Scale and speed to confront runaway climate change
To avert a full-blown climate catastrophe, global warming must be tackled by deep economy-wide changes and not just, as has been the case thus far, incremental adjustments.
The alarming escalation in climate-related floods and forest fires has not triggered the level of investment needed to reverse carbon emissions, which hit a record high in June 2021. One factor is that unlike COVID-19, where infections are linked directly to fatalities, climate change’s causal relation is indirect, going from higher carbon emissions to rise in temperatures, to extreme floods and fires — and deaths. To marshal vast private and public investments for climate mitigation, public support needs to be generated based on clear knowledge sharing.
To have any chance of success, climate action must occur globally, starting with strong commitments from countries at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November 2021. It is in the interest of the U.S. to exercise leadership in climate knowledge and investment worldwide, setting the direction for others to join and follow. The U.S. has already shown its preparedness to spend big and to lead if the policy priority is high. Most recently, we saw this with President Biden’s America Rescue Plan, which provided COVID-19 relief and the $1.9 trillion stimulus in March. The same resolve must be tapped for an environmental campaign with urgency, especially since expanding green infrastructure tends to take time; funds need to flow, and permits, land acquisition, environmental assessments and legal clearances need to kick in.
The stakes are already high for the big emitters to significantly raise their investments in climate mitigation given their high exposure to disasters. The biggest carbon emitters — China, the U.S., India, Russia, Japan and Germany — are responsible for 60 percent of emissions and must do the heavy lifting on climate investments. By one estimate, around a $6.3 trillion investment is needed globally each year until 2030 to build infrastructure in energy, transport, water and telecommunications. This is a great avenue for going green.
More specifically, the capital investment needed to replace the highly polluting fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy and to keep global temperatures from rising over 1.5 degrees Celsius will be $2.4 trillion a year through 2035. Set against the roughly $20 trillion that was spent in government stimulus in 2020 to tackle the economic impact of COVID-19, this amount of capital investment for clean energy looks modest and doable — if the big polluting nations set their minds to it.
But in sharp contrast to COVID-19, public readiness for a global climate movement is not high yet. Only two-thirds of Americans even believe that global warming is an urgent problem. And there is a clear reluctance to give up oil and gas, the main causes of carbon emissions that are primarily responsible for the spike in global warming. Most people might support a very gradual shift away from fossil fuels, but since the planet is already at a tipping point for irreversible losses, speed and the scale of action will be decisive.
One way to break the information gap is to connect global warming with weather-related disasters in real-time. True, climate change may seem too overarching to be attributed to a specific episode. But the accumulation of evidence worldwide clearly points to climate change as the underlying factor behind the increase in the severity and ferocity of extreme weather events. Since 1960, the world has seen a tenfold increase in extreme hazards of nature, with the deadliest impacts in low-lying coastlines, like the East Coast and highly heat-exposed regions like the West Coast. To inform mindsets, it is vital to connect the dots during catastrophes when public attention is focused on them.
Seeing these connections in real-time will likely foster political and popular support for climate investments, for which public policy must take the lead. The president wants to push through a $3.5 trillion budget to fund a clean energy transition to mitigate climate change. Its components for price and tax incentives for clean energy and electric vehicles, establishing a clean energy standard and the creation of a civilian group to support environmental action are essential measures. Low-emission and resilient infrastructure decisions are needed country-wide to avoid investments being locked into carbon-intensive energy and to encourage the use of renewable fuels.
Market forces alone underperform in situations of extreme conflicts among powerful economic interests as is the case with climate change. That is why decisive government intervention in knowledge and investment is needed, even as business response remains crucial for putting the economy on a low-carbon growth path. The U.S., together with other major economies, has one chance to make the existential fight against climate change a top priority.
Vinod Thomas is a former senior vice president at the World Bank. He is the author of “Climate Change and Natural Disasters.” You can follow him on Twitter: @vthomas14