Sunburst: April 2020

Is the Global Response to COVID-19 a Prelude to the Response to the Climate Crisis?

The global coronavirus pandemic is a frightening event unlike anything most of us have seen in our lifetimes. My heart goes out to all who have been impacted by this crisis, either directly or indirectly.  Even for those of us fortunate to have thus far avoided the virus I feel deep empathy for those who have been sickened or otherwise impacted by the disease. And I am incredibly heartened by the heroic first responders, doctors, nurses, medics, service workers, grocery store suppliers, and a long list of many others who have jeopardized their own lives and worked long hours to stem the spread of disease, save as many lives as possible, and keep the bulk of the population fed and secure from what could have been an even a worse outbreak than we have experienced thus far.

The national, regional, and local government responses to mitigating the spread and impact of the virus have been, at best, mixed. Governments who closely followed the advice of their medical experts, and acted decisively and unequivocally on the advice, have probably significantly mitigated the potential death and disruptions that would have resulted if no action were taken. Other governments were slow to respond and ill-prepared to take decisive action, and in some cases unwilling to accept the full scale of the problem, despite the advice from the medical experts. And sadly, in a few cases, some governments see the economy as such an overriding force in our society that they were willing to sacrifice human life in order to avoid economic disruptions.

The conflicting choices between addressing human suffering and restarting national economies is dominating the headlines now; in many cases around the world the infection rate is beginning to decrease. Nevertheless, the virus has plunged the world into a recession unlike anything we have seen since the 1930’s. Governments are borrowing substantial funds to provide relief to small and large businesses, local governments, and individuals, and have invested enormous treasure to prop up weakened medical facilities and address the lack of supplies in many parts of the world. We are witnessing the enaction of an unprecedented global stimulus package, hastily thrown together in a matter of days or weeks, and almost as quickly being depleted by the needs of impacted businesses, citizens, and critical institutions.

Is this the position governments should now be in, given how scientists have been warning us for years about global pandemics that could quickly infect millions and even billions in a very short time? Certainly not. Of course, some countries (e.g. New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Germany, Australia) were well prepared and took decisive early action that prevented high death rates and avoided overwhelmed medical systems and supplies. But unfortunately, this has not been the path followed by many governments, such as my own U.S. government. And some countries are taking virtually no action whatsoever.

But my intention for this column is to address an even bigger global crisis that could result in massive death and disruption to human populations and the planet within the next few decades (or sooner) — rapid climate change. As with the medical professionals dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, there are numerous climate scientists and sustainability professionals around the world already warning their governments about the impending impacts of rapid climate change that society is facing, and the actions they should be taking now to mitigate and hopefully avoid catastrophe. The analogy of the urgent COVID-19 crisis with the impending climate crisis which is already beginning to sweep over us is scary. The tale of the frog in the kettle of water, which is slowly coming to a boil, only to realize it is too late to escape, comes to mind. There will soon come the time when it is too late for us to take the necessary climate mitigation actions. The lack of preparedness of many countries in responding to COVID-19 could very likely be repeated when dealing with the impending climate crisis.

But there are many influential voices speaking on how COVID-19 must be a wake-up call for addressing climate change. On April 20 the International Renewable Energy Agency released its first Global Renewables Outlook, which lays out very clearly the challenges we face and a roadmap to follow to reduce CO2 emissions at a massive scale and to avoid global warming beyond 2 0C, and ideally 1.5 0C, by the end of this century. The parallels to the COVID-19 crisis were highlighted In the forward prepared by the IRENA Director General, Francesco La Camera, where he notes that “…the short-term solutions adopted in the face of COVID-19 are in line with medium- and long-term development and climate objectives”.

In an ironic twist, the global pandemic possibly reached its highest impact the same week we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, which occurred on 22 April 1970. In advance if this historic date IRENA’s Coalition for Action (in which ISES is actively engaged) organized an online forum on “COVID-19 and beyond: Impact on the renewable energy sector”, and followed with a Call to Action that provides specific guidance to governments on how the COVID-19 response should build a more sustainable, and healthy future for all. And throughout the Earth Day week the CleanTech Business Club organized its first World CleanTech Week e-Convention which convened about 26 panel discussions addressing all aspects of CleanTech development, including ways to address the rapid transition to a renewable energy future as part of our COVID-19 response. The e-conference had significant input from ISES, with former ISES Vice President Eicke Weber serving as Chair, and several ISES members and board members participating in the panels that were held live throughout the week. All of the panel sessions can now be streamed via YouTube, and a Conference Declaration will be released shortly.

And another call for governments to use stimulus funding to stop the pandemic and slow climate change was issued just this week by the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres in an op-ed published in the New York Times. His message is consistent with those coming out of the events mentioned above, and must be heard by all governments: that the renewable energy industry and related infrastructure must be designated as a critical and essential sector; that stimulus packages must prioritize towards decarbonizing all aspects of our economy, producing green jobs, and not in bailing out outdated carbon-intensive industries; that actions must be taken urgently: and perhaps most important, that international cooperation is essential in resolving these emergencies.

Many ISES members and board members are actively involved in developing and delivering these important messages. By promoting the development of innovative technologies, and advocating for their use to lead us to a decarbonized, 100% renewable energy future, ISES is serving as a key player in developing these important COVID-19 response strategies.


This article was written by:

Dr. David Renné

ISES Immediate Past President