By Andrew Chakhoyan, Founder and Managing Partner, Strategic Narrative Consulting.
This article was first published by World Economic Forum on 13 October 2020
COVID-19 has taught us how to flatten curves - now we must apply those lessons to the climate crisis.
We need to prioritise prevention over recovery. Doing so will bring enormous economic and social benefits.
We have the technologies and resources we need to meet this challenge; now it's a matter of allocation and humanity's collective will.
In August 2005, an unprecedented disaster hit the US Gulf Coast. Even though its impact was more localized than the upheaval we are facing now, Hurricane Katrina caused tremendous devastation and suffering. There wasn’t much the Federal Government or the city of New Orleans could do to arrest the storm’s landfall. But the maintenance of levees, investment in water management and early allocation of resources commensurate with the level of risk – that was up to us.
The estimated economic cost of Katrina exceeded $161 billion, or 30 times the budget ($5.5 billion) of the government agency tasked with disaster mitigation. This was one among many warnings the world failed to heed – that averting a highly probable calamity is what we must, by definition, do before the event.
The importance of flattening the curve is the lesson we’ve learned from COVID-19. But what about climate change, sweeping environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity?
Existential risks abound. If there is a silver lining in the present crisis, it is the stark reminder that we must think ahead and come together as one humanity to address them effectively. Getting hit by a catastrophe and then rebuilding is the formula that just isn't going to work on the all-encompassing and sweeping challenge posed by rising temperatures.
Surely, reckoning the precise scale of devastation the warming of our planet will cause, or the total human cost of a coronavirus outbreak – which is far from over – is a fool’s errand. But what’s worse is getting paralyzed by the fear of making a wrong prediction and avoiding a comparative analysis altogether.
To mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19, governments around the world have allocated over $10 trillion. Such prompt and decisive action should be applauded. But there’s got to be some recognition and regret for the preventive measures not taken.
Moody's has estimated the potential economic damage from the rising temperatures caused by carbon emissions at seven times the costs of dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. It is high time to start flattening the curve on an impending climate emergency. And the added bonus is that we could quadruple the returns within a decade. The World Bank has calculated that “$1.8 trillion in investment by 2030 concentrated in five categories – weather warning systems, infrastructure, dry-land farming, mangrove protection and water management – would yield $7.1 trillion in benefits.”
How are we doing, armed with this knowledge? Well, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has estimated that by 2040, our stated policies will deliver an energy mix that – drum roll – will look no different from the one we’ve got now, with coal, natural gas and oil providing most of humanity’s energy needs.
If we had known exactly what was coming a year ahead of the COVID-19 outbreak, would we have accepted that our virus testing or vaccine production capacity remains unchanged? How, then, can we tolerate the current state of affairs with regards to climate policies?
Are we not willing to make sacrifices now to stave off an increasingly inevitable climate calamity? Early in the pandemic, the world understood that our hospitals wouldn’t be able to cope with the exponential growth in cases, so we all worked together to flatten the curve – accepting limitations that would’ve been unthinkable in the pre-COVID world. The parallels with the climate emergency are uncanny. Just like the global healthcare system, our planet won’t be able to bear the ever-accelerating climate pressure being applied by human activity. But if we act with urgency and in concert, we can keep the temperature rise in check and allow our planet the time to heal.
A brilliant new report - Mobilizing for a Zero Carbon America - authored by Saul Griffith and Sam Calisch highlights the economic mobilization of World War II as a germane precedent: “Winning the war for the Allies had a total cost of around 1.5% [of the US'] 1939 GDP. Transitioning to a completely decarbonized energy system probably has a cost closer to just 1% of 2019 GDP of $22 trillion.”
Fighting climate change isn’t just a cost we must bear with gritted teeth. Unlike the pandemic, the decarbonization agenda is a massive opportunity for humanity to thrive and move forward towards an inspiring and achievable goal. The jobs lost in the last six months could be promptly restored if we pursue the green recovery in earnest. Griffith and Calisch estimate that “an aggressive national commitment to electrify all aspects of our economy would create up to 25 million good-paying American jobs over the next 15 years”.
The pandemic and the climate emergency present a clear and imminent threat, but applying the same narrative lens to both would be a mistake. The term 'COVID-19' inspires fear, dread and anxiety. Do you know anyone who is pro-coronavirus? But we can stand united for climate preservation; we can all be pro-green-jobs and pro-electrification. The oppositional essence of the pandemic narrative must be contrasted with the aspirational vision of a bright future in which humanity has come together to tackle its greatest challenge. With the climate crisis, there is a clear path forward. most of the essential technologies already exist, costs are manageable, and it simply comes down to the choices we make today and the political will we can muster.
When asked about life after COVID-19, Bill Gates replied: “I hope that this draws the world together.” I couldn’t agree more. A virus sees no borders, and defeating it one country at a time is neither practical nor cost-efficient. To avoid another Hurricane Katrina or be taken by surprise when the next pandemic hits, we have to prioritize resources for prevention, not recovery. If we fail to learn this lesson from coronavirus, humanity will find itself flattened by the next curve it brings upon itself.