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Applying Coronavirus-style Problem Solving to Climate Change

(Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images)

“It’s by some cruel twist of fate that both the virus and climate change appear to be treatable by the deceleration of society.”

For many environmentalists, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic serves as a wake-up call. Many have compared the dangers of a rapidly warming planet to those of a rapidly spreading infection. Many more have mused on the general mismanagement of a disaster visible from some distance. But most have failed to glean—perhaps—the principal lesson to be drawn from both hazards.

COVID-19 functions not merely as some microcosm of a climate change disaster but as the most pointed criticism of our attempts to avoid it. It highlights glaring hypocrisies in our attitudes towards disaster management and problem-solving in general. And it is in this regard that we stand to free ourselves from such stagnation.

Let us consider the elements of both events. Both consist of hazards. There is an infection leading to respiratory disease in the case of coronavirus. Then, there are the array of secondary hazards caused by a warming climate: rising sea levels, desertification, famine, and the like. For the purpose of this comparison, the extent of both disasters is the linking factor. While the mechanisms of risk are different, their reach across the globe is the same.

Next is our response to the threat. It’s by some cruel twist of fate that both COVID-19 and climate change appear to be treatable by the deceleration of society. With the pandemic, it is known as lockdown: a draconian end to almost all social and economic activity in the name of public health. It is received as a dire sacrifice and is considered by many to be a disaster in its own right; it is accepted, though, with the knowledge that it is temporarya stalling technique to help our institutions cope while a vaccine is developed. Nobody considers lockdown the solution.

Both lockdown and degrowth work by avoiding their respective problems. By reducing contact, lockdown avoids contagion. And, by reducing production, degrowth avoids emissions.

But climate change is different. As with COVID-19 , the problems caused by a warming planet can be slowed by a reduction in human activity. This does not concern social distancing directly but, rather, the productivity impeded as a result of it. In environmental contexts, such decline is known as “degrowth”: an economic theory that aims to reduce ecological damage by ending human expansion. Both lockdown and degrowth work by avoiding their respective problems. By reducing contact, lockdown avoids contagion. And, by reducing production, degrowth avoids emissions. The systems differ once again, but the logic is the same.

So where is the double-standard? It lies in our interpretation of each response. In the case of COVID-19, the halting of civilization is suffered. It is accepted at great cost. However, in the case of climate change, the same economic restrictions are more than just endorsed; they are touted as some utopian ideal. They are not seen as stalling techniques but the final, beautiful, solution. This can be observed in the case of renewable energy systems; such technologies are generally less efficient than fossil-fuels but are favored due to their lack of pollutants. These alternative technologies should be accepted as a grim yet necessary sacrifice to those homes and businesses losing out on power. But they are received as unbridled triumphs.

Such failure of perception can be traced to the sustainability movement. Where degrowth aims to end economic expansion in its entirety, sustainability says it’s possible to maintain a level of development, while conserving nature’s carrying capacity. This is a mistake. As physicist David Deutsch and others have pointed out, nature has never sustained anything. It is an unavoidable fact of biology that environments tend to kill their inhabitants. As such, the notion that the biosphere must be conserved in order for progress to be maintained is fallacious. In reality, the opposite is true: People survive despite their environments.

Such errors have given rise to problem avoidance with regard to climate change. The sustainability fallacy has opened the door to degrees of degrowth that we are unable to close behind us. We have yet to support an outright end to progress, but we are quick to celebrate its obstruction.

This brings us to the next disparity. If degrowth serves as the climate change equivalent of a lockdown (and a lockdown solves nothing in the long run), then what is it that degrowth aims to achieve? Carbon neutrality cannot undo those decades of emissions already behind us, just as a lockdown cannot help those people already infected with COVID-19. Where is the vaccine?

The truth is we already have one. Or at least we could have one. The climate change vaccine is geoengineering: large-scale intervention into the Earth’s natural systems to counteract its hazards. Such technologies are as desirable—and not orders of magnitude less attainable—than an emergency cure. And they are the only active solutions to climate change we have. So why have you never heard of them?

Due to the mistakes listed above, geoengineering solutions do not hold the support of science and the culture at-large. They receive a fraction of the government funding raised in the mere months following the COVID-19 outbreak. They receive lesser still funding than that levied for emissions cuts all across the world. The logic is twisted to the point where many have argued against geoengineering because it could be used to undermine such schemes. However, that exact same reasoning can be applied to vaccine trials undermining lockdown. Luckily for everyone, that is not the case.

The pandemic has found in us an appetite for rapid problem solving sorely missed in our climate emergency.

As of April, over one hundred vaccine projects are underway worldwide. The first clinical trials began only eight weeks after the virus became understood genetically. And in Oxford, the world’s largest recovery study went from proposal to first patient in nine days, prompting one researcher to say: “It will be hard to return to the snail’s pace that has been the norm for setting up clinical trials in the UK, which can sometimes take years.”

So perhaps COVID-19 really is a wake-up call—not to the ruins of human vice, but to one simple miscalibration. The pandemic has found in us an appetite for rapid problem solving sorely missed in our climate emergency. And if such optimism is to be exported to climate change and beyond, then we must first recognize it as a problem like any other. We must do away with problem avoidance and try our hand at a solution.

Tom Hyde is a student at University College London studying for an MSc in Geophysical Hazards.

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