What does the coronavirus outbreak mean for climate change?
Note: This episode has ended.
In this episode of Radio Corona, we ask what the coronavirus pandemic means for efforts to combat climate change. James Temple, MIT Technology Review’s senior editor for energy, was joined by Jane Flegal, program officer with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Environment Program; Gernot Wagner, clinical associate professor at New York University's Department of Environmental Studies and co-author of “Climate Shock;” and Costa Samaras, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon.
The episode was recorded on March 26, 2020. You can watch it below.
The program’s host and guests discussed some of the ideas behind these stories:
- We need economic relief now. Climate policy can come later.
- Why the coronavirus outbreak is terrible news for climate change
- Coronavirus shutdowns are lowering greenhouse gas emissions; history shows they'll roar back
- How changes brought on by coronavirus could help tackle climate change
- Climate change has lessons for fighting the coronavirus
James Temple: Okay. Okay. I think we're going to go ahead and kick this off. My internet picked a really good time to crash. So I'm doing this off my phone. So we will see how this goes. Thank you everyone for taking the time to join today's episode of Radio Corona. Today we're going to be talking about what the coronavirus pandemic means for climate change. I do think it's important to kind of say upfront that most people's foremost concerns right now are and should be, you know, the immediate dangerous to public health and the likelihood of a great depression. And that's going to be- that's the starting point and given for sort of all the questions and answers that follow here. But climate change clearly is a very serious looming threat, if a mostly more distant one. So it's still something important to think through in terms of what the pandemic and economic impacts may mean for this issue in the medium to longer term.
So on the call today at various points, we're going to be joined by Jane Flegal who is a program officer with the William and Florida Hewlett Foundation's environment program. Gernot Wagner, a clinical associate professor at New York University's department of environmental studies and a coauthor of Climate Shock and Costa Samaras, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon. I hope I got close on the pronunciations. We'll see first of all on the call we have Dr. Flegal. So thank you so much for taking the time to join us today. I really appreciate it.
More on coronavirus
Our most essential coverage of covid-19 is free, including:
How does the coronavirus work?
What are the potential treatments?
What's the right way to do social distancing?
Other frequently asked questions about coronavirus
Newsletter: Coronavirus Tech Report
Zoom show: Radio Corona
Please click here to subscribe and support our non-profit journalism.
Jane Flegal: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. Can you hear me okay?
James Temple: Yeah, you sound great. So just so first question, you know, from pretty much early days as we started to see the corona outbreak in China, we also heard some reports emerge about the dramatic emissions reductions that were happening there. And started to hear suggestions that 'hey, at least there's a silver lining for climate change. It shows how quickly we can change it if we want to.' And then there's been an even kind of a darker version of that without naming names like 'coronavirus is the vaccine, we're the virus.' You've been critical of some of those takes online. So I wanted to kind of hear your thoughts on why is that a problematic way of viewing this issue?
Jane Flegal: Yeah. So maybe let me say explicitly as sort of a first order assertion I think it's useful to remind ourselves why we care about climate change to begin with. And many of us care about climate change because we care about alleviating human suffering. So that's sort of one of the primary reasons to care about climate at all. And in that context, any proposed solution to climate change that creates more suffering is sort of by definition, not a solution to climate change. I think that that's really important as we think about the implications of covid for things like emissions.
I think what we're seeing in terms of current emissions reductions as a consequence of shutting down economies is that it does reveal how tightly emissions tend to be linked with economic activity. And how important economic activity is to the wellbeing of regular people. And so I think if anything, it foregrounds both the urgency of decoupling emissions from economic activity as quickly as possible. And you know, some of the ways in which that's quite difficult. So I think it actually underscores the work that needs to be done in that regard. You know, the other observation I would make here, that's been made by others, is that there's a question about how permanent these emissions reductions in the face of the basically pause in economic activity are likely to be. And I think there's a lot of uncertainty here, but certainly if we looked at historical examples, you often have seen up surges in emissions when economic activity rebounds. So there's this like how permanent is this anyway?
And then the last observation I would make that I think is pretty important, um, is that as you indicated, some of the more nefarious assertions in this way, I think fall into this kind of, you know, 'what we're seeing is nature basically punishing us for our sins.' And I would say a couple of things about that. The first is like, I think it's very important to be clear who the we is in some of these formulations. In fact, some of the folks who are least responsible for climate change are likely to feel the worst impacts of covid which is sort of a doubly awful thing. And then the other thing is that I think this notion that nature somehow has agency and is punishing us is problematic because it's a highly deterministic frame. And I think what it does is mask the fact that all of these things, both the way that we experience climate risk and the way that we as societies are experiencing covid risks are really deeply mediated by public policy and social institutions. And my concern is that if we fail to acknowledge that we will fail to do the work that we need to do to try to mitigate these risks. I don't know if that's helpful, but that's sort of how I've been thinking about it.
James Temple: Right. And I think you started to touch on this, but I thought Alex Trembath and Seaver Wang who, I think Alex is actually on the call, at Breakthrough had raised a point in a piece they made, which that noting that, you know, GDP in China could drop 40% this quarter, but emissions are still, we're still seeing about three quarters of emissions remaining. So actually you could make the argument that we're actually seeing the limits to de-growing the economy as a strategy for addressing climate change unfolding in real time here. What is your sort of thought on that?
Jane Flegal: Yeah, I mean I think that's an interesting point for sure. I don't have much to add, but yeah.
James Temple: It looks like Professor Wagner is on the call as well, so we'll fold him in as well. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Gernot Wagner: There we go. I cannot unmute myself actually. If you can give me those rights, that would be great.
