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COVID-19: A 20/20-vision crystal ball into our climate future

Unlike with COVID, there is no vaccine that can kill climate change.

No Planet B


When the coronavirus pandemic can be claimed to be under control, it is likely to have made some economies retreat a decade and left millions of families in pain for the loss of loved ones, with many more millions enduring health and other consequences for some time to come.

But all this self-inflicted pain is nothing compared to all the damage climate change can cause.

So, perhaps the single silver lining of the pandemic might be that it can be used as the crystal ball that lends its 20/20 vision for us to see how we can avoid the worst of climate change.

Using this crystal ball, we shall:

  • take a look at why the failures that led to the pandemic are the same as the failures leading to a climate catastrophe
  • understand the root causes of these kinds of dynamics
  • envision what some of the solutions might be

The failures

Unlike with COVID, no vaccine can kill climate change. Once triggered — and many believe we already live in the realm of climate changed — there is no way back.

Unlike with COVID, no vaccine can kill climate change.

So far, we are failing miserably as a species because we have been forewarned, yet we are not acting timely and swiftly. In looking at these failures, we can see history about to repeat itself:

  • Government action has been soft and late at best; many governments feel they face a terrible choice: save lives or save the economy.
  • Millions have failed to understand the dynamics of the crisis, how it is likely to unfold and the role we all play; this implies that education is terrible everywhere for the most part and even government officials are not immune to the long tentacles of ignorance.
  • But even experts have failed to be more effective at educating people at all levels, because they have failed to be creative enough to depict and convey data in a way that could effectively wake up and activate more people at all levels; or fully explore and publicly display scenarios that likely will materialize if their warnings are not heeded.
  • In other words, simply conveying that average temperatures will go up and sea level will rise is not enough to open people’s eyes to what can come.

And going back to the economy and "our way of life," if we fail to act in time, once a major climate crisis hits and no amount of money can fix it, we will have shown once more that our system easily breaks down and is ill-equipped to deliver higher levels of prosperity on the dimensions that truly count.

The root causes

Interestingly, the causes underlying the above failures are the same:

  • Humans do not easily grasp complexity.
  • Humans cannot easily evaluate — let alone creatively communicate — risks and opportunities associated with future events that are not yet apparent.
  • Our ability to effectively build a global, collective response requires effective coordination, which in turn requires skilled, informed, critically thinking individuals at all levels of society.

The good news is that, if we overcome No. 1, we can then overcome No. 2, which in turn puts us in a good position to begin to tackle No. 3.

A lesson in exponential complexity

Missile Command is a 1980 video game that shows why a chain-reactive situation, like climate change, needs to be nipped in the bud — swiftly, without hesitation, because it is exponential in nature: If you fail to destroy the missiles dropping from the top of your screen right away, in a few seconds they will start splitting into multiple, independently targeted projectiles; soon, you will be overpowered, ammunition will run out and the cities below will be destroyed. Game over.

Sound familiar?

If you liken the number of falling projectiles to the concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere, you can see that by not addressing their increasing concentration in time, trying to stop GHG’s from reacting with the atmosphere, the ocean and other earth systems and eventually, indirectly, our lives and our livelihoods gets exponentially harder every few periods.

These third-, fourth- and higher-order consequences are not just "possibilities"; they are as real as the fact that, for instance, large-company bankruptcies were up 244 percent in July and August year over year due to the pandemic lockdown, according to investment bank Jefferies. And if this dynamic (bankruptcies overshoot above drastic unemployment increases) is highly probable, then every time a new climate crisis takes place we should expect to see many more over the next several years:

Therefore, the solution to the first root cause is to paint a broad picture of all relevant risks to help everyone "see" complexity. In other words, being able to depict and evaluate potential future climate scenarios is the best thing we can do to keep any potential catastrophic situation from becoming real in the first place.

Evaluating future scenarios

Even though we have been slow to initially take firm steps towards avoiding an involuntary calamity, we still have the opportunity to make better decisions today than we can tomorrow. That is, the worst-case scenario if we were to start today is better than the worst-case scenario if we were to start tomorrow:

That is the value of having options: Paying the cost today so that we can have better alternatives tomorrow is worth it. Delaying that cost one more day reduces our alternatives to get the future we would want — and potentially gives away any control left we might have had in the outcome.

What about enabling global, collective action?

As to our ability to effectively harness a global, coordinated, collective response, putting together a thorough analysis is beyond the scope of these words. But beginning to paint a tangible picture to wake up citizens and government officials will help; for instance:

Can the world take 20 more years like 2020?

The year 2020 has been marred with remarkable climate events: record heat; over 16 meteorological disasters in the United States, with $1 billion-plus losses each; the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record; California fires consuming over 4 million acres, double the 2018 record.

It could take at least 20 years to bring emissions down by 20 percent, which means that these types of events can only get worse. Can the world take 20 more years like 2020?

So, why don’t we use the repulsion this thought makes us feel and put it into action to start pushing our representatives and each other to start defeating climate change now?

Potential solutions

Any tiptoeing around aggressively mitigating climate risks, any lack of a clear political signal that there will be a well-defined plan will only compound the problems for a far longer time horizon than most people can envision.

The good news: We can all help chip away at the root causes by doing the following:

  • Paint clear pictures of all likely risks within the context of a few key scenarios, exploring as far as all plausible third-, fourth- and fifth-order consequences.
  • At least qualitatively, begin to assess the cost and probability of each extreme risk (the cost of inaction) for every scenario.
  • Identify the critical path to avoid a catastrophe in each scenario and calculate the cost of action today.
  • Start publishing and tracking these costs to constantly show that action today is cheaper than action tomorrow.
  • Finally, let’s all start educating people in our spheres of influence, especially if we hold a public- or private-sector leadership position.

This last point is particularly important: given how poorly people in key positions have been handling the pandemic, and how slow they have been at committing to climate change measures, it seems that we ought to start demanding high-level decision-makers successfully complete specialized training before they can be trusted with running large organizations or jurisdictions whose decisions literally can make the difference between life and death. So, the rest of us, regular citizens, also have a role to play.

The deaths and other consequences likely to be caused by future climate disasters are still preventable, so we owe it to everyone likely to be affected to see to it that a climate crisis many times worse than what we have experienced this past year does not occur.

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