When COVID-19 exploded out of Wuhan, different countries reacted in different ways. Countries which had experienced either SARS, MERS, or the last major round of H1N1 Avian Flu swung into action quickly, aware of the importance of early speed. They slammed their borders shut and went all-out to establish testing, tracing and quarantine regimes when there were still only a handful of cases.
Masks were quickly adopted and, depending on the country, different types and degrees of social distancing were deployed. As a result, these countries were spared most of the ravages of COVID in 2020. Singapore, for example, has had just one COVID death in the past two months—an elderly woman with cancer and heart disease—and has had a total of 31 COVID deaths to date. The US, as we know, took a different path, and is closing in on 600,000 confirmed COVID deaths and millions of Long COVID cases. The Atlanta metro area, about the same size as Singapore, has had 8,663 deaths so far.
The US did, however, throw massive resources at vaccine development, which helped to bring the radically effective mRNA vaccines to market in an astonishingly brief time. As I write this, we are still averaging over 50,000 confirmed new cases/day, despite having injected nearly 250 million vaccine doses and fully vaccinated nearly 100 million people.
So the question is, will the lessons offered by COVID (for which the tuition is being paid in lives lost and impaired) help us fashion a better response to the climate emergency? What might those lessons be? Can we learn them?
The most obvious lesson is that when responding to an exponentially growing threat, time is precious: a successful response will seem too big and too fast at first.
Although the climate emergency is not caused by a virus, it does have accelerators with exponential-like effects, generally described as tipping points. For example, what if methane released from the permafrost or the seabed by warming temperatures accelerates the release of additional methane, creating a runaway rise in global temperature? What if fires and warmer, dryer air reduce the ability of the northern boreal forests to absorb CO2, leading to further warming and more fires? What if Antarctica begins to irreversibly melt? Or even just Greenland? What if the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Current (which includes the Gulf Stream) drifts to a stop? What if it gets too hot for human habitation in a band around the globe where a billion people currently live, turning them all into climate refugees heading north?
The possibility of irreversible tipping points suggests that waiting until beyond the last minute to respond to the climate emergency may get a lot of us killed, and may push many institutions, including some national governments, past the breaking point. Even if we respond fast enough to stave off a tipping point, we may still respond at too small a scale to avoid a pretty miserable millennium or so.
Why did we respond so slowly, when we had the clear example of the benefits of rapid response on display? In a word, polarization. Polarization wastes time prodigiously by grinding progress to a halt, and replacing a scientific search for solutions with something akin to a religious war. If we can’t learn how to depolarize in the face of a threat with the immediacy of COVID, our chances against the slow-building climate crisis won’t be great.
Climate authors are currently divided on how likely we are as a species to proactively deflect the worst of the climate emergency. The congenitally optimistic Bill Gates (divorce notwithstanding), in his recent book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and The Breakthroughs We Need, is clear-eyed about the scale of the problem, and focuses on gaming out how we can succeed over the next 30 years. He does a great job of identifying and quantifying the major categories of greenhouse gas producers, and parses both available and still-to-be-invented solutions.
He writes at a level that a curious middle-schooler could read (major kudos for this!), and reiterates his belief that we can solve this problem, even though by doing so we’ll be solving the biggest, baddest problem humanity has ever faced. You get the feeling that if the earth was a company and Mr. Gates was the CEO, we’d end up with a workable Version 3.1 Climate Operating System just in the nick of time, generating awesome royalty income.
Gates has some recently-updated cred behind his optimism: he sounded insanely optimistic in early 2020 that we’d have a COVID vaccine by the end of that year, and to the astonishment of many well-informed scientists and health policy experts, he was right. Still, zeroing out our carbon contribution to the atmosphere while providing a lot more energy to a lot more people is orders-of-magnitude more complex.
Nevertheless, Gates is not the only optimist: Bill McKibben, in his New York Times review of Gates’ book, argues that Gates underestimates the rate at which the prices of installed wind, solar, and batteries are falling, thereby understating how fast we can knock down the problem. Other optimists include Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, two principals in the creation of the 2015 Paris Accord, have published a call-to-action titled The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist’s Guide to the Climate Crisis.
Like Gates, they don’t shy away from the scale of the problem but, also like Gates, they charge right into proposed solutions. Where Gates focuses on the physical problems (chemistry, biology, engineering, and so forth), they focus on appeals for personal transformation with chapters such as “Who We Choose to Be” and “Let Go of the Old World.”
Near the other end of the spectrum are writers who argue that we are kidding ourselves if we believe that humanity is going to rise above itself in time to wrench the entire species off the road to climate perdition before things get irredeemably worse. The poet laureate of the darker (not darkest) side is David Wallace-Wells, whose beautifully written Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming posits that our situation is already dire, and the only questions worth considering are how much we will do and how fast we will do it in order to make the best of a bad future.
