If we’ve learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the importance of reducing risk and the real cost in terms of lives lost when action is either half-hearted or poorly implemented. In the months ahead, the world hopes to overcome this pandemic, but solving this immediate catastrophe does not address the fact that a more significant and dangerous crisis lies ahead—climate change.
What can we learn from this COVID-19 experience that can be applied to the way we attack climate change and motivate action in the coming years? Ankit Mishra (Forbes Magazine 4/15/20) describes three hard-learned lessons from COVID-19 that we apply to climate change in Montana:
Scientific facts matter and need to be taken seriously. We must value science and the warnings of scientists when they make projections about horrific but plausible scenarios. Suppressing critical scientific information leads to a failure to mitigate the problem and amplifies negative consequences. Like COVID-19, increased rates of greenhouse gas emissions will overwhelm our capacity to cope with extreme events (e.g., drought, floods, and wildfires).
Climate change will compromise human health; food security and water quality; agricultural sustainability; and political, economic, and social stability. The ripple effects from climate change depend on how quickly we prepare and respond: what are credible sources of information, what mitigation strategies must be instigated, and how we, as Montanans, can adapt to change?
First and foremost, respected scientific assessments, like the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment, need to be regularly updated to address current understanding on topics important to Montana. Broad climate monitoring across Montana is required to provide data necessary for climate-change adaptation. Similarly, technological solutions are needed to develop alternative energy sources, design climate-ready infrastructure, and store carbon. Equally important, we need social science research to understand the human cost.
Delayed response costs lives and hurts the economy. Impacts from COVID-19 occur over days to weeks; whereas those from climate change extend over decades to centuries. Dramatic institutional changes are needed in the next decade to avoid projected impacts due to warming. The less we do now, the more overwhelming will be the consequences later. Will we accept the gravity of climate change and the negative, possibly irreversible, effects before it’s too late?
The response of South Korea to COVID-19 shows the power of open information, public participation, and rapid response, and contrasts with countries that suppressed information and delayed action. Delaying our response to climate change will result in massive economic harm, with estimated global incomes dropping by 23% by the end of the century. Imagine losing three months of your annual salary with no hope of recovery!
Coordinated policy and planning measures are required at all levels. In the face of any crisis, the ultimate role of government is to facilitate appropriate action. COVID-19 has engaged leaders at all levels, and we’ve seen positive outcomes from timely directives.
However, climate-change leadership at global, national, state, and local level is poorly coordinated or lacking. In Montana, the Montana Climate Solution Council has developed proposals for adaptation planning, mitigation strategies, and technological investment. Unfortunately, motivation to address climate change is tied to the cost of fossil fuels; as long as they are cheap, little will get done.
Required actions include carbon fee and dividend legislation; investments in clean power, battery storage, and carbon-capture technologies; incentives for low-carbon buildings and online training for green-economy jobs; and broad educational efforts especially for the generation inheriting this problem.
Although the COVID-19 crisis was not of Montana’s making, we have risen to the challenge and responded in ways that no one could imagine. We can learn from this experience to prepare for climate change.
First, timely and accurate scientific information relevant to Montana is essential; fortunately, our state has the expertise to address this need. Second, our emergency and health services must be ready to protect public health in the face of multiple and changing threats related to extreme heat, wildfire smoke, and vector-borne diseases.
Third, communities must increase their resilience to natural disasters, and government, assisted by non-profits and the private sector, should lead this effort. Fourth, as individuals and organizations, we can greatly reduce carbon consumption by limiting unnecessary travel and waste and increasing energy and water efficiency in our day-to-day life. Climate change demands that each of us examine the cost of our actions and choices, and that everyone does their fair share.
Finally, COVID-19 reminds us that Montana’s extraordinary natural resources, including our clean air and water, are essential for human survival and well-being; they should be protected at all cost.
Cathy Whitlock is Regents Professor of Earth Sciences and Bruce Maxwell is Director of the Montana Institute on Ecosystems at Montana State University. Both are authors of the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment and serve on the Montana Climate Solutions Council.