James Temple: Okay. Excellent. Excellent. Yes, sorry about that. From your perspective, what do we know about the impacts on clean energy projects and supply chains at this point? Are we seeing, you know, while some people have highlighted these possible silver linings, it also seems like from what I'm reading with Bloomberg NEF is predicting that we're actually seeing some pretty negative impacts already for progress on offshore wind and solar projects. What are you sort of seeing in that regard and what's your sort of reaction to that?
Gernot Wagner: I guess just as a first answer, I would come back to what you'd started with James, which is frankly, none of this is a silver lining, right? I care about climate change because it affects people. Well, people are dying right now, right? Then yes, of course, right? There is obviously lots of impacts that frankly we don't, if you have a very limited view of what will actually happen as a result of this. Right? Um, what is the unemployment figures today- a 30 sigma event, right? Um, as in, you know, there are black swans and then there's this, so yes, we do see major impacts on lots of things and the renewable supply chain is only one of them. Not to be pedantic here, but I care much more about the supply chain impact on the antibiotics and face masks right about now.
On the other hand, yes, of course that matters too. What do we do see in a big way, and frankly, this is now sort of all in with the yesterday or today's a $2 trillion bailout relief stimulus package, right? What we see of course is there is a lot of vested interest in all of this. You know, newsflash, the oil and fossil interests are slightly better connected than the up and coming renewable sector, whichever it is, right? So the lobbying happens left and right- literally left and right politically too left and right. And it turns out one of those two sides has a lot, has a much easier time lobbying right about now, frankly. If you are already making billions of dollars in quarterly profits, your lobbying is a lot easier than basically if you base your industry your potential all on growth, right? Which of course is the frightening bit on covid on the renewable side, that growth is still to happen. Hence, lobbying powers are limited. Hence, supply chains are especially impacted and so on and so forth.
James Temple: Right. When you and I talked, a couple of weeks ago, you had made the point that risks overwhelmingly are outweigh any potential benefits here. And I've been thinking through various other ways that this sort of negative impacts that we can see. One thing that occurs to me, because it was an issue I was already writing about, is what does it mean for international collaboration. Once we do sort of come out on the other side of this, you know, which is obviously essential for tackling climate change on the necessary timelines. I was looking into a story about whether rising nationalist sentiments have already complicated climate action. And I really wonder now what kind of mood the world is going to be in after we get through all of this. And after all the rhetoric around the origins of the outbreak and so forth, you know for tightening global ties or relying so heavily on international supply chains and, you know, raising the collective goals of international courts. Dr. Flegal, I'm curious, what are you thinking about how this could play out in terms of international relations in the longer term for climate?
Jane Flegal: Yeah, I mean, I would just add one thing to the conversation that we haven't yet talked about, which is that we have a public health crisis, an economic crisis and also an oil crisis. So the, I mean there are layers and layers of uncertainty and speculation as we talk about all of this. But on your question about international cooperation, you know, I think climate change, like a pandemic like covid is a global problem that no nation can solve by itself. Like we're seeing that here and to Gernot's point, that interconnectedness is quite apparent when it comes to getting masks and medicine. And it's also apparent when you talk about the importance of making clean energy cheap and the role of technology transfer in the climate context. So it is true that if we care about managing climate risks, these global linkages are critically important and something we need to attend to.
I don't feel like I'm in a position to speculate. I do think that, you know, we might see international climate negotiations be delayed as national focuses across the world are going to continue to be on public health and the economy. I think that's just a potential risk here. But you know, if and when we are actually in kind of a stimulative mode, not in a kind of emergency relief mode down the line, I think there is this question about whether if other countries like China, India and the EU move to develop kind of climate-friendly stimulus packages in a way and the US doesn't, that could have pretty significant implications for our longterm economic welfare and competitiveness. So I don't have any, I'm not in a position to make predictions, but these are just some of the issues we've been contemplating at Hewlett.
James Temple: Yeah. And you've also made the point pretty clearly in a few times on Twitter that we really need to separate sort of disaster relief from economic stimulus. Can you talk through that a bit? Why that's such an important distinction to make as we think about how we respond to these things?
Jane Flegal: Yeah, and I think something Gernot raised earlier is actually important in this context because as he noted, while as an analytical matter and as a political matter, I think it's useful to separate these things. You know, the bail outs are forthcoming and spending is forthcoming and we are seeing folks make all kinds of crazy asks. So I want to be, I want to be attentive to that. But holding that aside for the moment, I think the fundamental task in front of our decision makers right now is largely about how do you make turning off the economy as long as we have to solve the public health crisis economically tolerable. And that is a very different kind of problem in my view than how do you stimulate growth in the economy? So I do think as an analytical matter, it's important to be clear about that. I don't know if that's helpful, but I do think as we are working through all of this, it's important to continue to support ideation and policy development to prepare for a point at which we are in stimulus mode. So that's what I would say.
James Temple: Okay. And, Professor Wagner, can you kind of pick up on that point? You know, when we had a bit of a conversation on this earlier this week for my story and elsewhere, about when, you know, you want to separate these things, but that doesn't mean you don't want to start thinking about stimulus at this point and what a stimulus package might look like that does incorporate some thoughtful clean energy policies, climate adaptation policies, etc. Can you talk a bit about when we want to start that conversation and at what point, depending on how reality unfolds, we do want to get into the economic stimulus portion of our policy response?
