Main image: These satellite images show reduced nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels before, during and after China’s New Year holiday for 2019 and 2020. These images reveal less NO2 emitted during the weeks of China’s lockdown. (CREA analysis of NASA OMI satellite data via cbc.ca)
By Hugh Holland
What do COVID-19 and climate change have to do with each other? Quite a bit, it turns out.
- Both are caused and amplified by unintentional gaps in understanding and judgement.
- Both are equal opportunity threats with no respect for race, color, wealth or religion.
- Both are met with initial denial followed by mass panic.
How are they different?
- COVID-19 is fast moving with immediate impact. It was first named by the WHO on Feb. 11, 2020.
- Climate change is slow moving with less immediate but more wide-sweeping impact. It was first named 32 years ago in 1988.
- COVID-19 and other pandemics will impact eight billion people and our economy.
- Climate change will impact eight billion people, our economy, our infrastructure and our environment.
What can we learn from COVID-19 that can help us mitigate climate change?
- Both are complex and wide-reaching threats that require us to follow the best science available rather than unsubstantiated hunches and advice from those with conflicting agendas.
- COVID-19 demonstrates the massive challenge of reducing emissions to target levels. Emissions over China were temporarily reduced only 25 per cent by shutting down their entire economy except for home heating and lighting and emergency services.
- For both, prevention is much cheaper and less disruptive than a cure.
- Solutions to both require a deliberate systematic approach with timing based on realistic projections of accurate data. Neither can be solved overnight, and climate change will take much longer.
- Panic and extremism are not helpful in solving either problem.
- Individual and local hoarding of medical supplies, resources and food is counterproductive to coping with a pandemic.
- Extreme ideas about killing fossil fuels immediately or about extending them indefinitely are both counterproductive to mitigating climate change.
In case you find all of this a bit depressing, let’s talk about what could be done to mitigate both threats.
- Develop a realistic timetable for the transition to clean energy along the lines of the following graph. The hatched area shows a potential energy shortage if the rate of reduction of fossil fuels exceeds the rate of replacement. The many opportunities for carbon absorption must also be an important part of the solution. Like stopping COVID-19, we already know how to do it, but developing public understanding and acceptance, and the political will is the hardest part.
- If we should learn anything from COVID-19 and climate change, it is that we are all in this together. But the continuous ratcheting up of military spending and increasingly destructive weapons is driving nations farther apart. NATO’s annual defense budget is already 10 times Russia’s and five times China’s. American hubris and the resulting pressure to keep increasing the NATO budget, and Trump’s much touted increase of over $100 billion per year to the US defense budget serves only to provoke both Russia and China to increase their military budgets (even though neither Russia or China or even the US can afford it), to tempt all to use their new military toys, to increase the threat of regional wars, and to reduce the ability of every state to cope with the potentially bigger threats of global pandemics and global climate change.
- The Obama administration established a National Pandemic Response Team in 2015, after the 2014 Ebola epidemic. How ironic that Trump fired that Team in 2018 to save money because he thought they had nothing to do, and then he increased military spending by over $100 billion.
- US foreign policy has been a patchwork of some very good and some very questionable actions. No race or country is inherently bad, but some have been provoked into practising bad behavior. The problem with long-standing disputes is that hardly anyone on either side remembers who threw the first stone. They just keep on throwing.
- For example, the US-Iran dispute started in 1953 when Iran elected its first democratic government that tried to get a fair share of the benefits of their large oil reserves. (That should sound familiar to Albertans who are currently selling their oil to the US at a multi-billion-dollar discount.) In response, MI6 and the CIA organized a coup and Iran has been an autocracy ever since. It takes much more courage to try to end a long-standing dispute as Obama did with the Iran nuclear agreement, than to escalate the dispute as Trump has done with disastrous results that will take decades to repair.
- Aggressive action by one side makes it easier for leaders of the opposing side to persuade their population of a need to respond. Instead, NATO could drop the target contribution of NATO countries from 2 per cent of GDP to 1 per cent of GDP and use the $500 billion in annual savings toward global efforts to mitigate future pandemics and climate change. The latest thinking is that to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we need to achieve net-zero emissions (emissions less absorption) by 2050. $500 million per year from now until 2050 could contribute $15 US trillion to that effort. That’s $20,000,000,000,000 Canadian dollars! That will not likely be enough, but when coupled with similar reductions in military spending by Russia and China, and the resulting goodwill, it could well be the single biggest contribution to the mitigation of pandemics and climate change. What else can be cut to find that amount of money? Shelter, food, education, and health care are already underfunded in many countries including the biggest players, the US, Russia, and China.
- Canada could buy one less F35 fighter jet and use the $100 US million in savings to create and maintain the strategic resources needed to deal with the next pandemic virus and / or extreme weather event.
Don’t miss out on Doppler!
Sign up here to receive our email digest with links to our most recent stories.
Local news in your inbox three times per week!