The common fruit fly – which lives one to two months, suggesting insignificance – has changed the world through medical research, leading to eight Nobel prizes in human genetics and disease prevention breakthroughs. Today an even smaller organism, Coronavirus, is changing the world even more significantly.
And confronting it with the same opportunity for breakthroughs as scientists treated fruit flies could hold the key to solving our greatest challenge – climate change.
Of course, all of the coronaviruses’ impacts – sickness, deaths, economic crises – have been negative. But, like the scientists who saw something unique in the fruit fly instead of just an unwelcome pest, coronavirus offers us a unique opportunity: visceral lessons in how to approach future crises, and the horrible costs of not doing so.
First among those lessons is taking authoritative warnings seriously, even when that may result in tough decisions. We have been warned repeatedly over the last decade that a pandemic was an existential threat to our way of life. At the end of 2019, when the late Chinese doctor Li Wenliang first reported his alarm over a coronavirus outbreak, authorities detained him for spreading rumors. If they had acted on his warning, the spread in China would have been less severe.
But by January 21, 2020 China had 278 confirmed cases, other countries had 282, and the World Health Organization issued its first coronavirus advisory. Instead of preparing for the virus’ inevitable spread to the United States, President Donald Trump downplayed the risk, comparing it to a bad case of the flu. Two months later, tens of thousands of Americans have tested positive for the virus and millions more are under shelter-in-place rules, threatening to send the global economy into a devastating tailspin.
Unfortunately, we’ve consistently made these same mistakes of ignoring scientific warnings when dealing with other global crises, especially climate change. Beginning in June 1988, when climate scientist James Hansen warned Congress that global warming had begun, climate scientists’ predictions have repeatedly and increasingly warned of impending crises, and how climate change is accelerating faster than expected – much like the Coronavirus. Sadly, the government response has ranged from non-existent to lacking.
Thirty years after Hansen’s warning, President Trump dismissed an official U.S. government assessment of climate change’s risks in 2018, saying “I don’t believe it.” As temperatures have risen, so too has the cost of inaction. From 1979 to 2017, the cost of global climate change-related disasters has increased 150%, costing $2.25 trillion, with the U.S. bearing the brunt of the financial pain at $945 billion – nearly twice China’s second-highest total of $492 billion.
Fortunately, in the battle against coronavirus, countries like South Korea that embrace science-based health warnings and act decisively are able to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus’ spread to reduce infections and deaths. But when it comes to climate change, despite global accords such as the Paris Agreement, the world is still struggling to act decisively and in unison.
The Trump administration stands out with its rejection of science-based climate change policy, compounding decades of foot dragging by rolling back and undermining Obama administration efforts to rein in and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal, oil, and auto tailpipes. As of the end of 2019, a New York Times analysis identified 95 environmental rules that are being rolled back by the White House.
A key Trump environmental program roll back is expected to be finalized by the end of March. The administration is relaxing the auto greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards that President Obama announced in 2012. The first national program to reduce transportation greenhouse gas emissions, it was based on science, engineering capabilities, business capacities, as well as environmental and health benefits. It would have doubled fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2025, eliminated 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide, and saved consumers $1.7 trillion at the pump. It appeared the U.S. was finally listening to climate scientists.
But in early 2017 with Trump at the helm, the auto industry, amidst several years of record sales and profits, found an opportunity to renege on its commitment to the standards and asked the White House to relax the Obama administration’s standards. After extensive analysis, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s scientists and auto engineers had recently re-affirmed the program. But facts were no longer in control of the process.
The final rule targets the standards for the 2021-2026 period. It is widely expected to pull back the standards to 37 mpg and reduce the annual fuel economy improvement to 1.5%, down from the current 5%.
Here is the rub. Transportation is now the fastest growing sector driving increased U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Even the Obama administration’s standards, which the Trump administration is trying to scale back, were never enough to address this “gorilla in the room.” A landmark study by the National Academy of Science in 2013 calculated that the world’s entire fleet of vehicles in 2025 would have to average around 180 mpg to limit warming to safe levels. As detailed in my book, Driving the Future, if we achieved the original 2025 target and enacted rules to continue the 5% annual improvement curve through 2050, we would only reach 80% of the target required to meet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) earlier target of 2°C target of “safe” warming and the gap will be even greater to reach the new IPCC target of 1.5°C.
The only pathway to reaching the IPCC’s targets is transportation electrification. The administration should abandon the new rules they are developing, leave the current rules in place and begin work on the post 2025 standards. The auto industry has four to five year planning horizons and needs policy certainty. The world needs to avoid the scale of disruptions that climate change will bring – even if the slow pace is deceiving.
The current coronavirus crisis has produced one near-miracle: The bitterly partisan U.S. Congress and federal government are quickly negotiating emergency legislation to deal with the public health and economic crises. Hopefully, reliance on science-based health measures will now guide the country’s approach to combatting coronavirus. And, while the world awaits the worst yet to come in coronavirus infections and deaths, the lessons from this pandemic could result in an approach to bi-partisan, scientifically driven commitment to combat climate change.
Like the seemingly insignificant fruit fly, confronting greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards could produce outsized breakthroughs on climate change. Like the coronavirus, listening to scientific warnings about climate change before it is too late could prevent outsized public health and economic tragedies.
And no, this is not a dream. The reality of global disruption is staring us all in the face. Blinking is not an option.
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