Gernot Wagner: Okay. Yeah. So the short answer is I wish I knew, right? So, you know, if everything works perfectly and we can trust some of the better epidemiological models out there, then it seems like what we are doing, for example, here in New York City, frankly, much too late of course, but what we are doing right now is in fact flattening the curve, and possibly leading to us not being able to reopen by Easter, right? So, you know, sorry, to your president, your golf courses will be shut on you Easter Sunday, but maybe right, soon there after, and when I say soon thereafter sort of six to eight week time horizon, well, you know, that's a couple of months out, right? Which means for right now, while, you know, not to be too much of an economist, but right now we ought to be paying people to stay home in the all-inclusive sense of what it means to pay people to do so. Well, a couple of months from now, hopefully already, maybe, as you know, as late as six months from now, we ought to be paying people to go back to work. Yes. That's when the stimulus comes in, right?
That's when an actual stimulus comes in, not the sort of mistakenly named stimulus bill that was passed yesterday or today, but an actual stimulus and yes, right. So, you know, this is sort of the time where it's okay to walk and chew at the same time. I mean this cause I guess run and chew at the same, right? So, no, we shouldn't detract from the immediate medical needs right now. Um, but of course, right? Everyone else is lobbying too. Why should we, as those who care about climate clean energy, be sitting this one out? And yes, if and when that's the conversation to be had, of course we should be talking about little factoids like the oil industry is extremely capital-intensive, the renewable sector is not, so if you do care about employment, well maybe it's not smart climate policy, it's smart policy, right? It's not green. It's not brown. It's not anything, it's just smart economic policy to focus on sectors like the clean energy sector, that in fact is less capital intensive than other energy sectors and is exactly the right place to start with the kind of stimulus that we all know we need.
James Temple: Right. Um, going, going back to the issue of sort of how things could play out in the months ahead. Well, another thing that occurs to me is, you know, we really had gotten to this point after really decades where we were starting to see the beginnings of a real sort of wide-scale global activism movement, climate activism. We had started to see climate as an issue start to really climb up in polls on voters. We even saw on the right, especially younger voters, start to care a lot more about this and have it among higher concerns. And I know that sort of in the aftermath of the 2008, 2009, downturn, we saw really dramatic shifts in beliefs in climate science and to say nothing of how much of a priority it was in people's lives.
We see Greta Thunberg quickly moved the school strikes offline or online and no longer in the real world. And so I guess I just, I'm curious about, you know, even once we do sort of get out of the worst of the public health crisis and economic downturn, whether for the foreseeable future people are going to be just much more concerned about their immediate issues, the health of themselves and their loved ones, bread and butter, pocketbook issues like jobs and savings and homes. And whether we are, whether it's just going to take a while for a medium to longer term threat, like climate change to kind of come back, in terms of being the high priority it was kind of starting become there, whoever wants to address that point.
Gernot Wagner: I'd be happy to. So yeah, that's sort of on the one hand on the other hand, right. So on the one hand so by the way, yes, everyone is more concerned about the immediate future and frankly I would say as they should be, that's, you know, that's a much, much more immediate concern, which you know, is, has always been the problem for climate, which makes it, you know, a much more pernicious problem, then frankly, any of these, these other concerns out there. You know, right about now, I wished I hadn't been quite as dismissive of the potential of pandemics, wreaking havoc in a particular chapter in climate shock. We're, we try to emphasize how difficult climate is to solve and how much, much more difficult it is then even something like pandemics, which I still think is true, I would also add immediately, now is not the time to be emphasizing that particular point.
Even though I just did of course. Now all that said, there certainly are some positive aspects here. When I say positive, you know, not sort of in the silver lining, Oh look, emissions are down. But in the trust in science on a very fundamental level, right? You know, I'm not advising the current democratic presidential front runner on this particular topic. I hope that those who are, are at least considering having that be one of the main points, right? Whatever the, you know, the tweetable version of that is, but you know, facts that last right? Or a science in the end. Um, truth wins out in the end, right? So, uh, you can spin your way through lots of things. You can spend your way through a pandemic, or at least not against 33% daily growth rates of infections, right? Um, well, something similar may well apply here to climate or not apply in the sense that, uh, you know, we know that what the truth about the facts on the ground are.
Um, but, it may well help or work to our quote unquote advantage, those of us concerned about climate change, um, to point to precisely this phenomenon, precisely this, these underlying forces that point to us wanting it one way, but then reality catches up. So whatever analogy you want to have right? For climate, it is pricing the climate risk. Well, here it's pricing the pandemic, right? Um, in a very loose sense. It's about taking these unknowns and unknowables seriously, much more seriously than we typically are. Frankly, trying to some sense quote unquote "make the best of it". Right? Which of course in this case now means, you know, throwing everything at the pandemic problem that we are currently facing, if and when it's appropriate to the pivot back to climate or include climate in that conversation more so than we currently are- probably compensation. Um, yes, that matters too, right? The emphasis on, well, you can pretend that it's not happening. It is happening. And yes, we've gone through an episode here with this pandemic where, you know, everything has sort of been going much, much faster, right. Instead of decades, it's days, instead of centuries, it's weeks to be dealing with here. But there is of course an analogy here to the kinds of things that ought to happen even though they are not yet visible, but the compound, exponential growth will make them visible sooner rather than later.
James Temple: Dr. Flegal, um, you shared a story from Slate on Twitter yesterday, um, by Daniel Sarowitz. I hope I'm pronouncing that right. And said it basically captured everything you have to stay on the matter. Can you kind of highlight the core point that you think was critical there in terms of kind of the role of science had been guiding us through be these different kinds of dangers between a pandemic and climate change?
