COVID-19 and climate change have multiple similarities. They are both global phenomena that left unmanaged will inflict excruciating human and economic tolls. They also require a similar mix of approaches to solve: international cooperation, innovation, governmental investment, rapid deployment of solutions, and acceptance of the science that underlies the risks. But they have one more similarity that attracts less attention: they both require one generation to change behavior in support of another.
For COVID-19, we ask schoolchildren to wear masks all day in socially-distant classrooms or endure endless hours of staring at screens on computers, phones, or tablets for virtual classes without social stimulation with their friends. Even worse, some children may be stuck in unsafe, abusive home environments. The risk of death or hospitalization for children is relatively lower, so ultimately their sacrifice is to protect older generations including their teachers, parents, and grandparents. The sacrifices made for COVID-19 have also been inequitable, with communities of color disproportionately at risk. The burden from COVID-19 on younger generations has been heavy.
For climate change, society is asking older generations—today’s decisionmakers—to build better infrastructure for tomorrow and to change our energy and land use patterns today to reduce and reverse emissions on behalf of schoolchildren and future generations that haven’t been born yet. But unlike the schoolchildren who are sacrificing to protect older generations, the older generations do not seem willing to reciprocate. Rather, today’s leaders put up a fight and resist the necessary changes. Doing so has delayed effective action by decades, inflicting more harm, which again often falls disproportionately on marginalized communities. Delay also increases the cost of responding to climate change. And since carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years, delaying action on climate change isn’t just about today’s children, it affects generations of humanity to follow.
We have seen with COVID-19 that innovation (for example to make new vaccines), rapid implementation of solutions (rolling those vaccines out to the public), and government investment (testing, economic support to people and businesses, vaccination and procurement) does a lot to boost capacity, reduce risk to human life, and open up the economy. Similar responses will be needed for climate change. One difference is the immediacy: COVID-19 infections can lead to hospitalization or death in a matter of weeks or months, whereas the worst of impacts from climate change occur as human-caused greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere over time.
While the impacts of climate change are being felt today, the scope and scale of future damages largely depend on the amount of future greenhouse gases we produce.
While the impacts of climate change are being felt today, the scope and scale of future damages largely depend on the amount of future greenhouse gases we produce. Bending the emissions curve to zero requires actions now to mitigate future damages. That time delay disconnects those who must act (today’s decisionmakers) from those who suffer the most from inaction (younger people or children who haven’t been born yet).
It’s now time to deploy the same level of effort on addressing climate change. We need support to encourage innovation across the public and private sectors to continue the cost declines of zero-carbon electricity, energy storage, and clean manufacturing. We need rapid implementation of solutions to make homes and businesses more efficient and to build clean and equitable infrastructure. And we need support for government investment—a lot of it. The federal government (finally) used its authority under the Defense Production Act to address supply chain issues for COVID-19. It can also be used for parts of the clean tech supply chain. The government’s procurement power is large, whether for vaccines or for electric vehicles in its postal fleet. The sacrifices needed for COVID-19 have been extraordinary, and successful. The sacrifices needed for tackling climate change mostly involve a willingness to consider a different suite of energy options and voicing a preference for a clean and just transition to our elected representatives at all levels of government.
If the last 20 years of delay and denial are a useful indicator, that means Generation X and the Baby Boomers are not willing to look out for the future with the same care as they expect, and are receiving, from younger generations right now. The kids are doing their part for COVID-19. Let’s now do ours, and act on climate change.
Michael E. Webber is the Josey Centennial professor of Energy Resources at the University of Texas at Austin and chief science and technology officer at ENGIE based in Paris, France. Constantine Samaras is the director of the Center for Engineering and Resilience for Climate Adaptation at Carnegie Mellon University and an adjunct senior researcher at the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on The Hill on May 14, 2021. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.