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The Covid-19 outbreak, and the horrendous scale of its impact, was an unforeseeable “black swan” event. Right now, the imperative is to fast-track packages and policies that help to fight the health crisis, protect the vulnerable, and pave the way to restarting our economies once the pandemic is past its peak. That also will be the moment for governments, scientists and the public to pause, take stock of lessons learned and introduce plans to make societies more resilient and better able to cope with possible future pandemics.
But we risk ignoring a far greater challenge to civilisation, namely climate change. And that is decidedly not a “black swan” issue, given that the scientific early-warning bells have been ringing, increasingly loudly, for years.
As in any emergency, time is of the essence. Without speedy intervention now, climate change could harm the lives and livelihoods of billions of people, put countless communities at grave risk, threaten the very existence of coastal cities and small island states, and trigger damage affecting generations to come. Global warming, and environmental change generally, is also set to increase the risk of old diseases re-emerging and current illnesses like malaria spreading geographically. New health threats could also emerge — the Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia in the late 1990s being a case in point.
Fortunately, we already know what we need to do to address climate change and create a better, more sustainable world. If we act on that knowledge, our societies would be as economically productive as they are today, but with new kinds of green jobs, cleaner air, healthier oceans, less polluted communities and perhaps greater social justice.
Tackling climate change (and other global and national threats) requires an approach that rejects the divisive narrowness of “me, my interests and my country first” in favour of a larger “us” united by our shared interest and common cause: survival. More concretely, scientists argue that we should limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C in order to avoid more frequent and harmful extreme weather events, and to protect natural systems like coral reefs and tropical forests like the Amazon.
Thanks to the 2015 Paris climate agreement, the world has a roadmap for achieving a low-carbon future. Almost every country has a national plan under which rich countries need to provide support to poorer ones, and governments ratchet up their climate efforts over time. The ambitious goal is to achieve, by 2050, a “net-zero” world that can look itself in the eye and say, “We did it.”
The Covid-19 pandemic underlines the fact that we are all in this together: no country is immune from major global threats.
And the same solidarity between countries and their people is needed to address the even greater risk of climate change.There are reasons to be optimistic. Clean energy capacity such as wind and solar is doubling every 5.5 years, if not faster, and the electrification of transportation is underway.
Meanwhile, thousands of cities under the umbrella of alliances such as ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability and C40 Cities have adopted ambitious emission-reduction targets. More than 800 global companies have set similar goals in line with the climate-science consensus, and over US$30 trillion ($42.7 trillion) of investment has been pledged to support a low-carbon economy.
But we are still behind the curve in a range of sectors. For example, the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction estimates that the way we build and operate our homes and workplaces accounts for almost 40 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.
Whereas scientists can often rapidly develop a vaccine against a disease, we will not cure the climate change problem if we only partly address it. The next few years will be critical, starting with the COP26 climate conference — postponed to 2021 in light of Covid-19 — which comes more than five years after the landmark Paris summit. It is vital that the vast majority of governments, supported by a critical mass of local authorities, businesses and NGOs, step up their climate ambition at this year’s gathering.
As citizens, meanwhile, we should urge our governments to do the right thing by tackling global warming at speed and scale. And once the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic is over, we must come together in our workplaces, communities and homes to support the realisation of a healthier and climate-safe future. In that way, we can make 2020 a year to remember and for good reason too.
Dirk Messner is president of the German Environment Agency; Nick Nuttall is a former spokesperson for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and a director of the Earth Day Network.
This story first appeared in the May 2020 issue of A Magazine.