In troubled times, climate change is the 'black elephant'

In troubled times, climate change is the 'black elephant'
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Three historic events are forcing a strategic rethink of national security risks for the next generation. The Trump presidency has accelerated the slow demise of the post-World War II international order dominated by the United States and framed by a binary Cold War with the Soviet Union. The new chapter in geopolitical history will be shaped by great power competition among China, Russia, and the United States coupled with rising aspirations of the rest — the regional powers of Turkey, Iran, India, Brazil and, potentially, South Africa.

The COVID-19 pandemic will also be written in the history books as a forcing event which has unmasked America’s massive inequality, poor public health, and economic insecurity. Just in the past few weeks, the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis and subsequent protests in all 50 states reveal once again systemic racial injustice as America’s original sin. COVID-19 and the George Floyd protests have challenged basic assumptions of American power and leadership in a manner not seen since 1968. Taken together, non-military shocks and great power competition will define America’s place in the world over the next few decades.

Climate change is the new “black elephant,” an obvious, predictable event with enormous consequences. While carbon emissions temporarily dropped during the COVID shutdowns, carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere are at record levels; like “trash in a landfill,” they just keep piling up. The result: the month of May was the hottest month ever recorded.


And yet, the American response to date is anemic.

Policy makers on both sides of the partisan divide are seriously undervaluing and underestimating the impact of climate change on America’s future prosperity and security. To salvage damage to the earth and reset American leadership, America needs a new game plan to monitor, create, and implement new technologies and practices directly aimed at mitigating climate risk.

First, the government has existing surveillance systems that could serve as models to monitor over the horizon climate events. For instance, the National Weather Service has a Climate Prediction Center that helps predict weather events months in advance. The Famine Early Warning System, managed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), tracks and responds to global food supply, market prices, weather events and food insecurity up to nine months in the future. PREDICT, also run by USAID, identifies emerging infectious diseases that could become a threat to human health. Its decentralized architecture is applicable, in part, to climate change. Each of these surveillance systems have become a common good and are foundational for a long-range, highly detailed climate forecasting system.

Second, the government should leverage public capital to unleash private innovation and investment to tackle complex climate problems. The federal government has demonstrated it has the capacity to blunt the costs and risks of diverse challenges. In 2003 during the HIV/AIDS crisis, President George W. Bush launched the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) for HIV/AIDS treatment, prevention, and research. PEPFAR is the largest commitment by any nation to address a single disease in the world to date and is credited with saving over 17 million lives. USAID’s Power Africa, which fosters improved business climates, private sector investment, and sustainable power for millions, is accredited with providing more than 68 million people in sub-Saharan Africa with access to electricity. While the financial markets are beginning to place environmental impact bonds, a form of pay-for-success debt financing in which investors purchase a bond and repayment to investors is linked to the achievement of a desired environmental outcome, the administration can accelerate this type of private innovation. Debt and equity financing coupled with limited government guarantees could unleash global capital designed to drive climate innovations.

Aligning markets, capital and technology, and government objectives toward climate mitigation efforts would be one of the most effective ways to reduce carbon emissions.

Third, the government could jump start a green economy by offering early stage tax credits for those in the private sector that are already accelerating climate technologies and practices. For instance, hundreds of companies are pledging to go net zero carbon, which will require unprecedented investment in the carbon offset marketplace. Connecting these investments to impacts within the offset buyer’s own supply chain (a practice known as carbon insetting) has the potential to grow low carbon technologies or infrastructure. As capital opens opportunities, stakeholders will also demand that companies decommission old, polluting equipment in favor of newer technologies. Tax credits and stakeholder demand could change the cost benefit ratio in favor of low carbon emissions across industries.

Fourth, public-private partnerships could create future-focused jobs while combating climate change. There are ready market opportunities to reduce carbon emissions by advancing the circular economy. Materials like steel, aluminum, plastic, and cement make up one-quarter of global carbon emissions. Using materials more efficiently is a vital lever to reaching climate goals, and could reduce emissions from homes by 80 percent and cars by 70 percent. The U.S. spent decades shipping plastic waste to China for disposal, more than 26 million tons since the 1980s, while promoting virgin plastic based on the abundance of U.S. natural gas supplies. Since China banned plastic waste imports in 2018, the U.S. plastic recycling program has broken down, but an investment in new plastics recycling systems and supporting business models has the potential to create jobs and optimize inefficient logistics systems. Recycling systems could also be advanced for steel, copper, aluminum, as well as the minerals required in clean energy or technology products. The federal government could encourage this circular economy by including recycling standards in its procurement processes.

Finally, in parallel with low-carbon fuels and technologies, the United States has the opportunity to invest in carbon capture innovations, utilization and storage, and removal of carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere while repurposing the carbon for commercial uses. One simple way is through nature-based solutions, using forests, wetlands, and regenerative agriculture to trap and store carbon. These solutions provide a myriad of co-benefits for air, water, and wildlife — but also economic opportunities for eco-tourism and the domestic timber industry. Nature-based solutions should be complemented with technology solutions, such as MIT’s novel carbon capture “battery” that can capture carbon dioxide from a point source, like a power plant, or directly from the air, which can then be used to carbonate soda or to feed plants in greenhouses.

For 75 years, America has prepared for threats from terrorism and Russian aggression, not pandemics and social unrest. Yet, a pandemic brought America to its knees this year, killing over 116,000 people, destroying the economy, and driving millions into unemployment. Amid COVID-19, racial injustice sparked nation-wide protests unseen in generations.

Now, our country faces the known, predictable, and massive threat of climate change, which will catalyze adversaries, re-organize global power structures, and propel a new set of economic winners and losers.


To prepare for this future, the United States can build a global climate change surveillance system, unleash public and private capital to drive innovation, and accelerate climate technologies and resource-efficient practices. Instead, America today is uninterested, unprepared and dismissive of climate risk. The consequences to our nation will be far more grave than COVID-19 and weeks of social protest.

R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former assistant administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw U.S. assistance to all global crises. Follow him on Twitter at @Dave_Harden.

Suzanne Greene manages the Sustainable Supply Chains initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Transportation & Logistics. She collaborates with industry and stakeholders to develop new methods to calculate, report, and offset carbon emissions, improving our understanding of the climate impact of products we use every day. Follow her research group on Twitter @MITSustainChain.