Jane Flegal: Yeah. So that peice was pretty narrowly focused on this question of the role of science and decision making around things like COVID or climate. And I think while there are certainly lessons to be learned around risk management, among other things, when we look across the two cases, I think there are some pretty important differences, particularly when we think about the intersection of science and politics and decision making. One that's been highlighted by many people is different timescales. Right? The other is in the COVID case you're dealing with, it's not a, it's not what we would typically consider kind of a wicked or complex problem, in that the cause and effect linkages are much more straightforward. And that is not exactly the case with climate. It's much more complicated. So those are some of the things that I think are pretty different.
And related to the sort of tight connection between cause and effect of COVID versus climate. You know, we are seeing the science that we are using to inform decision making about climate, it hasn't been a huge point of contention in terms of how certain the models, for example, are. There seems to be a shared understanding that we are, we have a shared goal in our response to COVID and the science that we're using to guide our decision making is all sort of about bounding the system, but we're recognizing that we're going to need to grapple with some uncertainty. That's one thing. And then the other piece is that we are kind of seeing testing, like actual testing on COVID, policy positions that folks are taking on COVID inventions and science on COVID all sort of evolving in real time. So not only, so we can kind of see in a policy sense, the immediate effects of action or inaction in a way that is much more difficult with their problem like climate change.
James Temple: Oh, we have a question from the audience, which is, are there, in kind of related to what we're just saying here, are there possible learnings from the COVID response that we might be able to apply to the climates space? Just seeing such a massive rapid response? Or are these just such fundamentally different scenarios that there's just not a lot of overlap?
Jane Flegal: Go ahead.
Gernot Wagner: So, I mean, frankly in many ways I hope the scenarios are so different as to there not to be much of an overlap. Right I'm going to say hope in there. Again, 3 million people applied for unemployment benefits this week in this country. Right? This is not by any stretch of the imagination how we want to address climate change. So in that sentence, I very much hope there aren't that many analogs here, um, with the, you know, how it feels in the real world. In many ways those of us having worked on climate policy for a long time, right? You know, this is not the sort of scenario that any one of us would have wanted to paint or ever dreamed of painting that has anything to do with how we want to deal with it. So yeah, no, I wouldn't say, you know, there's lessons to be learned of course. Are there direct analogs? No, not really. And if there are, I very much hope that they don't quite look like what we are going through right now.
James Temple: Dr. Flegal, did you want to add to that?
Jane Flegal: No, I think that, Gernot's right about direct analogs. You know, one big lesson I think from all of this is I think there were two things that I just want to highlight. I'm sure there are many more. One is, the value of preparedness in the face of uncertain risks. And so I think we're seeing, you know, in the US case we're a rich country with a pretty robust social infrastructure, at least in theory, really failing to be prepared in the ways that we should have been. And so I think attending to the sort of social infrastructure of our societies and how we think about preparedness for some of these risks is a lesson to learn. And I think that applies both on the mitigation side for climate, but also as we think about adaptation. So that's one thing I would say.
And then the other piece, and this is sort of related, is that what we know about social solidarity and resilience in the face of disasters and emergencies is that it is at least as much, actually probably more, a product of public policy as it is about individual choice. And I think there are some lessons to be learned for the climate space as well. It's not to say that individual's choice is totally irrelevant but at a large, at a high level, this is really a product of policy and politics.
James Temple: Right. I think that the Breakthrough Institute piece also made a point worth noting here, which is that the quote is that "the emergency response to go COVID-19 pandemic is held up as a model for climate action. We should not be surprised if public support is less than enthusiastic." I think just given the amount of pain and suffering and sacrifice that's going to be involved in that in the weeks and months to come here.
Jane Flegal: I do think that it does, like, I mean back to this point about the complexity of cause and effect for climate, I think we should really take a moment to think maybe about like the ontological status of a climate emergency and how it might be different from the emergency we're confronting now in COVID. Because we've heard a lot about declarations of climate emergency. And I just think it's something worth pausing to think about a little more deeply.
James Temple: Okay. Yeah. Is Costa on the call yet? No, no, I'm okay. Oh, he is. Okay. Well he'll be on in a second here. I know you need to jump off pretty soon, Dr. Flegal, so just one last question for you is when we do get to the point where it's appropriate to be thinking and implementing economic stimulus, what are some of the key things you would want to see in that as it pertains to climate change?
Jane Flegal: Yeah, I mean, so I think, I'm going to be talking at a pretty high level here. But you know, I think there is, there is likely to be in a Venn diagram of economically stimulative activity and climate policy priority and some overlap. I don't think it's going to be a perfect actually, and I think we need to be honest about that. Lest we see some blow back that undermines the credibility of the climate movement. So I do think it's important to be clear about where there is and is not overlap. You know, I think there are some lessons that we can learn about '08 '09, despite the fact that the crises are fundamentally pretty different when it comes to climate policy. So one thing is that if in fact we are making an argument that climate policy implemented in this way is truly stimulative, it makes sense to actually take really seriously this, these questions of administrative simplicity and existing institutional capacity because you have to get the money out the door fast.
So that's one thing. Another thing is the facts that those Venn diagram kind of thinking about how you're going to target resources that you spend to both get the biggest impact for a dollar spent on a demand stimulation front, but also on either an emissions reduction or adaptation front. And so thinking about how you target resources in a really explicit way at the front end I think is useful. And then one other thing I would say is that as I indicated, I don't think everything that we need to do for climate can be done just through a stimulative lens. We should think about that too as we contemplate how we're going to build the future world we want to live in, including a world that reduces climate risk over the long term. So that includes things like RD&D, which we know we're going to need to manage climate risk more effectively, but it is unlikely to be a stimulus in the near term. So there are longterm climate interventions that need to still be on the table even if they are not stimulative.
