The coronavirus outbreak is America’s latest wake-up call. The only question is whether, once the current crisis is past, we will once again hit the snooze button.
Our nation has a history of sleeping in. In the years leading up to the Civil War, despite increasing signs that an irrepressible conflict was brewing, few Americans would imagine the enormity of the slaughter to come.
In the 1930s, despite the ever more ominous rumblings from Hitler’s Germany, most Americans were more at ease with the isolationist America First movement than with those who were sounding the alarm. It took Pearl Harbor to get us moving.
All through the 1990s, experts on terrorism were warning us of the dangers to come. Then when Sept. 11 happened, we learned the wrong lesson and were convinced that invading Iraq would solve all our problems.
My point is not to assign blame for these failures, only to illustrate our record of unpreparedness. But history will show that our most grievous inaction is the one that has spanned the last four decades, when warnings about climate change were ignored by politicians, portrayed by a certain novelist as a liberal hoax, and subjected to the spurious arguments of the denialist movement. Meanwhile, most environmentalists were sidetracked by fears about nuclear energy, allowing coal to dominate the electricity generation market for far too long.
The similarities between Covid-19 and climate change are striking. In the current pandemic, proactive measures would have drastically cut the death toll and reduced the dollar cost to billions rather than trillions. Sadly, few wanted to listen to the “alarmists.” Most of us were lulled by commentators who assured us that everything was under control. In a recent coronavirus briefing at the White House, Dr. Deborah Birx said it well: “If you wait till you see it, it’s too late.”
It may be too late to wipe Covid-19 away, but it isn’t too late to make it less bad than if we do nothing. The next few months will be horrible, but the more we persevere in the needed actions, the less bad it will be. When we’re talking about disasters, “less bad” is as good as it gets. The same is true with the climate.
Here are actions that would greatly ameliorate the impacts of climate change, at a cost far below what we will face if we continue to do nothing:
Enact a levy on producers and importers of fossil fuels in proportion to the carbon dioxide emitted when they are burned, and return the proceeds to the American people in equal shares. The fee will drive the economy inexorably toward energy efficiency and carbon-free energy sources, while the dividends will generate millions of new green jobs.
Rebate the fee for carbon that is returned to the ground, and step up efforts to find and implement ways to do this. I’ve proposed fracking with carbon dioxide instead of water, returning carbon to the ground and leaving us with carbon-free hydrogen in place of carbon-containing natural gas. Other options are also being researched.
Expand the agricultural extension program to help farmers adopt practices that can store carbon underground and reduce emissions of the two other major greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide, which are generated by farm animals and fertilizers.
Develop a comprehensive plan to adapt to the changes that will occur even if the above actions are taken. Make sure that this plan does not place unjust burdens on the poor and marginalized people among us, as much of our existing infrastructure does.
Finally, we must relinquish the idea that America can go it alone. If the virus teaches us anything, it is that international cooperation is essential. America can’t solve the climate problem by itself, but we should be leading, not dragging our feet.
A fever is the body’s reaction to infection, making it less habitable to the organisms that have invaded. The thing to remember, though, is that the body does not attack all microorganisms. Those that are not a threat are left alone. Some of them, in fact, are necessary for its healthy functioning. It’s only when they go on the attack that the immune system reacts.
Mother Earth has a fever. It’s getting worse, and we are the cause. Covid-19 is a dress rehearsal for what we can expect from Mother Earth in the coming decades. From her perspective, as long as we keep on with our folly, we are the virus.
John Andrews, a longtime "Guestwords" contributor, is co-group leader of the Long Island East chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby. He lives in Sag Harbor.