This is no time to waste a good crisis
By Benjamin Yeoh
COVID-19 and the climate shine a a light on each other. The virus has shown us that humanity is more fragile than we might wish.
Preventable and predictable surprises, both the virus and climate change are risks that scientists and thinkers such as Bill Gates foresaw. They forecasted the outcomes of a pandemic and proposed measures, but little was done to prepare for them.
Given the perceived polarisation of left-right thinking, it may seem odd that the climate challenge is agreed upon by intellectual thinkers from both the left and right.
Many of the solutions have wide agreement from economists and experts but have been logjammed at the political level. Political reluctance to act is partly driven by the high short-term investment needed, despite the enormous positive pay-offs many years into the future. The pay-offs are beyond the political cycle.
The core barrier is resistance to change and a human love of convenience
The solutions and barriers to the climate and virus crises have similar echoes with interwoven themes: innovation, adaptation and cultural change; performance standards and what economists call ‘pricing externalities’ or what we might describe as ‘paying for pollution’.
Innovation is critical. The end game for COVID-19 will be vaccines. These vaccines will need to be invented. Many organisations across the world both public and private, funded by investors, governments and foundations, are involved in their development. The same holds true for many carbonintense processes.
We will need to electrify much of the economy, innovate with our land use and farming, and find ways of electrifying processes like flying, steel, fertilisers and aluminium which currently have no carbon neutral solutions. Flying might be done with electric engines. Steel could be made via electric arc furnaces. Innovation can make this happen if there is public and political support.
In the meantime effective cultural practices at low cost can have positive impacts. Hand washing and hygiene techniques will cut down on many infectious diseases such as COVID or influenza. Masks, too.
These are cost effective and, while inconvenient, most folk I know would laugh at the view that masks are an affront to liberty. The core barrier here is resistance to change and a human love of convenience.
COVID-19 grants us a chance to reset some of our priorities
Similarly, we find that driving to work, or flying around the world for a meeting are unnecessary at times. We can repair clothes and waste less food. These are win-win decisions which can form part of the solution but, like masks and clean hands, are not vaccines. We will still need invention.
The virus has shown how cultural practices can be highlighted and changed. This is true of many sociocultural movements. The fight for antislavery, for women’s votes, for race and disability equality, these movements all happened against the background of the status quo.
Institutional and cultural change starts with people. In 1931 white Texan Charles Black Jr. heard Louis Armstrong play. On discovering genius in a black man his world pivoted. Charles Black became a critical lawyer in the civil rights movement leading to US racial equality laws. Compelling narratives need telling.
COVID-19 is painful but it has not wiped out humanity. The pain could have been much less if we were prepared. The same applies to climate.
A worst case 2100 scenario of a 4 degree centigrade plus increase is unlikely and a 3 to 4 degree increase – likely on current trajectories – will be painful, but that pain could be so much less.
COVID-19 grants us a chance to reset some of our priorities. The vaccine race has demonstrated some of humanity’s astonishing innovation. The virus has also shone a light on our inequality challenges. Climate is doing the same. COVID-19, like climate, is a predictable risk.
We can and must invest in innovation. Better communication is critical. A narrative around why there is longterm gain in exchange for investment is crucial.
Health standards such as hygiene, like performance standards for vehicles, are important but people will only act together when presented with a strong narrative and education to overcome the hump of status-quo inertia. We will need more adaptation along with mitigation.
Pricing pollution, similar to health economics, is an idea with widespread economist support on both left and right. The carbon fee and dividend proposal is backed by hundreds of economists across the political spectrum. Let’s not waste a good crisis.
The virus has taught us that our way of life is vulnerable. It shows us why we need to invest now, to prevent predictable future risks. Virtually all countries are failing to reduce their carbon emissions.
If we wish we had been more prepared for the pandemic and had placed preventative measures to insure against the worst of it, the same thinking must apply to climate. Today, I sit under the shade of a tree because someone planted a seed 25 years ago. The best time to plant may have been 25 years ago. The next best time is today.
Benjamin Yeoh is a playwright and pension fund manager. He writes in a personal capacity and keeps a blog at thendobetter.com