It took me a long time to write this book, in large part because it took me a long time to see the possibility of any chance of a good outcome. I still remember early advice I got from a poet friend — it won’t work unless you make it a love story. I didn’t want to add to the litany of climate change books that end with doom, or even worse, the many that espoused hopeful answers without a concrete demonstration of how it would all work together and what it would cost. So, I have three or four half-finished starts to this book dating back to 2008. Friends and colleagues have finished books4 and some have sadly died5 since I started writing these materials.
Just as I was completing the final chapters of this book and feel- ing good about it, the coronavirus, COVID–19, pandemic happened. The simple story that America is good at emergencies and can fix climate change was no longer so simple. America, and the world, fumbled the COVID–19 response. We were unprepared, and in spite of scientific warnings for many many years, we had not built out the right infrastructure to be prepared. Everyone who knew I was working on the book implored me to try to account for America’s failure in the face of COVID–19.
Climate change shares a number of similarities with a pandemic such as COVID-19. The first indication that the patient is in trouble is a rising temperature — a fever for a victim of COVID–19, a rising global mean temperature for the planet. It takes a long time between contracting the disease and it visibly and noticeably leading to deteriorating health — around 20 days for COVID–19, around 20 years for burning fossil fuels. For a society to deal with it well they need to respect science, and scientific models, and act long before it seems necessary, and long before the symptoms have turned into an emergency situation. Once well into the emergency, the costs for solutions are higher, and the chances of the most reasonable answers goes down as the panic goes up and decision making gets worse.
Figure 0.1: Flatten-the-curve
During COVID–19 we all became aware of ‘flattening the curve.’ It turns out the climate change curve is the same curve as we can see in Figure 0.1, but we typically don’t look above the line where we overwhelm the system, and the timeline is dramatically longer. The same pressures apply; we must act before we see the worst of it, we must trust in science and mathematical modeling.
Unlike COVID–19 (at the time we wrote this), climate change has a vaccine now. That vaccine is a clean energy infrastructure. We know what it looks like — massive electrification with wind turbines, solar cells, electric vehicles, heat pumps, and a much-expanded and bi-directional electrical grid to glue it all together. Incredibly, if we make the commitments to electrify our infrastructure at the scale required, we will lower the energy costs of all Americans, especially if we can accompany the project with an appropriate set of financing mechanisms that will make the future affordable for everyone.
Just as with COVID–19, we need the whole population to be part of the effort towards immunity from the fever. We can’t solve climate change unless we provide this vaccine for everyone. Nature has a habit of ignoring human ideas like free-market capitalism and democratic socialism and throws us all under the pandemic bus, indifferent to our politics. There is no politics that can make you immune to a pandemic, there are only political positions that make you ignorant of the risks. So it is with climate change. The planet doesn’t really care about us and our petty differences. It will warm and ruin our lives in a manner that seems terribly callous. Our only chance is to work together and recognize that if we wish to have the differences of opinion that a vibrant society can afford, and indeed thrives on, we need an infrastructure that can safely support a vibrant society. A clean energy infrastructure.
We will learn some things from the COVID–19 tragedy that can inform how we deal with climate change. Many of us have learned that business travel is less critical than we thought and that video conferencing and other communications methods work fine, if not better. I have loved the fact that the world is less noisy– road-noise, airplane noise, it’s all disappeared–and I’m hearing the birds and the rustling leaves again. The sky is noticeably clearer and the air is sweet to breathe again. There are reports of clearer waterways around the world and of wildlife making a comeback. People are more aware of where food comes from, and more connected to their neighbours even if separated. We are realizing how interconnected all of the people on the planet are and how our fates are tied to each other. Family is important again. All of these things shine a light on how we can build a better world when we appropriately respond to these emergencies, listen to science, and build infrastructure that improves everyone’s life.
Pandemics, great depressions, wars—all require unusual levels of economic stimulus and creativity. There are only a few projects that are large enough to warrant the amount of stimulus needed to cope with economic emergencies at this grand scale. Building the infrastructure for addressing climate change is just such a project. Recovering from what will certainly be an economic recession of historic proportions is another. Let’s kill two birds with one stone; the stimulus required to bounce back from COVID–19 should be directed at building a 21st-century climate change infrastructure for the biggest pandemic of all.
America was caught on its back foot on COVID–19 and was late to act. This has had awful consequences. There is still the opportunity for America to boldly lead the world in dealing with climate change. I remain hopeful that America’s history of coming together to solve the biggest issues will overcome recent political divisions that have threatened its greatness.
Saul Griffith is an inventor, a MacArthur Fellow, and the founder and CEO of Otherlab, a high-tech research and development company on the frontlines of trying to imagine our clean-energy future.