Opinion

The pandemic showed us humanity could beat climate change, if we wanted

Humanity is capable of great things when sufficiently motivated. Will we save our planet?

The coronavirus pandemic is the most globally disruptive event in decades. The official death toll is around 5 million, but the final tally is certain to be far greater. We'll be dealing with the side effects of this suffering for decades.

But that's not the full story. The fight against COVID-19 has also demonstrated anew that humanity is capable of great things when sufficiently motivated. The pandemic has been a reminder that political capacity isn't set in stone. It has given us a model for the necessary scale of climate policy.

Surely the most impressive accomplishment of the pandemic is the vaccines. All previous vaccines took at least several years to go from design to production to studies demonstrating their efficacy. Most required well over a decade. The first inoculations against COVID-19 were designed in days or hours — and approved for administration about 11 months later — using a near-miraculous mRNA technology that shows great promise in halting other diseases.

That success was thanks largely to government action in the United States and, to a lesser extent, Europe. The Trump administration and a split Congress directed virtually limitless resources to anyone who could make a safe and effective vaccine. Additionally, mRNA technology had been greatly advanced by decades of grants from the National Science Foundation and work from scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). One NIH scientist — a government employee — designed the core of the Moderna vaccine over a single weekend.

However, Big Pharma must also be given its due. Moderna may be essentially an unlabeled government department, but Pfizer and BioNTech (a German company heavily subsidized by their government), Novavax, and Johnson & Johnson spent gobs of money on initial research and crash effectiveness studies. In normal times, pharma companies spend more on advertising than they do on research — and what research they do fund is often concerned with finding some minor tweak for an existing drug so they can extend the patent and keep charging eyewatering markups. Still, these companies have thousands of the best scientists on the planet, and it turns out, if you can just get them pointed in the right direction, they can work magic.

The vaccine rollout has been no less staggering. Thus far over seven billion doses have been administered — enough to fully vaccinate roughly 45 percent of the world population. Rich countries got first dibs, unsurprisingly, but India and China together account for nearly half the global total. After some delays, most of Southeast and Central Asia as well as Latin America are catching up to wealthy countries. Only Africa remains mostly unvaccinated, though even there progress is being made. All told, this is by far the largest and fastest vaccine rollout in history.

The second-most impressive aspect of the pandemic was the direct policy response. When the virus initially struck, almost every country in the world instituted panicked shutdown efforts to slow the spread. Public businesses closed, people stayed in their homes, and most governments set up test-trace-isolate systems to contain infection.

The bulk of Western countries had middling to poor records at controlling the spread (the U.S. was a dismal failure, while Norway and Finland were quite successful), but Eastern nations like China and Vietnam managed to squelch the initial outbreak so successfully they could cautiously remove most of their controls by mid-2020. To this day China — the largest country in the world, with many incredibly dense and heavily-connected megacities — has managed to keep a lid on the virus after the initial surge, even granting some fudging of the numbers (if there were an out-of-control outbreak, it would be impossible to hide). The much more contagious Delta variant is spreading there, but with over 80 percent vaccination, the worst of the danger has likely passed. (Alas, this summer, before mass vaccination, Vietnam suffered a Delta outbreak that escaped controls and caused thousands of deaths.)

Elsewhere, governments undertook frantic interventions to support the economy. In wealthy countries especially, consumer spending makes up such a huge proportion of the economy that there was no choice but to offer huge rescue packages to prevent a self-perpetuating cycle of bankruptcies and destitution. To my extreme surprise, the U.S. economic response turned out to be one of the most aggressive in the world. As usual, it wasn't particularly competent, but it was really freaking big — arguably the largest social support legislation since the New Deal, and certainly the most generous ever to the lowest-income workers. Poverty fell substantially and incomes rose at the bottom of society during the most severe economic contraction in American history. That's the opposite of what happened in every previous recession.

Amid all these victories, there has been a ton of failure, error, and sheer willful stupidity over the past year and a half. The greatest failure so far — leaving Africa unvaccinated — isn't the result of deliberate malice on the part of wealthy governments, but their failing to follow the logic of self-interest to its conclusion. It is hideously dangerous to all countries to leave any country unvaccinated, because new variants might crop up that get around the vaccines. We've already seen that danger with the Delta variant, and this manifest risk is no doubt motivating wealthy nations to (grudgingly and belatedly) start contributing more to the international vaccine supply.

Beyond that delay, public officials in the United States, Brazil, Sweden, the U.K., and elsewhere opted, at least temporarily, to let the pandemic rip through the population, with devastating results. And America is so politically rotten that after President Biden won the election, Republicans quickly became vaccine skeptics out of a combination of cynical ruthlessness, oppositional defiant disorder, and propaganda-induced brain rot.

But it's still worth taking a step back to reckon with our accomplishments since March 2020. If you had told me then, as the pandemic was taking hold, that within 11 months we'd have multiple safe, effective vaccines, that about a year later we'd have vaccinated half the Earth's population, and that both the EU and the U.S. would spend trillions to stabilize their economies, I wouldn't have been able to believe you. It's astounding to consider even now.

This is an instructive lesson for climate hawks. Before COVID-19, disease experts had been warning for years that a pandemic would strike sooner or later. They weren't heeded until the emergency was already upon us, at which point all the previously firm rules of politics went out the window, and governments flung civilization-scale resources at the problem.

That's exactly what we need for climate policy, too. The task at hand, if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, is to create that same political urgency before the crisis is here.

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