The true scale of the climate crisis has been revealed anew by the COVID-19 pandemic: the unprecedented natural experiment of shutting economies all around the world managed to cut daily global emissions of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas most responsible for climate change, by only 25%. And that figure is from April 2020, when governments restricted the activity of roughly 90% of the people in the world and 97% of the global economy. The experiment included shutting China, the world’s factory, and choking off the voracious consumption of the United States and the European Union. And yet, a full three-quarters of daily carbon dioxide pollution continued unabated, embedded in homes, cities and towns, power systems and food supplies, people’s movements, and daily lives—even in quarantine.
This experiment suggests that there is an enormous gap between governmental climate promises—the United Kingdom’s and France’s “net zero pledges” by 2050, or China’s promise to be “carbon neutral” by 2060—and reality. Those national promises, if fulfilled, might keep global warming to just a few degrees Celsius. But the number of pending fossil-fuel projects, if completed, will send average temperatures far beyond that. And if rich, old Norway cannot stop exploring for and producing fossil fuels, what hope for other nations?
Although the COVID-19 pandemic response proves that draconian measures to reduce economic activity cannot push carbon dioxide releases down far enough to keep the world from warming catastrophically, in that alarming realization also lies hope. The world is now free to consider other goals, other means, and other strategies.
Just as disasters waken the world to what has already been happening—the underlying stresses of who is most vulnerable, why they are vulnerable, and how that impacts a family, a community, a polity, and the world—the pandemic has also shown us how to use this information to do more. Combating climate change requires reducing risk, diminishing the toll of disasters, and opening up options for the future, just like the pandemic response.
Americans have been largely left on their own to cope with COVID-19, which gives us something in common with many people around the world working on their own to adapt to a changing climate and mitigate global warming pollution. This localism might seem like a problem. But empowered localism may actually prove to be the right answer to the climate challenge—just as locally appropriate pandemic controls have allowed such disparate places as Taiwan and Vermont to fare far better than their neighbors.
The right answers to a crisis depend on the location. What works to combat climate change in Phoenix may not work in Miami, let alone Lagos. By awarding flexibility and decisionmaking to the people closest to the challenge, cities, towns, and other communities can figure out how best to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to a changing local environment. In such a system, the role of a national government is to set some flexible rules—less carbon, say—and get out of the way.
This kind of localism is about millions of experiments worldwide, each adapted to a specific place and its unique challenges and changes. As those experiments succeed or fail, answers can be shared or further adapted. That goes for businesses too. A thriving marketplace of ideas will help speed solutions—just as it has in the pandemic response.
Localism also frees up individuals to fight as hard as they like for their preferred solution or solutions, though it will require dropping opposition to the solutions favored by others. That may help end the destructive and futile battles within the climate movement over specific methods of carbon reduction, whether that’s electric cars, genetic modification, or nuclear power, to name just a few. Fighting climate change together can help bind communities to each other, rather than tearing them apart by judging each other’s carbon consumption.
Instead of just a few favored technologies, we need lots of experiments. Jet fuel alternatives, better ways to fertilize crops and produce protein, concrete that stores carbon dioxide instead of releasing it, all of these must be further explored. Even the seemingly crazy—liming the ocean, hazing the sky, souping up microbes or plants to capture more carbon—has to be considered so we know what works or not before someone just tries it (again) on their own.
When we start this local journey to restrain global warming, we will be following the pandemic’s road map. The race for vaccines has required multiple trials at speed and scale across the world, leading to a suite of promising candidates, many pursuing very different therapeutic strategies. A globalized, open research system then pulled together and reported on those hundreds of distributed experiments and trials. That’s exactly what the climate crisis requires.
And while scientists and engineers can explore possibilities and offer solutions—see Germany’s BioNTech mRNA vaccine with its lipid nanoparticles—it then takes business to bring those solutions to the world. Solving a pandemic or the climate crisis requires a “both / and” mindset as well as a willingness to work with anyone and everyone.
This type of approach has already happened in solar energy. Scientists discovered electrons jumping within silicon after they were hit by a photon. Engineers built a device to harness this property. The device found high-cost applications in space. Governments including Germany and California subsidized the installation of the tech back on Earth, while subsidized mass manufacturing in China grew to meet the demand. This combination of push and pull has made solar power cheaper and cheaper, until it is now the cheapest form of electricity generation ever, according to the International Energy Agency. Photovoltaics now produce cheaper electricity in India than the fossilized sunshine stored in coal, oil, and natural gas, for example.
While the future could be bright, so far the green recovery from COVID is mostly brown. The choices the world makes in recovering from the pandemic will determine how we all live for the rest of the century. That world remains fossil-fueled at present, and the pandemic has resulted in government bailouts for airlines and oil producers. Now is the time to begin to lock in infrastructure that will prevent greenhouse gas emissions as well as future pandemics. This effort to “future proof” society can include preparing hospital beds and equipment when infection rates are low, and simply capping old oil and gas wells to reduce leaks of greenhouse gases. Can the world pre-build necessary infrastructure for the climate crisis in the same way some countries pre-built manufacturing facilities for vaccines?
It’s important to remember that this future world need not be one of less. Solar panels on a rooftop prepare a home or business for a world of energy abundance, while also protecting them against fluctuations in our giant electric grids.
In fact, those very same solar panels can reconfigure politics as well. Just look at the odd-couple pairings of libertarians and liberals fighting for more solar electricity in numerous states, including Arizona and Georgia. One of the overlooked benefits of cheap energy is that it enables ever more ambitious policy, perhaps making those net zero promises more meaningful than the promises of the past. Learning curves such as the one solar enjoys quickly marshal the forces of the economics in their favor, and policymakers must soon follow, delivering ever more environmental value on top of other benefits.
The COVID-19 response is a preview of how we might respond to climate change. We know what to do. It’s mainly a matter of deployment at speed. Reducing carbon emissions is not rocket science. Still, the climate crisis itself is actually much harder than rocket science—because it requires a complex weave of individual choices and preferences, the needs of the rest of life on this planet, and long-term visions.
And that brings up another parallel. The greatest variable in responding to the pandemic or the climate crisis has never been in the details, such as the effectiveness of masks or pollution controls for greenhouse gases. Nor has it been in the things that are fixed, such as the virus’s intrinsic ability to spread or the planet’s climate sensitivity. The biggest variable in these equations has always been us. What will people do?