The second thing is, you know, I'm actually quite optimistic about the prospects for infrastructure spending, both on the mitigation and adaptation side. But, A) we need to consider the administrative simplicity and capacity I outlined earlier. And B) one of the lessons from '08 '09 as far as I understand, is that some of the barriers for stimulative activities in the infrastructure space, including stuff that's really important for climate was held up largely due to concerns, not about funding but about siting, cost allocation, so this goes for things like pipelines and transmission, which are both really important in a decarbonized world but are going to be difficult to do. And then we also at some point need to be thinking about longer term demand creation for zero carbon future. So is this probably slightly even more disorganized than I intended to be, but those are some of the things that I would consider over a longer timescale. So not just through the end of this year, but even into next year.
James Temple: Okay. Great. Well, thank you so much for coming on and giving us some of your time today and appreciate all your thoughts here.
Jane Flegal: Thank you so much for having me.
James Temple: Okay. Okay. And we're going to welcome on Costa Samaras, an associate professor of climate or sorry, civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon. Welcome. Thanks for taking the time to chat today. You know, we discussed this issue a little at the top before you were on, but I wanted to get your perspective because I think you're widely recognized as an expert on bad Twitter takes. You've screen-grabbed and shared a handful of tweets in recent weeks, including one that said the best course for climate change might be to let coronavirus run its course and you continually stress the point that this is basically, this is a terrible way to think about and talk about this issue. Can you sort of discuss to discuss your thinking there?
Costa Samaras: Well, I appreciate the opportunity to be on James. Thank you for your reporting and for MIT Tech Review's kind of continuing coverage of this tragedy and disaster. I'm very grateful that I'm going to update my bio to be an expert on bad takes. I appreciate that. It is actually a gift of mine. I guess my only gift probably. I think what we've been seeing and I know that Dr. Flegal and Dr. Wagner, agree here is that. Climate change and managing climate change is about humans, right? It's about human capacity for happiness and for health and for education and for sustainable development. And so what we've seen, not just during this pandemic but over many years, is that there is some element that says, you know, humans are the virus and corona is the cure.
That's straight up eco-fascism. And I think that we in the climate community need to call it out and excise it from this community because it's dangerous because once you start going down that road you know, bad things will happen. Bad things will happen to people for which we are trying to manage climate change and move towards a sustainable and deeply decarbonized world. Because that's the whole point. The point is to improve people's lives, people's lives that are suffering. So I think that we need to be vigilant about making sure that those bad takes. They're not just bad takes, they're very dangerous. And so, that's really been important to me. And I know I do it in kind of a jokey way, on Twitter, but it's really, by and large, not shared by the vast majority of the climate community, but really could derail efforts to build a big concensus for big climate action. Yeah.
James Temple: So there's been a question among the audience here. You know I mean I think we're taking it as a given that the cost suffering here is all too high to argue that it's worth it. But you know, are there still any changes that could come out of this that might help us with climate change on, on more than the margins, whether that's people deciding that they can get by with more virtual conferences and remote working and therefore being able to drive less or take fewer business flights. Could any of those things add up to real gains or is it all kind of too marginal to matter there? Professor Wagner, do you want to take that one?
Gernot Wagner: Sure. So, yes, video conferencing is great. And Zoom is lovely as we've all figured out in the last week or so. But, sorry, no. So I mean obviously, yes, there is some positive stuff, of course, right? The IPCC for the very first time, is convening a 300 person lead author meeting virtually this coming April. Um, never happened before. You know, frankly, I don't actually know why this never happened before, you know, a high energy physicists have done it for a decade, and there's, you know, a few thousand of them. And they somehow mGernoanaged to do it. Why wouldn't the climate crowd be able to do it? Well, we haven't been able to do it. Now, we suddenly are. Yes, getting up at 3:00 AM local time for some phone calls sucks, but frankly it doesn't suck as much as getting on a plane and then still having the phone call right at 3:00 AM your local time zone or the meeting at 3:00 AM or your internal clock right?
Now, so yes, right. There's these sort of tiny things now. Okay, here's the opposite story, right? The sales meeting in Cleveland got canceled this summer. So next year it's Barcelona or bust, right? Because we saved some money this year, so why not go all out and you know, instead of a bunch of us flying to Cleveland for the convention, we are doing it in Barcelona or in Bali or whatever. So there is clearly, right, the exact opposite that can and will happen frankly as well. Which way things go? Well, honestly, you know, this is one of the main points on all of this, of course, it takes institutions, it takes government, it's, you know, policy guidance. So if IPCC as an institution from now on says, Zoom works pretty well, let's go to virtual meetings and avoid the plane flights, you know, not that that matters for the global climate, but yes, you know, precedent setting and so on and so forth. Sure. It takes the institution to say that, right? If the association of environmental and resource economists, has the opposite attitude and says, you know, Cleveland was a bust, let's go to Barcelona next year. Well the opposite will happen, it's not up to us as individuals in many ways. It the institution and yes, one of the main lessons of this, of the COVID crisis is it does in fact take government to help us internalize the externality to use the dirty economics term. Well, same with these behavioral changes.
