Given the global obsession with protecting ourselves and our loved ones from the pandemic, it might seem inappropriate to mention climate change at this time. But April 22 was Earth Day, so let’s talk about what the pandemic can tell us about preventing climate change.
First, listen to the experts. That doesn’t mean listen to them only when catastrophe is hitting you in the face. That’s too late. Listen to them when they tell you how to prevent it (i.e., BEFORE it happens), and how to prepare for what you can’t prevent. Although climate change impacts are already happening, much worse impacts can be avoided if we listen to the experts, and act on
Second, climate change will be as disruptive as this pandemic, but in a different sort of way. It will manifest as a series of increasingly severe catastrophes over decades to centuries, but it will not return to normal. Because what is normal is changing as the Earth warms.
Third, we can reduce the severity of the impacts by “flattening the curve.” In the case of climate change, it’s the curve of carbon emissions, which must be reduced to a small fraction of present emissions to arrest the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Fourth, flattening the curve can only be accomplished if we all work together. In the case of the pandemic, the young as well as everyone else must change their behavior to protect the old; for climate change, the old must also support climate solutions to protect the future of the young.
Fifth, government intervention is essential to reduce the severity of the disaster and to compensate victims of it. For the pandemic, governments have ordered everyone to shelter in place and practice social distancing to inhibit transmission. They are providing economic relief for those impacted by the social action and are driving the production and distribution of medical supplies and the development of treatments and cures. For climate change, governments can set policies that incentivize reductions in emissions, and they can use revenue from those incentives to provide economic relief to victims of climate change.
Sixth, the large reduction in fossil fuel use due to efforts to mitigate both calamities has substantial co-benefits to air quality and human health. The New York Times reports that COVID-19 patients in areas with lower levels of pollution are less likely to die than patients in dirtier areas. This pandemic is giving the world a taste of how much cleaner the air will be when fossil fuels are permanently replaced to prevent future climate change. Improved air quality will improve human health.
Seventh, people are willing to accept substantial deliberate hardship to prevent greater consequences. The enormous economic impact of the pandemic is mostly the result of decisions to close businesses to prevent more deaths. If people are willing to comply with those decisions, why wouldn’t they also support decisions to reduce the greenhouse emissions driving climate change? Given the competitive costs of carbon free energy and transportation, those decisions will prevent far more economic damage and human suffering than they will cost.
It would have been better if we as a society had already learned these lessons and were well on our way to reducing the emissions driving global warming. But since we haven’t, let’s use the pandemic as a springboard to implementation of effective climate policies that prevent chronic economic damage and human suffering, at a cost that we now know we are willing to pay.