Lessons from a pandemic: Solutions for the climate crisis

Climate scientist Michael Mann to speak at Trottier Symposium on Sustainable Engineering, Energy, and Design
Michael E. Mann is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State, with joint appointments in the Department of Geosciences and the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. Joshua Yospyn

Can lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic be applied to the climate crisis?

What are the most promising and equitable solutions to climate change? Which ones are most likely to face resistance from the public or special-interest groups? And how can scientists communicate their work effectively to policy makers?

Those questions will be the focus of the 7th Annual Trottier Symposium on Sustainable Engineering, Energy, and Design, to be held online September 16.

Penn State climate scientist Michael E. Mann is one of the event’s featured speakers. Professor Mann has been at the front lines of the “climate wars” since the late 1990s when, as a postdoctoral researcher, he co-published the now iconic “hockey stick” graph, which shows Earth’s temperature cooling gradually over the past millennium, before rising sharply in the 20th century.  

Among his many awards and honours: Mann was selected by Scientific American as one of the 50 leading visionaries in science and technology in 2002; he made Bloomberg News’ list of 50 most influential people in 2013; he received the Award for Public Engagement with Science from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2018; and he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2020. He is also a co-founder of the award-winning science website RealClimate.org.

His latest book, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet, is due out early next year.  

In advance of the symposium, Mann spoke with the McGill Reporter from Pennsylvania, where he is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science and director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center. Following is a condensed version of that conversation.   

What lessons from the pandemic can be applied to the climate crisis?

One thing we learned is the importance of actually listening to scientists when it comes to risk and dealing with threats. Scientists were fairly clear early on about the importance of social distancing measures and mask wearing. Here in the United States, unfortunately, we have an administration that caters to the voices of anti-science and unreason and what we’re seeing play out here is the worst coronavirus epidemic in the world. We only have 4 per cent of the global population, but 25 per cent of the coronavirus cases.

Scientists have for decades been warning us about an even greater crisis: human-caused climate change. What the science has been saying is we need to move away from fossil fuels, toward renewable energy. Well, that’s a threat to the moneyed interests who currently really run environmental policy in the Republican Party and in the Trump administration. Fossil fuel interests continue to make huge profits off our addiction to fossil fuels, even though that’s doing damage to the planet. It’s inconvenienced them to listen to what the scientists are saying because it’s a threat to their bottom financial line, and the Trump administration has been representing their interests over the interests of the rest of us who are suffering the consequences of unmitigated climate change.

So, lesson number one: science denial is deadly. Whether it’s denying what the public health community has said about the pandemic. Or what the climate research community has been saying about the impacts of climate change, which are now deadly: the unprecedented wildfires in the Western U.S., the superstorms. This is the face of climate change. There are human lives that are being lost.

What are some of the other lessons?

Another lesson is the fragility of having 7.8 billion people competing for finite food and water and space. We created this huge infrastructure to leverage the carrying capacity of this planet – almost a factor of 10 higher than what would naturally be, when it comes to the human population. And we’ve seen how all of that can be interrupted by the chaos that the pandemic has created. The fragility of our existence on this planet has been laid bare by the impact that the coronavirus, this microscopic entity, has had on our lives and our lifestyles.

How much have this year’s economic disruptions curbed carbon emissions?

Despite the remarkable changes in lifestyle that we’ve had to undertake to combat this pandemic, when the numbers are in by the end of the year it’s looking like all of those fundamental changes will only have led to a 4 per cent to 5 per cent reduction in global carbon emissions. Now, we have to reduce carbon emissions by more than that amount every year for the next decade if we’re going to achieve the reductions necessary to avoid catastrophic warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

What that tells us is that behavioural changes alone aren’t going to be enough. We need systemic change. We need to decarbonize our economy. We need to stop burning fossil fuels for energy and transportation. That’s the only way that we will achieve the needed reduction in carbon emissions.

We should all be the best steward of the environment we can be and do things in our daily life that lower our environmental footprint. But that alone isn’t enough.

It sounds like a huge challenge.

There are lots of problems. But there are also reasons for cautious optimism. The impacts of climate change have become so obvious to the person on the street that politicians can’t deny that something’s happening.

We’re starting to see conservatives come to the table – not the Trump base, but moderate conservatives. Worthy policy debate is starting to emerge: not about whether we need to do something, but how we do it. We have conservatives like Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina who’s now leading one of the efforts in the United States to bring conservatives to the table, talking about things like revenue-neutral carbon taxes – where you put a tax on carbon but you lower other taxes so that the overall taxation doesn’t change.

So we’re starting to see some real conversation, not just the empty hollow rhetoric of adaptation and innovation.

You wrote recently in The Guardian that within two decades we could decarbonize our power sector and create 25 million clean energy jobs. What technologies could make that possible? 

Here’s what’s so amazing about it: it doesn’t require massive innovation, new discoveries.

We don’t need a miracle. The miracle is already there. It’s the sun, it’s the wind, geothermal. It’s simply a matter of incentives, because if you incentivize the shift to renewable energy, you create more jobs, you grow the economy, and you decarbonize the economy. That saves you a lot of money because it turns out that there are a lot of negative health impacts when you’re burning fossil fuels, when you’re burning coal, and finding natural gas. So you get these savings, you get new efficiencies. We can reach 80 per cent of energy demand from renewable energy by 2030, to 100 per cent by 2050, if we just put the right incentives in place.

What other hopeful developments do you see?

I think Greta Thunberg and the other youth climate protesters have almost singlehandedly re-centered the conversation where it always should have been: on intergenerational ethics, our obligation not to leave a degraded planet behind for our children and grandchildren.

And political tipping points. Here in the United States, we had one on marriage equality. Back in the Obama years, there was a dramatic change in public opinion, and now there’s a large majority of Americans who support marriage equality. We have seen over the past several months a similar tipping point on issues of racial justice. And issues of racial justice intersect with climate justice and environmental justice, so that’s now an important part of the conversation. I think the next tipping point will be on climate action.

Dangerous climate change is already here, but we can still avert the worst impacts of climate change if we act boldly, if we act quickly.

We still have the opportunity to preserve a livable planet for our children and grandchildren. For me, that’s very empowering. The fundamental challenges aren’t physics or economics or anything else. It’s just politics. Politics can be reshaped by the will of the people, and I think that’s happening right now.

To attend the Sept. 16 online symposium, register here: https://www.trottiersymposium.org

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3 years ago

Mr. Mann is most famous for the hockey stick graph about supposed global temperature change. Readers can go and find a large body of analysis of his work by respected Canadian experts in statistics showing his study violated most of the rules about the proper use of statistics and is an example of really bad scientific methodology. His study should be used as a case study in how NOT to do science at McGill – it was certainly not how I learned in at McGill. But further, Mann’s assertions about energy production, politics and economics display a sweeping ignorance of… Read more »