What can the U.S. and international coronavirus pandemic response teach us about the climate crisis? At their core, pandemics and climate change are complex, global collective action problems. They are also increasingly conceptualized as nontraditional, novel domestic security threats as well as threats to international peace and security. COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, has killed more than 900,000 Americans (to date), a figure far exceeding the total number of all U.S. combat-related deaths in World War II and Vietnam. Climate change, too, threatens lives, a point reinforced by the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report issued this week. And the unfolding Ukraine crisis showcases the dangers of over reliance on fossil fuels from authoritarian petrostates. Witness the devastation wrought by wildfires in the western United States. Climate scientists now warn of a “global wildfire crisis.” And both climate change and the pandemic disproportionately harm the poorest and most vulnerable communities.
As the world enters the third year of the coronavirus pandemic, what insights can be gleaned from the crisis as we prepare for a future increasingly defined by climate destabilization and extreme weather? In what follows, I offer four insights emerging from the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Pandemic Response Highlights the Depths of the World’s Carbon Addiction
By one estimate, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions plunged 17 percent at the pandemic’s onset. Overall, global GHG emissions dropped approximately 6 percent in 2020—a welcome respite from decades of unabated emissions growth. Economic growth stalled, travel plummeted and consumption decreased dramatically.
Yet this emissions drop proved to be unsustainable as lockdown fatigue kicked in and economies roared back to life. U.S. and global emissions quickly jumped back to pre-pandemic levels in 2021, and emissions are now on pace to grow even more in 2022. Today, GHG levels are at their highest level in human history—a particularly sobering reality as GHG emissions stay in the atmosphere for years, even decades. Meanwhile, climate scientists have called for “transformational action” to address a growing emissions gap. This equates to a 7.6 percent GHG reduction each year this decade just to have a chance of meeting the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping increases in Earth’s temperatures to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Yet despite a pandemic-driven economic slowdown, the world is well off track to meet this goal.
Climate scientists estimate that exceeding this threshold will lead to the “irreversible loss of the most fragile ecosystems, and crisis after crisis for the most vulnerable people and societies.” Indeed, climate impacts will increasingly threaten lives as the global community adapts and responds to climate change. Indeed, due to rising GHG emissions, climate change is already poised to exacerbate extreme weather, droughts, sea level rise and food insecurity this century. This point was reinforced when the U.S. Army released its ambitious 2022 Climate Strategy, a follow-up to the 2021 National Intelligence Estimate on climate change.
The coronavirus pandemic experience highlights the deep, systemic nature of the world’s collective carbon addiction and the climate mitigation challenge ahead. Behavioral changes (less travel, more telecommuting) can certainly assist in temporarily lowering GHG emissions, but long-term progress continues to be a challenge. It remains to be seen if the world is able to scale its collective “mitigation ambition” to meet this challenge.