“Alarming levels of inaction.” That is what the World Health Organization said Wednesday about the global response to coronavirus.
It is a familiar refrain to anyone who works on climate change, and it is why global efforts to slow down warming offer a cautionary tale for the effort to slow down the pandemic.
“Both demand early aggressive action to minimize loss,” said Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology who was teaching classes remotely this week. “Only in hindsight will we really understand what we gambled on and what we lost by not acting early enough.”
Scientists like Dr. Cobb have, for years, urged world leaders to bend the curve of planet-warming emissions. Instead, emissions have raced upward. Now the consequences are being felt: a three-month-long flood in the Florida Keys, wildfires across a record hot and dry Australia, deadly heat waves in Europe.
Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at New York University, called the virus “climate change on warp speed.”
Why have we not taken climate risks to heart? Politics and psychology play a role.
Change is hard when there’s a powerful industry blocking it. The fossil fuel industry has pushed climate science denial into the public consciousness. It has lobbied against policies that could rein in the emissions of planet-warming gases. And, it has succeeded: The United States, history’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, is the only country in the world to have withdrawn from the Paris accord, designed to stave off the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
On display this week was some of that same disregard for scientific evidence with respect to coronavirus, which prompted an unusually blunt editorial in Science magazine. It called out President Trump for demanding a coronavirus vaccine at a time when his administration had gutted funding for scientific research and repeatedly questioned the fundamentals of science, saying, “you can’t insult science when you don’t like it and then suddenly insist on something that science can’t give on demand.”
Then, there’s human psychology. As with climate change, our collective ability to confront the pandemic is shaped by our brains. We are bad at thinking about tomorrow.
Elke Weber, a behavioral scientist at Princeton University, said that makes climate science, which deals in future probabilities, “hard to process and hard for us to be afraid of.”
“We are evolutionarily wired for taking care of the here and now,” Dr. Weber said. “We are bad at these decisions that require planning for the future.”
That appears to be true even if the future isn’t so far away. The Arctic is on track to be ice-free in summers in 20 years, researchers say, while the Amazon rain forest could turn into a savanna in 50 years.
Here, too, are lessons for our ability to confront the virus. Precisely because we are bad as individuals at thinking about tomorrow, economists and psychologists say it’s all the more important to have leaders enact policies that enable us to protect ourselves against future risk.
For coronavirus, those may be costly now, Dr. Wagner pointed out in a telephone interview, but they yield huge benefits in the not-too-distant future.
“It’s costs today and benefits within days and weeks,” Dr. Wagner said of the needed coronavirus measures. “Even though the time scale is compressed, we still apparently can’t figure out what to do.”
Scientists have repeatedly said that global emissions must be reduced by half over the next decade in order to keep average temperatures from rising to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, from preindustrial levels. A failure to do so is likely to usher in catastrophes as early as 2040, including the inundation of coastlines, worsening wildfires and droughts.
Those warnings don’t spark much policy change. We are not told to do the climate equivalent of coughing into our elbows. We are not discouraged from flying. Instead, sales of sports utility vehicles soar. The Amazon burns so more soy and cattle can be produced.
The dangers of to human life, though, are already being felt. Climate change was linked to a crippling drought around Cape Town in 2018. Heat waves in Western Europe last summer resulted in hundreds of additional deaths, according to government agencies. In England alone, over the course of two months, there were an additional 892 deaths, mostly older people, while in France that number was 1,435.
A study by University of Chicago researchers projected that, by 2100, climate change would kill roughly as many people as the number who die of cancer and infectious disease today. As with the European heat waves, the most vulnerable in society will bear the brunt. “Today’s poor bear a disproportionately high share of the global mortality risks of climate change,” the paper concluded.
But here’s the big unknown: Will the effort to revive the global economy after the pandemic accelerate the emissions of planet-warming gases, rather than avert climate change? That depends on whether the world’s big economies, like China and the United States, use this moment to enact green growth policies or continue to prop up fossil fuel industries.
This was to be a crucial year for global climate goals, with presidents and prime ministers under pressure to get more ambitious about reining in greenhouse gas emissions when they gather for United Nations-led climate talks in Glasgow in November. The United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, has leaned on world leaders to announce more ambitious targets and to end what he called “vast and wasteful subsidies for fossil fuels.”
In a speech this week, Mr. Guterres hinted at another deficit faced by both the health and climate crises.
“In the months ahead, we need to rebuild trust,” he said. “We need to demonstrate that international cooperation is the only way to deliver meaningful results.”
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