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Will We Ever See a Coronavirus-Style Lockdown Due to Climate Change?

The current quarantine has shown how much of a difference we can make to the environment in a short space of time, but it may not be enough if things continue to get worse

CO2 and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have decreased since the lockdown — in April, air pollution rates dropped by 30 percent. It’s pretty easy to connect the dots — the reduction is largely due to restrictions on air travel and stay-at-home orders. The lockdown, then, seems to actually be helping our planet.  

“The effects on emissions are super strange, because it hits certain industries much more than others,” says University of Washington atmospheric scientist Michael Diamond. “You can see this in China, South Korea, Europe and the U.S. That form of air pollution went down really dramatically, really quickly, once you got cars off the street.”

Sadly, this isn’t the time to take a victory lap, even in these awful times where a feel-good story is so needed. “We haven’t seen as much of a change in really heavy industries, like steel or power plants,” states Diamond. Which figures — sure, cars are off the roads since people aren’t commuting, but electricity is still needed to power their Zoom meetings. “It’s had a big reduction in some of these short-lived pollutions,” Diamond elaborates. “But not as much on the parts of pollution in the atmosphere that actually affects climate.” 

Even though CO2 emissions are already down five percent this year — the largest decrease we’ve ever seen — “You need a seven and a half percent decrease to meet the 1.5 degree Celsius target from the Paris Agreement,” says Diamond. “The type of industrial lockdown you have right now, even that’s not enough to meet those requirements.” Worse, he continues, “In past economic downturns, like the Great Recession, you had catch-up growth and catch up pollution. Basically, all the factories that were idled tried to make up some of that loss. They kind of went into overdrive and were actually polluting more right after.”

Take China, for example. The country had a big reduction in pollution levels in February, but once restrictions were lifted, that decrease was gone. “It’s right back to where you wouldn’t know anything weird had happened if you’d only looked at that month’s satellite data,” says Diamond. “As soon as we get our cars back on the road, that’s going to go right back up.”

 It should go without saying that maintaining the current U.S. emissions levels probably won’t be a top priority for a president who has backed out of the Paris Agreement and claimed climate change is a scam created by the Chinese. “That has always been very frustrating for the scientific community,” says Kevin Gurney, a climate scientist at Northern Arizona University. “Science [used to be] very much at the table and politicians tended to take scientific information at face value, not second guess it with political motivation.” 

Over his decades of study, Gurney has watched in horror as politics has overtaken the global warming discourse, changing the entire discussion from one based on science to an intentional insertion of misinformation, designed to appease a political agenda. “It became just a totally nefarious activity,” says Gurney. “In climate change, those things took on a life, and they wreak havoc on our ability to have a rational conversation. Politics just overrode it.” 

We’ve seen this happen a lot in the last few years — the dismantling of major climate and environmental policies — to help bring in dirty money and campaign support from the coal industry and others. And now, we’ve seen politics come into play with the coronavirus pandemic, with the simple act of wearing a mask to prevent the spread of a deadly disease shifting from straight-up common sense to something decided by tribal affiliation, again led by a president who’s determined to sacrifice the lives of workers to open up our economy. 

Put it all together and it naturally raises the question: What happens if we get to this sort of tipping point with climate change? What drastic measures would need to be taken if large pieces of Antarctic ice sheets suddenly began cleaving off? We’re seeing firsthand the immediate impact of cars being taken off the roads — would instigating a global lockdown work (or even be feasible) as a last-ditch attempt to save the planet? 

It’s not an idea without a basis in reality: In 2015, Beijing had a smog red-alert, shutting down the entire city for three days. Calling it a state of emergency as pollution engulfed the Chinese capital, building sites, schools, and factories were forced to close, cars were kept off the roads and citizens were required to wear anti-pollution face masks. 

Distressingly, though, the short answer is that, if we ever reach such a catastrophic global warming tipping point, we’d already pretty much be so screwed that a lockdown would be like putting a Band-Aid on a severed limb. “At that point, you can’t do anything with emissions to make a big difference, because emissions are cumulative,” explains Diamond. “What really matters in the atmosphere is how much CO2 you’ve been pumping up for the last 200 years, not necessarily how much you’re pumping into the atmosphere today.”

Like our current pandemic, the global warming tipping point could happen relatively quickly and be hard to predict, occurring, perhaps, over just a few months. “I can’t imagine how we’d respond to something that fast,” says Gurney. “It’s like dropping an ice cube into a glass of water — it immediately displaces the water and the water rises. If that were to occur, we’re talking about meters of sea level rise.”

Gurney also concurs that an industrial lockdown would have little impact. “Think of the atmosphere as a giant bucket and emissions are like a small spigot,” he explains. You could shut off the spigot (i.e., have a global industrial lockdown), but the amount of water in the bucket (i.e., the damage already done to the planet) remains. It’s like a car careening down a steep hill, says Gurney. “Even if we take our foot off the gas pedal, it’s not going to make a lot of difference — the car is going to keep moving,” he tells me. 

