Coronavirus Response Proves the World Can Act on Climate Change
By Eric Galbraith and Ross Otto
In the past few weeks, governments around the world have enacted dramatic measures to mitigate the threat of COVID-19.
It's too soon to know whether these measures will prove too little to limit mass mortality, or so extreme that they set off economic catastrophe. But what is absolutely clear is that the pandemic response is in stark contrast to the lack of effective action on climate change, despite a number of similarities between the two threats.
The alarms for both COVID-19 and climate change were sounded by experts, well in advance of visible crises. It is easy to forget, but at the time of this writing, the total deaths from COVID-19 are less than 9,000 — it is the terrifying computer model predictions of much larger numbers that have alerted governments to the need for swift action, despite the disruption this is causing to everyday life.
Yet computer models of climate change also predict a steady march of increasing deaths, surpassing 250,000 people per year within two decades from now.
As scientists who have studied climate change and the psychology of decision-making, we find ourselves asking: Why do the government responses to COVID-19 and climate change — which both require making difficult decisions to avert future disasters — differ so dramatically? We suggest four important reasons.
First, COVID-19 is deadly in a way that is frightening on an instinctive, personal level. People react strongly to mortal threats, and although the virus appears to have much lower mortality for otherwise healthy people under 60, those statistics do not quell universal personal safety fears.
The rapid bombardment of vivid detail we receive about infections, overburdened hospitals and deaths further amplifies our personal assessment of risk. Climate change has the potential to end up killing more people than COVID-19 in the long run, but the deaths are one step removed from carbon emissions, appearing instead as an increased frequency of "natural disasters."
And the slow timescale of climate change — an incremental ratcheting up of global temperatures — allows our expectations to continually adjust as the situation gradually worsens. The abstract connections between emissions and these mortal dangers prevents global climate change from achieving the urgency that the virus has, making everyone more reluctant to accept difficult policy choices.
Second, COVID-19 is a new threat that exploded into the global consciousness with obvious urgency while climate change has been on the radar for decades.
The consequences of inaction on COVID-19 loom on a timescale of weeks rather than decades away for climate change — this is not a problem for future generations, but for everyone living now. The slow, creeping awareness of the climate change threat also allowed the parallel development of professional skeptics, funded by the fossil fuel industry, who were amazingly effective at sowing doubt on the science.
There was no time for vested interests to mount similar resistance to COVID-19 policy, so governments seem to be acting on the advice of health professionals for the public good.
Third, officials from groups like the World Health Organization presented coherent and immediately actionable paths to slowing the spread of COVID-19. Governments were given a straightforward priority list of compelling their citizens to wash more, stop touching, reduce travel and go into some degree of isolation.
In contrast, the space of possible solutions to climate change is bewilderingly complex, and these solutions touch on nearly all aspects of modern life.
Even experts don't agree on exactly what is the best way to bring down carbon emissions while minimizing economic damage. This lack of clarity has contributed to confusion and decision paralysis on the part of policymakers.
Ability for Nations to Go It Alone
And, while responses to COVID-19 require close international collaboration about public health directives, travel and borders, individual nations can take effective action to slow the spread of COVID-19 within their own borders. Even the smallest countries, like Singapore, can ensure the safety of their citizens by making an effective local response to COVID-19.
In contrast, stabilizing climate requires all nations to reduce their emissions — going it alone doesn't work. This co-ordination problem may be the toughest hurdle of all when it comes to climate change. There are ideas of how the co-ordination problem could be addressed in stages, but they still require collaboration between an initial group of committed nations.
While the international response to COVID-19 has been criticized, it still gives us hope that strong climate change policy can be achieved if we manage to overcome the psychological handicaps that keep governments complacent.
At this point, the policy changes required to mitigate climate change appear far less disruptive — economically, socially and culturally — than the measures being taken right now to tackle COVID-19.
In fact, carbon dioxide emissions could probably be brought down dramatically through gradual increases in a global carbon price in ways that would be imperceptible in the daily lives of most people.
When the dust of COVID-19 settles, we should look back at this moment as proof that our societies are not enslaved to fate, and find strength in the demonstrated ability of modern societies to react to global emergencies.
Eric Galbraith is a professor of earth system science at McGill University.
Ross Otto is an assistant professor of psychology at McGill University.
Disclosure statements: Eric Galbraith receives funding from the European Research Council. Ross Otto receives funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Social Sciences and Humanities Research, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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