Flatten the curve! Flatten the curve! It has become a rallying cry for dealing with the novel coronavirus across the world. This approach appears to be largely endorsed, being accepted and being acted upon to different degrees in most parts of the world. And, importantly, we can see that it is having the intended effect.
Which makes us, as meteorologists and climate scientists, wonder: Can this approach be used successfully to address our climate change challenge?
There are many similarities between covid-19 and climate change. Both present problems that are global in scale. The detrimental effects of both are faced by everyone, albeit to different degrees. Granted, the time scales for the two problems are different: In the case of the virus, it is measured in weeks and months. For climate change, it is decades to centuries. But the general features are eerily similar. The scientific community generally knows what to do. To flatten the curve for covid-19, we stop transmission by avoiding contact with others (distancing). For climate change, we flatten the curve by limiting the emissions of greenhouse gases.
In both cases, the rationale for action is the same - disaster mitigation. We are buying time to avoid a catastrophe. For the virus, we seek to avoid overwhelming our medical systems. For climate change, we provide time to enable society to manage a hotter world with rising seas and more extreme events. And in both cases, we are using the time to allow societies to adapt. For the virus, we are racing to develop effective treatments and vaccines that will allow us to live in (adapt to) a pandemic-ridden world. For climate change, we are working to develop innovative non-carbon technologies and societal approaches that are cost-effective and suitable. So solving both virus and climate change problems involve mitigation and adaptation: The two strategies are inseparable.
Both issues have latency periods when nothing seems to be happening but are critical to what happens subsequently. For the virus, transmission happens unseen for a few weeks before the spread of disease becomes evident. If we did nothing to prevent the spread a few weeks back, we face the consequences today. If we don't take action today, we can expect the consequences in a few weeks or a month. With our climate, the consequences of past inaction determine what we have today. Just as important, what we do today will determine our future, and the future of our grandchildren and their grandchildren. We have to live today with the consequences of our actions in the past, for both the virus and climate change. The goal in both cases is avoiding the prediction of large-scale effects even when those effects may not be visible at all yet.
For both problems, the time at which we act has significant impact on the amount of action needed and the number of people involved in the action. In countries such as South Korea that took early action against the virus, the number of people infected was much lower and the needed community actions were more modest. The countries that acted more slowly were not able to keep infections at a manageable number, and, consequently, the virus circulated in the general population. As a result, virtually everyone needed to be involved in limiting the spread. For climate change, we know that delaying actions that curb greenhouse gases will only make effects more severe and - in some cases - irreversible. Delayed action will require more costly and extensive responses.
The actions needed are similar. The virus requires action on the part of governments, businesses and individuals. Climate change requires a very similar approach: Government actions, as apparent in the virus, are necessary for directing and enabling society to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Individual action to advocate and support local, state and national action to limit greenhouse gases is essential. Personal commitment to limiting our own carbon footprint is needed as well (e.g., seeking lower-carbon transportation options, eating more plant-based foods, etc.). Businesses are essential players. For the virus, we saw businesses move quickly to remote work, whenever possible. And we are rooting for those businesses working on vaccines and covid-19 treatment drugs to succeed. For climate change, some businesses have taken action to limit their carbon footprint. But much more is needed. The private sector will be key to the development and deployment of more non-carbon technologies.
Of course, there are differences between the virus and climate change. The immediate and dire threats presented by the virus motivated people to act in self-preservation. For climate, the threat is in the future and hard to visualize. It requires us to imagine the threat for future generations and to dwell on the value of making the world a habitable and comfortable environment for our children and their children. (It is worth noting that the people who will face some of the dire consequences of climate change are already on the planet.) In both cases, our confidence in the need to act with urgency is underpinned by decades of science - bolstered by experiences of prior epidemics and environmental issues. We already know we can fight environmental disasters: The whole world agreed in the late 1980s to limit ozone-depleting chemicals. With this global action, we avoided large-scale depletion of the ozone layer and averted more skin cancers, cataracts, etc.
Unfortunately, in both cases, there are skeptics who call for business as usual that hinders flattening the curve. People are pushing to reopen jurisdictions with shelter-in-place orders designed to blunt the spread of the pandemic, just as people say any restriction on carbon emissions is unacceptable. While the focus is often pointed to the legitimacy of the science, one wonders whether the true pushback is related to the perceived costs of action. For the virus, the costs are measured in both monetary and social terms, and they are high and immediate - but so, too, are the consequences of inaction. The economy has been hit hard. And the needed actions have separated people from their friends and extended families, causing stress for many. The costs for climate mitigation are longer-term and, thus, more manageable. However, moving from a carbon-intensive economy to a renewables- and efficiency-enhancement-based economy will mean less profit for some businesses.
Our world is doing a "social experiment" in social distancing, and the lesson learned may be useful for and usable in climate change. A dose of lifestyle change - even with the severe economic, psychological and family impact - is showing that our society can act when the threat is clearly visible and leaders work with common purpose. The same approach is needed to address the not-yet-visible climate change crisis.
If society now "accepts" and acts on the idea of flattening the curve for the virus, can it do the same for climate change? If not, it does not bode well for avoiding the harmful consequences of climate change.
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Ravishankara is a university distinguished professor at Colorado State University and was formerly a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. His research interests include climate change, air quality and ozone layer depletion.
Glackin is the president of the American Meteorological Society. She is a former vice president of weather business solutions at IBM and former deputy under secretary of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.