As 2020 draws to a close, I am cautiously optimistic about strides with the coronavirus pandemic. Case numbers and deaths are still unacceptably horrific. However, this week an FDA panel approved emergency use of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. We now have two vaccines soon to be in circulation. Another glimmer of hope is the rapid evolution of the vaccines in part because of Operation Warp Speed. The nation (and global community) faced an unprecedented threat and a focused, accelerated effort was enacted. Climate change is an immediate threat that calls for a similar or even greater coordinated, urgent response.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services website, the program was designed “to produce and deliver 300 million doses of safe and effective vaccines with the initial doses available by January 2021, as part of a broader strategy to accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics (collectively known as countermeasures).” The timeline for the public, private, and academic partnership can be found at that website, but the greater point is that it illustrates something that we have seen in the past.
When U.S. leaders decided that they wanted to develop an atomic weapon program during the World War II era, the Manhattan Project was aggressively formed. When President John F. Kennedy felt threatened by the Soviet Union’s spacefaring activities, he challenged the nation before a special joint session of Congress in 1961 that the U.S. would go to the moon. The NASA website notes, “The decision involved much consideration before making it public, as well as enormous human efforts and expenditures to make what became Project Apollo a reality by 1969.”
The Manhattan Project and the construction of the Panama Canal were arguably the only comparably-scaled projects to Project Apollo at the time. Big problems require bold actions. The climate crises is a huge problem, and one that will span decades to come. The challenge, however, is perception. It is easier for the public and policymakers to see immediate threats associated with a war or a virus. As the coronavirus pandemic progressed, it was increasingly difficult for most of us not to know someone affected by the virus. It continues to devastate families and place pressure on our economy. Robert Gilford, a noted psychologist, told New York Times writer Beth Gardiner that humans have a tendency to underestimate or downplay problems perceived as creeping (versus immediate), complex, or lacking immediate solutions. Politicians can develop policies or legislation on 2, 4, or 6 year cycles for something like coronavirus that have political benefits for them. The benefits of actions taken on climate change may appear to be far off into the future or about things not relevant to their constituents immediately.
Perception is not reality. Climate change is a “here and now” risk threatening the economy, national security, public health, infrastructure, energy, water supply, and more. In 2020, the U.S. faced multiple “once-in-a-generation” wildfires, and the Atlantic hurricane season yielded 30 named storms (about 12 is normal) of which several rapidly intensified just before landfall. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. experienced 16 individual billion dollar (or more) weather-climate disasters as of data compiled through September 2020. This number, according to CBS News meteorologist Jeff Berardelli, is tied with 2011 and 2017. However, 2020 is likely to be the sole record holder after the entire year is calculated. Studies affirm that extreme weather-climate events today likely have some “DNA” of climate change in them, and there is also more “costly stuff and lives” in the way of them.
One of the more startling findings from 2020 probably did not garner the same level of media coverage as heatwaves, hurricanes, wildfires, flooding, and droughts. A Columbia University study reported that some places on Earth are already exceeding, at times, the temperature ranges of habitability. Earlier this month, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced that 2020 is on track to be one of the three warmest years on record. This is particularly surprising given that it was a La Nina year. A WMO press release noted that, “There is at least a one in five chance of it temporarily exceeding 1.5 °C by 2024.” This is a target number often mentioned in the Paris Agreement as a red flag.
These warming numbers translate to dangerous heatwaves, sea level rise, stronger hurricanes, more intense rainstorms, wildfire activity, and so forth. However, the relevance to people that are not scientists like me include:
- Public health challenges due to extreme heat, vector-borne diseases like viruses in new places, etc
- Pressures on food and gas prices due to drought variability and hurricane activity
- Continued water supply issues in already-stressed regions
- National security and violence threat accelerants
- Vulnerable infrastructure such as roads, dams, bridges, and buildings
- Extreme weather and disproportionate impacts on marginalized and poor communities
- Impacts on Gross Domestic Product (GDP), insurance, investments, and other economic factors.
These things affect our “kitchen table” issues right now as well as our families’ well-being.
The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres framed it in very realistic terms in September. He said, “the climate emergency is a race we are losing, but it is a race we can win.” It is certainly difficult to wrap our heads around the economic and human losses that will accumulate from now into the future. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) did some of the work for us in 2018. They estimated 250,000 additional deaths per year could happen in the 2030 to 2050 timeframe due to stresses associated with heat, climate-related diseases, and malnutrition. As a reference point, over 300,000 people in the U.S. have died from coronavirus in 2020 as of mid-December according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That number is unacceptable, and my heart breaks for each family. The WHO estimates that number of additional deaths annually across the globe for a sustained period due to climate change.
The incoming Biden Administration has signaled that not only dues it listen to scientists. It will act aggressively on climate change. I would love to see an “Earth First” mentality and a coordinated, adequately funded private-public effort on the scale of the Manhattan Project or Apollo mission to tackle climate change. The science and technology are with us, and if it is not, let’s find it.
There is no Plan B planet for us.