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The coronavirus pandemic has seduced policy analysts into drawing parallels between the current state of the world and a crisis they envision unfolding due to global warming. For Yale’s climate-change center, the Society of Environmental Journalists, and Vox, among others, this analogy has proven tempting. Even NYU professor and renowned climate economist Gernot Wagner has drawn the parallel, writing at Project Syndicate that “a good way to think about the coronavirus pandemic is that it is like climate change at warp speed.”
But the coronavirus-climate analogy is too clever by half. Eager to draw attention to their fields of interest, these analysts have disregarded two significant differences between our ability to deal with epidemiological risk and with climate risk. The first difference arises from the time-scales on which pandemics and climate change occur. The second difference is the degree to which a local, regional, and even national government can institute effective mitigation policies.
With respect to time-scale, we need not call into question Wagner’s preferred climate-risk models to show why the comparison is improper, we need only to recirculate his own work that explains the profundity of the differences. Wagner writes in his Project Syndicate article that “public-health ‘breaking points’ are to the COVID-19 pandemic what ‘tipping points’ are to climate change.” But the analogy is inconsistent with Wagner’s 2016 paper co-authored with Robert E. Kopp, Rachael L. Shwom, and Jiacan Yuan under the title “Tipping Elements and Climate–Economic Shocks: Pathways toward Integrated Assessment.”
The 2016 paper is an exercise in language clarification, assessing the use of tipping point in the climate economics literature. The term itself, of course, was introduced to our vernacular by Malcolm Gladwell in his 1996 New Yorker article and his subsequent book. Gladwell characterizes tipping points as being contagion-like and involving large changes that result from small changes and (this is important) occur quickly. Wagner’s 2016 paper accounts for Gladwell’s popularization of the term and, thus, cautions against using it too liberally. In the authors’ words, “[We] recommend that the term tipping point be reserved for Gladwellian critical thresholds, which we define as the critical thresholds exhibited by tipping elements with no significant lag between commitment and realization, and recommend that the generic term critical threshold be used more broadly.” The authors contrast their recommendation with the more cavalier usage of Timothy M. Lenton et al., writing that “[Lenton et al.’s] climatic definition dropped Gladwell’s third element altogether: state shifts in climatic tipping elements need not occur rapidly but can instead play out over an extended period of time.” Tipping point, Wagner and his colleagues argued in 2016, should be used to describe the Gladwellian pattern in which consequences follow quickly from actions.
A pandemic is a quintessential Gladwellian event. Consequences come at us fast. Climate change may have similar elements, but as the 2016 paper warns, to consider it Gladwellian in toto is to ignore key differences. Relative to the current pandemic, time is on our side with respect to climate change. We have decades of iterative science to guide our expectations for the future and, accordingly, our plans. We can adapt and, because of the lag effect, may even be able to undo climate impact through geoengineering. Again, Wagner’s 2016 argument cuts against his 2020 coronavirus-climate analogy: “Provided that the committed state shift can be detected, lags between realized and committed changes may allow for interventions.” That climate change entails decades, even centuries, of lag means that pandemic breaking points and climate tipping points differ not in degree, but in kind.
The second error in comparing the pandemic to climate change is that it implies we can respond to pandemics and to climate change with the same institutions.
As different countries, U.S. states, and municipalities have responded in varied ways to the global pandemic, we have been able to observe the successes and failures of different approaches. The evidence suggests that a government’s action can mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2 into and within its population. Wagner highlights the responses of Hong Kong and Singapore as effective. Indeed, the actions taken by Hong Kong and Singapore’s respective governments seem to have lessened their populations’ exposure.
No action is available to those same governments to limit their populations’ exposure to climate change. Climate change requires no contact; it knows no political borders. So while Singapore’s government can bar all Chinese nationals from entering the country, it has no power to bar China’s greenhouse-gas emissions from threatening its coastline via accelerating sea level rise. Singapore has the capacity to flatten its own coronavirus curve, but it is only responsible for 0.15 percent of global carbon emissions. And the U.S. certainly has more diplomatic heft, it is itself only responsible for 14 percent of global emissions. To resolve a global challenge like atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations would require more international coordination and compliance than our present geopolitics would suggest is possible. If we cannot trust the Chinese Communist Party to relay critical epidemiological information, such as the virus’s genetic sequence or even the number of deaths it has caused, why should we trust it, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, to enforce emissions policies detrimental to the sectors that have enables the country’s economic ascent?
While climate change is something no local, regional, or national policy can stop, the lag between emissions and climate consequences allows private actors and governments to adjust their expectations and plans. In this regard, Singapore is again exemplary.
The acute, Gladwellian nature of the coronavirus pandemic distinguishes it from the slow burn of climate change. Rather than teaching us much about climate change, the pandemic has simply highlighted the human propensity to map new circumstances onto our existing formulas, whether they fit or not.