotter. A town in Siberia recorded temperatures above 100 degrees F, a record for anywhere above the Arctic Circle.
The implications of climate change are vastly more consequential than record high temperatures. Changes in the jet stream are already altering weather patterns, ironically, in parts of the Midwest, resulting in record cold. The coral reefs are dying as the oceans warm and shellfish decline due to ocean acidification. Island nations will disappear and tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of people will be forced to migrate. This year broke records for most tropical storms and more severe, slower moving hurricanes are a regular occurrence. Deforestation of the Amazon is accelerating and may convert a massive carbon sink to a grassy plain, making it a net source of greenhouse gas emissions.
The time left to avoid disaster depends partly on the sensitivity of earth systems not fully understood. But scientists increasingly agree we may have only about a 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 7 percent reduction in U.S. emissions due to the pandemic-induced economic shutdown did not prevent an increase in the atmospheric concentration. Worse, in the short-term, reducing fossil fuel combustion will add to warming due to the “unmasking” of sulfates and other pollutants that reflect sunlight.
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.
· First, strong, centralized, government leadership and financial support. Drug companies were supported with billions of dollars and accelerated regulatory approval; climate actions will require much more investment but will return substantial benefits through energy savings, reduced health costs, and job creation.
· Second, a diverse portfolio of technologies and strategies. Without knowing which vaccines would be safe and effective, the smart strategy was to invest in many. Climate change requires even more diverse strategies beginning with the many sectors responsible for energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, from buildings to industry to transportation. Financial support is also needed to enhance resilience, capture and remove CO2 from the atmosphere, and test ways to reflect sunlight and cool the earth.
· Third, government intervention to expedite and facilitate private sector investment to develop, improve, and implement products and services to reduce climate pollutants. Government purchases reduced the risk of developing and testing Covid-19 vaccines, while regulatory procedures were accelerated dramatically. Similar public procurement can accelerate climate friendly technologies and services, with additional favorable fiscal policies and expedited administration of regulations to promote energy efficiency, renewable energy, and resilience measures.
· Fourth, initiatives to promote climate friendly behaviors by individuals as well as business participation. Many of the necessary measures will not be fully effective without behavioral changes. Just as masks and social distancing have been essential for the control of Covid-19, individual decisions about transportation, choice of appliances, and even diet (beef is a large source of GHG emissions) will be critical for an effective response to climate change.
As with the search for a COVID vaccine, the goal from the outset should not be perfection but rather a high degree of efficacy.
The pandemic and climate change have several elements in common, beginning with their global scale, the severity of their consequences, and scientific challenges. The two issues similarly require sacrifice by a large segment of the adult population, in the case of Covid to protect the elderly, while with climate change to preserve the earth for the young and future generations. The response to both has been hindered by anti-science and denialists
There are major differences as well. The most obvious is that despite recent evidence, climate change still lacks the sense of urgency necessary to support dramatic political action equivalent to the threat of death posed by the pandemic. On the other hand, investments to reduce greenhouse gases and enhance resilience can be spread out over a longer period, and in many cases offer other economic and health benefits. For example, methane and black carbon, both potent greenhouse gases, are air pollutants that contribute to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses. Energy efficiency, solar, and wind energy projects employ vast numbers of people (multiples of jobs from coal mining), while improving air quality.
Finally, to be effective, an operation warp speed for climate change needs to be implemented with much greater international coordination than was true of vaccine development. As the U.S. is now responsible for only about 14 percent of GHG emissions, cooperation with China, India, the EU, and the small group of other nations responsible for most global greenhouse gas emissions will be critical. While countries have sought to protect themselves from the virus through isolation and control of their borders, only global cooperation can address climate change.
President-elect Biden has promised that responding to climate change will be a priority from his first day in office. The increasingly dramatic and costly signs that climate change is an existential threat to life on earth justifies a bold response, and to be effective, must be through a collective international response. The U.S. can and should — unlike in the Covid case — provide leadership, but all of us, both as consumers and as citizens, need to do our part.
Alan S. Miller is a consultant on climate finance and policy who has worked on global environmental issues for more than 40 years, including 16 years in the World Bank Group. He is co-author with Durwood Zaelke of the forthcoming book “Cut Super Climate Pollutants, Now!”