James Temple: Yeah. I wonder, I've been starting to wonder a bit about the psychological reaction to everything that's happening and what's going to happen in the weeks and months to come where, you know, I think, I'm not deeply familiar with the science in this area, but I do think there is some sense that, you know, people are willing to sacrifice up to a certain point. They're willing to give up their plastic straws, but then they're done. Like they feel like they've done their thing. And I wonder if when we get to the end of this and people feel like they took a year out of their lives or six months or 18 months, whatever this ends up being. That when you get to the end of that and say, yeah, please live a somewhat carbon constraint lifestyle. If people are just gonna be like, no, I've had my suffering for the lifetime or for the decade or whatever. And if we aren't going to see people just, you know, kind of have the opposite reaction where I'm just going to fly where I want, I'm going to drive where I want and buy the SUV I want and all that. So I dunno. Professor Samaras, do you have any thoughts on that?
Costa Samaras: Yeah, I mean, I think the primary lesson that we need to take from this moment right now is that people are hurting, right? People don't know where their rent's coming from. They don't have enough to eat. People don't have familiar support systems. Healthcare is collapsing. They don't have a job. You know, we in the climate walk community can help guide the recovery and relief efforts towards important investments that enable a long term, deep decarbonization. But I think there's a real danger of not going big enough on the immediate relief effort that needs to happen right now, to get people to a place of safety in their lives. And I think that from that and with that, there are policy windows, right? So I don't think it's an either or relief now stimulus later. I think it's big relief right now. No excuses. And a set of recovery stimulus that enables these lower carbon transitions.
It's really about where people live. You know, what they drive, how far do they drive, what are they eating, and what their communities are like. I think that we, we might be biased and anchored, you know, that we are very, very privileged and lucky that we can take meetings by Zoom. Many people, when life returns to normal, will have to commute, you know, 10, 20 miles more a day to get to a job that won't be able to be done remotely, potentially. And so I think that we need to for sure capture everything that we can capture by doing remote teleconferencing. Think about ways that we can improve the efficiency of kind of long distance trips and conferences, sure. But at the end of the day, people are still gonna need to go to work and go to school and go to leisure activities. And right now, the majority of those activities are done in a personal car. We need to have a transition to a large fleet of deeply decarbonized electric vehicles with a deep, deeply decarbonized electric grid as well as a robust public transit system as well as a, you know, an active public transit system in cities. And so, to me, the easiest thing to think about this is what should we have been doing all along that maybe there's a policy window now to incorporate as long as we do not short change the immediate relief and to alleviate the suffering that people have right now. I think that that's really job one.
James Temple: I happened to notice that our friend from Bloomberg Akshat is on the call. Do you have any questions for the folks here? I think I just unmuted you.
Akshat Rathi: Hi guys. Yes. Can you hear me okay? One thing that I'm curious about is, you know, you pointed out, Gernot, that this is a 30-sigma event. The jobless applications in the US to many, even in the infectious disease space, this virus is a pretty high-sigma event. Even they did not, they did not expect it to be, you know, this was a tail risk. How do you think our perception, you know, at a general population level, at the decision makers level, at academia, will change about the kinds of tail risks that we face. And this is not just climate change, but all sorts of other terrorists which can have extraordinarily large impacts on the world.
Gernot Wagner: Great question. I mean, right, yes. It's you know, let me put it this way, as usual, right? There is now- you can point to the 2007 peer reviewed paper in the, you know, journal of, nobody has ever heard of, who predicted precisely this happening and it was even a right, it was even somewhere in central China and then it spread. Well, nobody right? would have picked that as, oh, and this is the highest priority tail events that we ought to emphasize, or at least. Obviously I'm not an epidemiologist, right? I'm biased as anyone here on the climate front. Um, but no, that just wasn't on anyone's, radar, really.
Now just to be clear, what is on top of all of this and you know, not to be too overly political, right? But of course it is repeating over and over again, that, for example, nobody in these sort of war games of how a pandemic would play out and how a wealthy developed democracy like the US might address it, nobody really imagined sort of a two months delay in testing, flying completely blind, not realizing that those tens of thousands of New Yorkers running around with the virus right about now and so on and so forth. That's on top of all of this. So the political thing, abject political failure here, and policy failure at the federal level of course, is a big, big part of it.
And you know, those two combined of course make for the situation the crisis we are in right now and which I realize feels very different for different people. I'm sitting in New York city, with a wife employed at Bellevue hospital as a doctor, right? It feels, you know, slightly more, you know, hitting home then, then sort of sitting not in the epicenter, right about now. But, I can tell you, yeah, this is certainly not something anyone predicted. Let me put it that way. Right? No doctor I've ever talked to would have said, this is the situation we would find ourselves in, you know, six months after a virus breaks out in China.
Costa Samaras: I think it's the job of institutions, as you all were alluded to earlier, to manage tail risks, right? Somebody has to pay for preparedness for tail risks, whether it's for pandemics or for climate. And it's really the job of institutions and elected leaders to communicate the value of risk management and risk avoidance. Whether, you know, we're building green infrastructure or we're stocking up on ventilators and N-95 masks. The value of meeting it, or having it and not, is better than the value of not having it when you really need it. And so this is about, you know, Professor Wagner wrote a book on this. But you know, this is about understanding what are the costs that we should be willing to bear as a society to protect us from big problems, either in the near or far future. And really it needs to be the job of elected leaders and really the ethical responsibility of elected leaders, to, you know, to protect the future. Right? I mean, that's the whole job of this situation. And we as a country are falling down on that.
James Temple: I think Leigh Phillips, an occasional contributor to TR and a few other publications, has a question. Can we unmute him?
