Think the pandemic is bad? We're setting ourselves up for a lot worse

Think the pandemic is bad? We're setting ourselves up for a lot worse
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Right now, about a thousand Americans are dying each day from COVID-19 and millions are unemployed.

Despite all of this, we in the United States cannot seem to organize ourselves to take the simple steps needed to control the virus. We know what needs to be done because we’ve seen other countries do it successfully. What we lack is competence and will. 

We need to do a lot better than this if we want to have a chance of stopping climate change. 

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Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from every sector of the economy — agriculture, transportation, buildings, industry and energy, to name a few. In order to stop climate change, which is driven by GHGs, we need to decarbonize all of these sectors. A recent analysis by McKinsey and Company outlines the societal transformations necessary to accomplish this — the challenge is daunting.

But what is at stake is nothing less than the preservation of a habitable planet.

If that sounds like hyperbole, consider that recent studies show that in parts of the world, a threshold of heat and humidity that is deadly to otherwise healthy humans — even when sitting in the shade with a breeze — has recently been exceeded. We had never seen this before, but research shows that in coming decades this deadly heat and humidity will become much more frequent. 

The heat is far from the only risk from climate change. We’re already becoming all too familiar with some of the others: turbocharged hurricanes and wildfire, more frequent floods, increased water scarcity and more. There will be no vaccine for these scourges, which already kill over 150,000 people each year and cost billions of dollars. 

Though terrible, these disasters are not the worst possible consequence of climate change. That, in my view, is the possibility of strong “biotic feedbacks” to warming. Meaning simply that on a warming planet, nature itself starts to release greenhouse gases, adding to those emitted by humans. Probably the most dangerous natural emitter is thawing Arctic permafrost, which holds twice as much carbon as there is in the atmosphere. To make matters worse, oceans, which have sucked up about a third of human emissions, seem to absorb carbon dioxide less efficiently as they warm. The same is likely true of vegetation and soils. What’s worrisome about biotic emissions is that they can feed on themselves — warming drives emissions, which drive more warming, which drives more emissions, and so on. Simply put, the warming feeds the warming.

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What is terrifying is the possibility that this “natural” amplification of climate change could become impossible to control. Stopping human greenhouse emissions is certainly challenging, both politically and technically, but ultimately, it is something we control. In the eventuality of strong biotic emissions of greenhouse gases, we might lose the ability to determine our destiny.

Out-of-control climate change may seem like a science fiction nightmare, but geological evidence clearly indicates that massive biotic emissions of carbon occurred during warm periods in the distant past. We cannot say with great confidence how large biotic emissions might become in the future and, for that reason, they have not been included in most climate models or carbon budgets. But we do know that these emissions are already happening and they will only get worse as the planet continues to warm. We can’t wait for perfect scientific certainty before acting — the risks are too great. We desperately need to stop man-made emissions — “flatten the curve” — not only to limit the risks we’re experiencing now, but to make sure that biotic feedbacks don’t become impossible to stop. 

This isn’t good news and no one wants to hear that achieving a stable and livable climate might be even harder than we already think. When it comes to stopping climate change, though, we’re basically shut down. If we want hope, we need to wake up and act.

First, we need to make and execute a plan to eliminate all human emissions of greenhouse gases — the driver of warming, which we directly control. Second, we need to clarify the science around biotic feedbacks to climate change — and make sure it is taken into account in our climate policies. There is no question with more importance for the future of humanity. If we find that nature will emit a large amount of carbon into the atmosphere in a planet that is warmer by 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius, then we need to figure out how to capture and bury that amount of carbon to keep the climate stable. 

If our recent experience with COVID-19 teaches us anything, it is that policies need to be based on science rather than wishful thinking. Perhaps, ironically, the economic devastation from the pandemic may be just the opportunity we need to initiate meaningful climate policies. The need for massive economic stimulus is an opening to start the transformation process — to begin building a vigorous, sustainable, low-carbon economy. 


This is a moment to catalyze change. Past disease epidemics have radically altered social and political systems and shifted the course of history. The Bubonic Plague helped to bring an end to feudalism; the 1918 influenza pandemic reshaped health care. Let’s use today’s health and economic crisis to accelerate the necessary transition to a low-carbon economy. Ignoring science on COVID-19 hasn’t worked well and it won’t work well on climate change, either.

Philip B. Duffy, Ph.D., is the president and executive director of the Woodwell Climate Research Center. Follow the organization on Twitter @WoodwellClimate.