U.S. mayors tell us that their new “normal” after COVID-19 will include climate measures. I’m heartened to hear this, especially because well-designed climate solutions can significantly boost our ailing economy. And COVID-19 actually has a number of lessons that we’d do well to remember when taking climate action:
First, we underestimate risk. When COVID-19 first appeared in other countries, we were slow to act, not seeing the great risk to ourselves. The same holds true for climate change: A majority of Americans say that climate change is happening, that it’s man-made and concerning, but they also believe climate change is distant, affecting other species, people in other countries and future generations.
But according to scientists, global warming is already harming Americans. In the Northeast, it’s causing more frequent, intense rains and flooding. In the Southeast, sea level rise is causing greater storm surge and high-tide flooding. Warming in the Southwest has led to more frequent and intense heat waves, drought and a greater risk of wildfires.
All these trends will continue. For these and many more reasons, the World Health Organization lists climate change as the top threat to health in the 21st century.
Increasingly over the last two decades, science has been politicized. COVID-19 reminds us that nature will have its way. Diseases don’t care what we believe, and to ignore them can be dangerous. Likewise, we’d do well to heed the latest warnings from the world’s top scientists about climate change.
Second, we protect the health and safety of our families, our friends and our communities. When COVID-19 became an obvious threat to us, we took strong action. Climate change, too, threatens our loved ones, and we must respond. As with COVID-19, the poor and vulnerable are impacted to a greater extent, but none of us are beyond its reach. We must take strong action to protect ourselves and our families.
Third, it’s important to act as soon as possible. Countries like Hong Kong, South Korea and New Zealand that took decisive early action developed fewer COVID-19 cases. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tells us that speed is key with climate change, too.
If we institute strong measures over the next 10 years, we can stay within safe levels of warming. We must implement a variety of climate solutions, but the lion’s share of the work can and should be done by charging fossil fuel companies for carbon pollution since this is the fastest, cheapest way to lower carbon emissions.
The IPCC also warns that the longer we wait, the more expensive the carbon fee we have to impose, and if we wait too long, we’ll pass a tipping point beyond which action is ineffective.
Fourth, when we act together, we can be successful. As we saw with COVID-19, solutions to big problems require bipartisan cooperation. What are our chances of coming together on climate change?
Young people in both parties are equally supportive of climate action: “Some 77% of younger Republicans said that climate change is a serious threat, one percentage point more than Democrats in the same age range,” according to the survey by Ipsos and Newsy.
Diverse bedfellows advocate the same solution: charging fossil fuel companies for carbon pollution, with revenue returned to households as a regular dividend check. Among these supporters are Catholic bishops, trout fishermen, the National Ski Areas Association, conservative and liberal Students for Carbon Dividends, tech giants and more than 100 towns and cities, including 19 here in upstate New York. (Read their statements and municipal resolutions.)
Ordinary American citizens, too, support a carbon fee, as long as it is effective. (See this powerful congressional testimony on the subject by Conservative pollster, Frank Luntz.) Hearteningly, a Columbia study of a current carbon fee bill predicts its effectiveness. The bill specifies emissions reduction targets. If those aren’t reached on schedule, the carbon price goes up to ensure that the targets are reached.
But unlike with COVID, climate solutions don’t have to cost us. According to economists across the political spectrum, the most effective climate solution - charging fossil fuel companies for carbon pollution - is also the cheapest because it’s quick to implement and doesn’t grow the government.
And if the revenues are distributed via monthly dividend checks to American households, analysis shows this will adequately offset rising prices at the pump and grocery store and even put extra money in the pockets of most Americans.
In summary, pandemics and climate change are deadly for some and highly disruptive for many. But we can limit that harm significantly. The earlier the solutions are implemented, the less pain and suffering is caused. Indeed, for climate change, thoughtfully designed solutions like carbon fee and dividend go beyond limiting harm - they can be a gift to us economically.
Many smart climate solutions are also shelf-ready: for example, there’s a carbon fee and dividend bill already in Congress. It has fast-growing, diverse support in upstate New York and nationally. When we’re done dealing with COVID-19, let’s give this bill our support, too.
Miranda Phillips co-leads the Southern Finger Lakes chapter of Citizens’ Climate Education, which fosters local conversation about bipartisan federal climate solutions. This is the latest installment of the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. For more information about the organization, visit their website at SustainableTompkins.org.
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