Leigh Philips: Okay. Can you hear me? Yes. Okay. Yeah. So, I was wondering about, what might happen with a dystopian or quote unquote "dystopian narratives" after the pandemic. We've seen a lot of that with climate change, particularly amongst some activists, younger activists. Will these dystopian narratives now be dropped because we had our dystopia now and it's awful. And there's not going to be any sort of libidinal desire for the apocalypse or will it be the opposite and actually prompt even more dystopian narratives? Um, yeah. For example, prior to COVID, I, you know, I had quite an allergic reaction to the worst catastrophists narratives about climate change. Things like we only have 10 years, you have to save the planet or humanity is doomed. Or some of David Wallace Wells use of the most extreme sort of possibilities without really discussing probability or confidence.
But, you know, even myself, perhaps this resistance to catastrophism and alarmism went too far. I, you know, with COVID, initially when it happened, my allergy to catastrophism sort of made me think, you know, looking at the data, the underlying mortality rates indeed not seem to be too bad, but what I hadn't accounted for was not the deaths, but the rate of severe cases, which is indeed high and the potential there to overwhelm health systems. So I guess my question is, was I being too anti-catastrophist? What's the balance, with dystopian or catastrophist narratives and anti-catastrophism, anti-alarmism?
Gernot Wagner: Is Kim Stanley Robinson on by any chance? So on the one hand I can easily see, you know, I can easily see both ways here, right? You know, it's no longer necessary to, you know, to write a book about what New York might look like in 2150. It turns out, you know, we have pretty darn close to dystopian future in this city, you know, right now and it's March 2020. Uh, so no. Right. So you don't really need that. Um, on the other hand, you know, yeah, of course. Yeah. You have sort of a much easier time now describing potential futures that sounded completely out of whack and frankly, right? So I now read the sort of average story that, you know, Akshat is writing for Bloomberg and, you know, the lead sounds pretty dystopian already, right? So yeah, as usual, on the one hand, on the other hand. It's certainly true that the extreme scenarios that have been often painted for climate change, you know, they look a lot more vivid right about now than they did only 3-4 weeks ago.
I think that, you know, artists are going to continue to create great art and I'm looking forward to consuming a lot of that in the next few years. But in terms of, you know, alarmism and catastrophism, I think we have to think about in terms of, in the robust decision-making community, what we do when we use climate decision-making and climate policy decision-making, we say, where would we, how do we minimize how much we would regret of doing the wrong thing now? Um, and so as long as there are, you know, plausible dystopian scenarios, we should at least include them in our understanding of how systems are fragile and how they might fail. Not to say that those might be the most likely, but how much would we be in trouble if we ended up in that tail risk scenario and we were not prepared and what can we do now that would reduce some of those risks both on under a normal future and under a quote unquote "bad tail" future? Right? I mean, really, that's where like where I come back to is we're going to need a lot of carbon mitigation. We're getting a lot of climate resilience. We're going to have to basically do everything we can and we might have a chance of making it work.
James Temple: I also noticed that Joseph from the Niskanen Center is on who's been writing some pieces related to this. I'm totally just throwing him on the spot here, putting him on the spot here. Hey, do you have any, anything you want to add to the conversation? Either anything that's already come up or anything that you're thinking about along this line? And he muted himself again or someone did.
Okay. Hey Costa, so you've been also tweeting a bit about, you know, what we might want to be doing right now in terms of stimulus packages and infrastructure and other things. Can you, well, I don't know, what would be like your top three wishlist right now or not right now, but when we do get to the sort of stimulus phase of this?
Costa Samaras: You know, I'm always ready for infrastructure week James. I mean, and the challenge is that like our infrastructure was bad last year, right? And two years ago and nine years ago and climate is going to make it much, much worse, right? The impacts of climate on our infrastructure is going to make it much worse. And our infrastructure last for a very long time. There are water pipes that folks in DC are drinking from right now that were installed in 1860. And so we might think that we put in some infrastructure, it's only gonna last for 40 or 50 years, but we might use it for a hundred or more. And so I think any type of infrastructure recovery that we put in, needs to be fast, administrable, broad, but also have some nod towards that this is going to be around in 2080, right or longer.
And when we think about our water systems, our coastal systems, our power systems, all of these need some thought into how they're going to weather a more climate-damaged future. But also we need to think about what are the natural solutions that might provide some co-benefits. Can we be building lots of parks and green infrastructure in towns and communities all around the country to make people's lives more enjoyable, but also mitigate some storm water runoff or reduce some temperature in that urban environment? The thing that I mentioned to David Roberts, who had a piece in Vox yesterday with a whole bunch of folks in there and I said that we should basically renovate every school in the country, get rid of all the lead, get rid of all the asbestos, put in good windows, you know, and make it energy efficient because people are going to want to see some tangible benefit immediately. And that's one thing that everybody has and everybody will be noticeable. And I think the political coalition on the stimulus and the infrastructure recovery is really almost as important as the design of it that we do.
James Temple: Right. And Gernot, I think last time we talked for the story, I brought up this idea of like, well, could there be some opportunities and economic stimulus? And your response was sure, but there's just as likely in the current political reality that those economic stimulus efforts could be focused on fossil fuel companies and other things where we're not going to be making progress. And within hours that was going to be exactly the sorts of proposals we started to see float out. So can you talk a little bit about the, you know, there's the wishlist that we can talk about and then there's the issue of what's politically feasible and how the odds of what's politically feasible could shift, based on what happens in the next presidential election?
