11 June 2020
Flattening the carbon curve: lessons from a pandemic for the other existential crisis
Douglas Alexander and Alex Thier
DOUGLAS ALEXANDER and ALEX THIER: Can we get our act together on the climate crisis?
The response to the coronavirus pandemic holds some critical lessons for the other existential crisis facing the planet: climate change.
For years, climate experts and activists have been asking us to recognise the grave threat posed by global warming. As evidence of climate change has grown increasingly grim, calls to global action have grown increasingly loud. Climate marches, school strikes, and extinction rebellions make passionate cases for Green New Deals, an end to hundreds of billions in fossil fuel subsidies, and dramatic investments in renewable energy and emissions-cutting technology.
All to limited effect. The US pulled out of the Paris Agreement. Last year, the second hottest on record, global emissions rose again, and the Saudi state oil company made the largest public offering in history. The arguments against decisive action on climate change range from outright denial to complaints about affordability when more immediate problems beckon. There is much hypothesised about human psychology which makes us unable to react to such a large, longer-term threat, or about democracies and markets only rewarding leaders for short-term gains. Underlying it all is an entrenched global trade and transit system that has fuelled a two-century long industrial boom and rising prosperity, and which is fuelled by carbon.
It is possible, however, that the Covid-19 pandemic has underlined an existential question: can our leaders and our species get their act together on the climate crisis? In a matter of weeks, people, companies, and governments made radical changes to daily life in response to the pandemic. With some exception, the Covid-19 response has shown that, when it really matters, people will sacrifice economic growth, scrap traditions, and take heroic personal risks.
When compared to the life-and-death urgency of this pandemic, the case for action on the climate emergency can seem hopelessly complex. It can be hard to understand the immediate effects of an action, and even harder to answer “What can I do?” in a way that seems significant.
We must, however, try. We draw four key lessons from Covid-19 for how society can mobilise to address the climate crisis, another existential threat facing our populations.
First, we’ve got to flatten the carbon curve.
Key to the pandemic response has been acceptance that while do not yet have a vaccine, we must decrease the rate of infection while getting long-term solutions in place: “flattening the curve”. Global warming is already with us, it is getting worse, and unlike a pandemic, it has no peak. Reducing the worst pollutants out there sooner (eg coal, oil) while preparing for sea-level rise will slow the crisis and reduce the inevitable impacts. Just like the pandemic, the sooner you act, the lower and slower the negative impact will be in the years ahead. The EU recently proposed getting to net-zero emissions by 2040 instead of 2050. This will not end global warming, but flattening the carbon curve in this way will save millions of lives and trillions of dollars and give us more time to find other solutions.
Second, we need global leadership and local action.
International leadership is necessary, but not sufficient, to galvanise us for the fight ahead. Entities like the WHO and the UN Climate forum that produced the Paris agreement are essential to deal with borderless problems, as neither viruses nor droughts respect “sovereignty”. The Covid crisis has highlighted that we must combine global, national, and local efforts to achieve sustainable successes. The most effective efforts have relied on national support to local government, mayors, governors, health workers and grocery clerks, neighbours, and volunteers.
The same is true for the climate emergency. Effective responses require government, the private sector, NGOs, and activists. Yet national level coordination on climate change is often still woefully lacking. We now must be prepared for leaders to miss the forest for the trees on climate change, drawing the wrong lessons from cheaper oil and rising unemployment. A Green Recovery is not only possible but will act as a job creator at a critical time. The UK must stick to its net-zero commitments, and the US must stop its patchwork approach that misses big opportunities for collective response and investment. The US should consider creating a Department of the Environment to bring together the tools of policy and finance to meet the challenge.
Third, prevention will be cheaper than the cure.
In 2015, Bill Gates warned that a lack of preparation for the next pandemic could cost an unimaginable (at the time) $3 trillion in global economic impact. In the wake of the current pandemic, we know now that figure was a substantial underestimate: the US and Europe have already authorised $3 trillion in stimulus, and the worst may be yet to come. The IMF estimates a loss of $10 trillion in global GDP in the next two years alone.
We need to invest in our capacity to respond. As we are seeing with Covid-19, the most adaptive and resilient systems are the ones built prior to crisis. When we let our capabilities atrophy – like the underinvestment in the National Health Service or a closing down of the White House global health security office – we lose critical time and confidence.
Fourth, do not assume common sense even in the face of overwhelming evidence.
The numbers may not lie, but people do. China’s leaders hid the truth about its cases. President Trump denied the severity of the pandemic, calling it a “hoax” and later lied repeatedly about the availability of testing. We have faced decades of denial and inaction around climate change, and dumbfounding evidence about its costs are not moving the needle fast enough. But as we battle over the Covid-19 crisis, once huge and intractable obstacles seem less overwhelming. Is economic growth the only priority for a government? Can we share labour and the fruits of societies’ labour more evenly – from childcare to flexible working to universal basic income? Do we really care for larger offices, cheaper fuel, or a new TV more than our families, homes, parks and communities? The next battle will be for the post-crisis common sense. Learning the right lessons and sharing the right stories could be key to helping us respond effectively to the next crisis.
Douglas Alexander (@D_G_Alexander) is a Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute, King’s College London, and former UK Secretary of State for International Development. Alex Thier (@Thieristan) is a Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a former senior US government official during the Obama administration.