The answers to those questions will determine what life is like in the future, but the available options don’t include life as we have known it. There are even bleaker views than Wallace-Wells’, akin to views heard in Paris in 1939, arguing for drinking the champagne now before the Nazis arrive to drink it themselves.
In between the optimists and the fatalists sits the prolific Vaclav Smil (a Gates favorite), who argues in Grand Transitions: How the Modern World Was Made that the scale of the required change is so immense that all the aggressive goal-setting in the world can’t accelerate it beyond a certain rate, and it will take most of this century to reverse course, even with the greatest effort. He believes that the worst-case scenarios are less likely than the fatalists believe, and the best-case scenarios are beyond our ability to achieve by the dates where many stakes have been put in the ground, but we’ll get there eventually.
The polarization that hamstrung our response to COVID continues to be a problem. It’s hard to imagine a more ridiculous partisan divide than one over wearing face masks in the teeth of a pandemic, yet that’s what we had, reprised over vaccination. Even now, close to 30% of American adults are saying “no” to COVID vaccination, most often for ideological reasons. The consequences of similar polar wars over responses to the climate emergency could be far worse than the consequences of our COVID standoff.
In Climate Change and the Nation State: The Case for Nationalism in a Warming World, Anatol Lieven proposes that a global revival of “civic nationalism” might be the only force strong enough to motivate behavioral changes on the scale required to avert the worst-case climate scenarios. He argues that if we can’t overcome our current polarized, politicized response to the climate emergency (in many countries, not just the US), we’ll treat ourselves to something worse than the COVID pandemic, from which full recovery may not be possible for a very long time.
Nationalism is a potentially dangerous force, but Lieven believes it’s worth the risks in order to bring its potency to bear on the intractable climate crisis. He addresses much of his argument to his friends on the left, begging them not to make nationalistic unity impossible by their scathing condescension to the right and insistence on achieving every progressive goal at once. He argues for a version of the Green New Deal that addresses the linkages between climate, economy and society, but is adapted to maximize long-term unity under the banner of civic nationalism, which means streamlining out some treasured progressive goals and language.
My greatest personal concern is that Bill Gates (my long-ago boss) and other techno-optimists underestimate the extent to which a large swath of the global public, especially in the rich nations, has turned against credentialed experts, including not only scientists, but the whole 20% of the population that seems to have all the power and most of the wealth these days—the mature meritocracy which has turned itself into a self-serving, self-perpetuating caste.
This caste, bemoaned by Richard V. Reeves in The Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust and What To Do About It and Michael J. Sandel in The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of The Common Good? (among others) has achieved a lot over the past 50 years, but it has also created a world in which everybody outside this group feels less secure, less respected, and less socioeconomically mobile.
The elite caste takes extra-special care of its members and their children, leaving the other 80% believing that the upward mobility ladders are now out of reach. Since nearly all journalists and others with any kind of leveraged media platform are inside this bubble, they are somewhat blind to it, and hence so are the rest of us.
The frustration felt by those voted off the elite island has been effectively tapped by Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi and other authoritarian populists around the world. The resentment they encourage is a huge threat to our ability to save ourselves from our manmade climate disaster. In Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason, William Davies argues that we are living through the end of the Enlightenment, as partisans successfully persuade many people that scientific experts are also partisans, and their data is not objective, it’s merely another type of partisan opinion.
Non-bubblers who are fed up with bubble-heads take a certain pleasure in resisting elite calls for public cooperation, because they enjoy seeing elites stressed out by problems beyond their control. There’s a certain “welcome to my world” aspect to this attitude; if you live outside the bubble, you’re always at risk of being jacked around by forces beyond your control: globalization, financial crises, and other by-products of the elites serving themselves.
I’m sympathetic to Lieven’s argument that national unity is worth pursuing, but I fear it won’t be enough, unless we simultaneously address the bubble/non-bubble stand-off. The stand-off fuels the extreme ideological polarization now gripping us. If people are willing to risk death or Long COVID right now to stay true to their ideology, how much more willing will they be to risk the possible costs to themselves of a climate crisis sometime in the hazy future?
My fellow bubble-heads, we need to move beyond social media fulmination at the “idiots” who won’t get vaccinated and understand that their motivated reasoning makes as much sense to them as our motivated reasoning makes to us. If we can’t begin to undo the caustic consequences of our bubble-hood, the polarization which is currently threatening our ability to escape the pandemic will similarly threaten our ability to escape a climate disaster of far greater import.