Gernot Wagner: Yeah, so I mean, I think you've just said it, right? So, uh, so yes, right? There is in fact a you know, there's a long wishlist that I believe lots of us on this phone call, in fact signed on to literally physically signed as, as agreeing with and then there's reality. So yes, of course. Right? You know, just to support Costa's point just now. Yes, let's renovate every school. Put in energy efficient everything starting with windows, get rid asbestos and so on and so forth. And in many ways I shouldn't be sounding dismissive in any way, shape or form. Yes, let's do that. Right? That would be fantastic. It is infrastructure week all the time.
We will be spending many more trillions of dollars to get out of this current mess you know, various stimuli over the coming months and years. Well, let's do that, right? Lots of those type of projects are much more labor intensive then, you know, most parts of the fossil fuel industry. So yes, right? Since that's what we want to do, let's get on with it. Let's do it. Now, of course. Right? So, okay. Political reality, right? If and when Mar-a-Lago is opened again and the winter White House extends into spring and summer. You know, that's not the conversations happening around the dinner table there, I would venture to say, and now there is in some sense sort of the, you know, the second guessing of it.
So should we now be emphasizing those kinds of stimuli that in fact would potentially stimulate the economy, make things better, almost immediately at the same time, you know, ever-so slightly increase the chances of the current administration getting reelected in November and so on and so forth, right? There is more going on in these considerations than simply saying, and here's the right thing to do. Let's get on with it. On the other hand, well, yes, you know, as a somewhat neutral observer, yes, let's get on with the right thing to do. It's for others to then call the political shots and say, well, actually, let's see how this could play out in reality. If and when it were to be proposed right about now, what are the full implications? What are the re-election chances? What are other things happening that are clearly attached to any of these conversations in and outside Washington?
James Temple: Okay. And, sorry I put you on the spot earlier, Joseph, I guess I heard you do want to make a comment, so I'm unmuting you again if you can jump in now.
Joseph Marjuki: Yeah, sure. Hi everybody, I've been my kids and I are watching this for snack time, so I've been, I aggressively muted myself. So you didn't hear the den. Really appreciate the conversation. I think you know, I think a lot of what's been said, it matches my own thinking. I'm reserving a lot of judgment about what exactly is the right step. I think there are two areas of caution that I think climate folks should kind of take note of. One is that, you know, we're talking about a recovery from what will be a most likely a historic public health and economic emergency. And so there's a risk to saying, "but my problem too", right? Like we have to recognize opportunities when they arise. But you know, what happened earlier this week with the democratic proposal for stimulus and tight regulation of airlines, really did sour people. And I think we need to be aware of and look for where there's harmony, aware of that risk that you can kind of overly politicize this and look for places where there's a lot of harmony.
So you know, this crisis is showing us that supply chain resilience and access capacity is really important and maybe has been overlooked. So one of the things we should think about is how can advance manufacturing and supply resilience and supply chain resilience be fostered by and, and then foster, low carbon technology in the United States as well as abroad. That's kind of the two things I've been thinking about at least today, but it's very fun to be part of the emerging conversation. With that, I will remove myself before we encounter commentary from the peanut gallery.
James Temple: Thank you. Do either of you want to weigh in on what he just said? Or actually we're just about to the end of our hour here, so if wanna either weigh in on what he just said or just provide any kind of closing comments.
Costa Samaras: Oh, sure. Joe, a lot of things I think. Improving the resilience of supply chain is really smart and thinking about ways that we can better manage the tail risks in a pandemic as well as in our general supply chains and things that we need is important. The risks that we face under the pandemic will be exacerbated and there are going to be additional risks that we're going to continue to face when the pandemic is over. It's really up to our institutions and our leaders to prepare the nation for resilience and the ability to absorb a shock like we're feeling now and bounce back and bounce back better. That is, that's the job. Again, I keep harping on this. That's the job of institutions and elected leaders is to anticipate and absorb these types of events without having a 30% drop in the economy, as projected to be later in this year. I also think this last point is take care of people right now and build in the automatic investments that we need to take care of people in future.
James Temple: Great. Gernot, did you have any other things you'd want to add to any of the last points here?
Gernot Wagner: Amen. Yes. I mean in so many ways that is right. Yes. People are hurting right now. There are certainly ways to overplay the climate angle in lots of these conversations and we need to be careful there. On the other hand, I guess I would also add, let's not pretend to be saints or try to be saints here, right? Everyone else is lobbying too, why should the climate lobbyist sit this one out? Right? This goes with the, you know, we need to walk and chew, I guess run and chew in this case, at the same time. It doesn't mean that every one of us has to be doing precisely that. On the other hand, well it's a lobbying bonanza right now on Capitol Hill. So you know, instead of us having conversations about should we, could we, is it appropriate to, well let's get on with it and in fact engage in these conversations while at the same time, right, prefacing every one of your paragraphs by saying let's make sure that we have enough face masks for medical first responders.
James Temple: Okay. Well thank you. Thank you everyone. Thank you both and everyone in the conversation for having such a thoughtful conversation and really appreciate you coming and joining the call. Everyone, please take care of yourselves and your family in this sort of weird and stressful period we find ourselves in and yeah, we look forward to continuing the conversation in the days and weeks ahead. And with that, I think we will go ahead and close off the call. Thank you. Thank you.
The hottest new climate technology is bricks
Heat batteries could help cut emissions by providing new routes to use solar and wind power.
This abundant material could unlock cheaper batteries for EVs
Sodium-based batteries could start hitting the market this year, if companies follow through on their plans.
This startup says its first fusion plant is five years away. Experts doubt it.
Helion, backed by OpenAI's Sam Altman, has already lined up Microsoft as its first customer.
How sodium could change the game for batteries
Cheaper batteries might be on the horizon.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.