Benny Smith is a freshman at Brown University studying Geophysics. He has been involved with climate policy and advocacy for a number of years, having helped start the Rochester Youth Climate Leaders in upstate NY and lobbied for carbon pricing at multiple levels of government. At college, he is involved with a number of environmental groups including Sunrise Brown/RISD and the Environmental Council of Rhode Island (ECRI). Benny also enjoys working on climate science data analysis and computer modeling, and is very interested in the quantitative side of environmental issues. In his free time, he enjoys reading, playing the violin, and going for runs outside. He also has four younger siblings (one of whom is a New York Fellow for Our Climate!).
An interactive version of this image was posted by its creators at Carbon Brief.
A few months ago, I would have laughed at the notion of a total economic shutdown in the United States because of a disease. At a time when so many historically fatal diseases are now easily treatable, it is easy to feel invincible from my first world bubble. Even a week before my University sent us home for the semester, I did not expect the disease to undermine our way of life in the US so fundamentally and so quickly. Now we find ourselves where some countries have been for years, with thousands of people dying because our healthcare system is ill-equipped to deal with the magnitude of the current crisis.
More broadly, the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the fragility and vulnerability of our society to future crises. If a single disease with a fatality rate below 3% can shut down most activity and send the global economy plunging into a recession, what will happen when countless tropical diseases spread to higher latitudes, and when ancient diseases are resurrected from the thawing permafrost? What will happen when the meticulous planning that went into the construction of our largest cities is made obsolete by the rising seas?
The COVID-19 crisis is just a single shock to the system, and it has led to unprecedented economic collapse. But climate change will give us shock after shock after shock, relentlessly for decades and centuries. There’s been a lot of talk of “flattening the curve” of coronavirus cases through social distancing. Unfortunately, the economic and human costs of climate change do not currently look like a nice bell curve, with the damage increasing for a while and then dropping off. Instead, each time climate change reaches a new threshold over the next century, the warming will only accelerate, and the costs will grow exponentially. To some extent, moderate, stopgap measures to reduce emissions can flatten the climate curve and give us more time to adapt. But illustrated in Carbon Brief’s infographic above, the earlier we begin to reduce emissions, the more gradually we can carry out this transition while remaining within 1.5 ℃ of warming. It is critical to remain below this 1.5 ℃ limit, because many of the feedback processes that drive climate change will be out of our control once they are unleashed. The only rational approach is to reduce emissions fast enough to avoid reaching those thresholds in the first place.
Those who say we should just adapt to climate change as it develops, and that mitigation is not worth the economic costs, should take a moment to reflect on our current situation. If there is one lesson to be learned from COVID-19, it is that crises are best solved proactively. The Chinese government’s choice to silence Dr. Li Wenliang, who tried to warn about the virus early on, as well as many other critics, has only made the problem larger and more dangerous. It does not bode well for our future that many in the US government take a similar approach of silencing and denying politically inconvenient science when it comes to issues like climate change.
China and the United States may have botched their initial efforts at containing the Coronavirus, but South Korea offers a model of what can happen when science-based policy is effectively carried out. By catching the problem early and responding with massive testing, South Korea has avoided both the traumas experienced in Italy and the economic turmoil of the United States. Climate change can also be solved in a way that minimizes both economic damage and human suffering, but only if serious efforts to avert catastrophe begin as early as possible.
The world was caught off guard by COVID-19. From Xi Jinping to Donald Trump, too many leaders sought to preserve their own reputations at the expense of the common good by silencing science and painting an unrealistically rosy picture, even as their own citizens were beginning to die of the disease. This need not be a microcosm of the global response to climate change. Climate change is a crisis we can see coming, so let’s take advantage of the opportunity we have to prepare for it. All the technology we need for a carbon-free economy already exists; the only question is whether we have the willpower to put it into place. Let’s learn from the current Coronavirus crisis by moving swiftly to clean energy and a just, sustainable economic system.