If an industrial lockdown would have zero impact, then, what could be done to prevent a catastrophe?

One idea put out there by scientists is geoengineering, often referred to as climate intervention. Diamond and his colleagues published a study in March that suggests a certain amount of sulfate pollution can actually bounce the sun’s energy back into space, thus helping cool the planet. Based on Diamond’s research, this sort of solar radiation management — “Deliberately putting particles in the atmosphere, changing clouds to make them more reflective” — would be one example of climate intervention: an environmental Hail Mary pass with 30 seconds on the clock to fling emissions into the atmosphere in an attempt to save the planet.

“There’s currently a lot of research going on, mostly using climate models to figure out what some unintended consequences of that would be,” states Diamond. “But that’s kind of my fear — or my idea — of what we should be thinking about with a climate intervention. We really don’t want to get to the point where we’re making that decision — it’s a really bad decision if you have to decide between losing all the coral reefs, or trying to reflect more sunlight in a natural way and hoping that it works out.” 

Again, there’s a strong parallel to the coronavirus hitting America: There would have been far less loss of life had we been prepared and taken the required precautions to save lives. “The longer you wait, the worse your options become,” Diamond expresses. “The longer you spend with your head in the sand, the worse the problem gets.” 

“I’d argue we aren’t prepared,” states Gurney. “We haven’t built up infrastructure and even human system resiliency that could withstand these events.” As an example, Gurney points to the frequency of large category hurricanes, which now tend to be more unpredictable and intense and could blindside us in the same way as did the current pandemic. “Coastal cities, which are certainly on the frontline of a lot of aspects of climate change impact, are just not ready or able to withstand the type of impacts we anticipate,” he says. 

Think about the devastation in New Orleans and Manhattan after Hurricane Katrina and Sandy — these are a mere taste of the tipping point, and as we saw with those climate catastrophes, those cities were utterly unprepared for those storms.

“A lot of the similarity,” says Diamond, comparing global warming to the coronavirus, “[is that] you get into problems when you start dismissing the science because you don’t like what it’s telling you. If you’re just looking for magic bullets and ignoring the rest of the science, you’re going to get yourself into trouble. Because reality doesn’t really care about what your opinions are. It just is what it is.”

Thus, shouldn’t global warming naysayers take what has happened with the pandemic  as a cautionary tale? 

“There appears to be a subset of people that are into conspiracy theories, so they just don’t believe the science,” says Gurney. “I’ve always felt, with climate change, there’s also a bit of psychological projection. It’s hard for the average person to get their head around the magnitude of the problem, how big the planet is, how big the energy system is — these are almost things that are outside anybody’s normal human scale, so it’s very difficult to relate to them.”

Again and again, Gurney has heard people try to deny climate change with such reasoning as, “Last winter in my town, it was colder than normal — how can there be global warming?” But “climate change is at a scale far above that,” Gurney points out. “And those types of small variations are irrelevant.” Once more, there are parallels to COVID-19, with people trying to justify breaking social-distancing guidelines — by spending their Memorial Day at a packed Ozarks pool party, say — with, “Well, nobody that I know has gotten sick.” (In reality, it goes beyond parallels, to direct links between the two: Air pollution kills seven million people each year, and air pollution is associated with higher COVID-19 death rates, since the virus attacks the lungs.)

“People get frustrated when they can’t see the future,” says Diamond. “The future looks scary if you’re telling them it’s just staying at home for the next 12 to 18 months. You shouldn’t really be that surprised when at least a fraction of them get angry. That’s something to think about in climate change as well.”

That said, the challenges we’ve faced from the coronavirus have made Diamond more optimistic for the human race. “When you ask people to stay home, to make a sacrifice, most people have done it. The American people really seem like they’ve been willing to step up to the plate,” he says. “People are generally in favor of the policies that have been put in place so far, but you can kind of understand some of the frustrations when it seems like we don’t have a good plan in place. We should keep that in mind for climate.”

“If we really did have a unanimous sense of urgency like we do around this pandemic, people really can act,” says Gurney. “It demonstrates that when the public does feel significantly under threat, we can function in a pretty concerted, across the spectrum fashion.”

“If you think about it, we’ve kind of just done this giant experiment like, ‘Oh, what if everyone worked from home and didn’t take an airplane for two months,’” Diamond adds. “That swing in lower emissions rates could continue if employers allow more people to work from home — thus not driving to work, flying less — and helping to lower some carbon dioxide emissions.”

But as already mentioned, that’s just one side of the permanent change needed — the other is large scale infrastructure changes. “To seriously make a dent, especially in climate pollution, you really need policies targeting that,” Diamond concludes. “Clean energy and other kinds of policies that clean up emissions at the source. The statistics are impressive in that people seem to be buying what’s being told from the experts and trying to adhere to that. Hopefully, one day, we’ll have a government that can step up to the plate, too.”