In January, the World Economic Forum put climate change and related risks at the top of its long-term threat list, displacing old worries from cyberattacks to economic instability.
Then a small virus outbreak in a Chinese market roared into a global pandemic that has taken more than 400,000 lives, flattened economies and swept away the illusion that any country — even the richest — is adequately prepared for the unexpected.
We’ve learned some hard lessons that apply to climate change risks too, among them that we’re all more vulnerable than we thought and our systems aren’t nearly resilient enough to respond to large-scale threats.
As a tiny virus forces us to reconsider everything about the way we live and do business, there’s an opportunity to think big about what we want life to look like afterward, and prepare now for the next looming global threat: climate change.
Philanthropic spending on climate change has been slowly growing in recent years, as more individuals, foundations, businesses, and charities recognize the risks and opportunities around it. But the prominent rise of a global climate protest movement last year — and a surge in climate-related disasters — have recently helped spur some big donations, including a US$10 billion commitment from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos in February, as well as a decision by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to include climate change as one of its key issues.
Where would money, well-spent, make a difference in fighting climate change? We asked 10 of the world’s leading climate change thinkers for their top ideas:
Since its COVID-19 lockdown began and its traffic jams dried up, New Delhi has seen its black, smog-choked skies turn blue. What would it take to keep them clean? Ambitious clean public transport systems, said Sunita Narain, director of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment.
“I’m talking about reinventing mobility at a scale we’ve never seen before, connecting the hinterlands to the main cities,” she said. Government spending on COVID-19 economic recovery, combined with other investment, could drive “a new kind of mobility” that could make life better for everyone and slash climate-changing emissions.
In fast-growing sub-Saharan Africa, where cities such as Lagos and Kinshasa face being overwhelmed by migrants as farmers succumb to more extreme weather, smart money could go into building climate-resilient secondary cities prepared for growth and migration, said Maarten van Aalst, a climate scientist and head of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.
Right now, with new arrivals flooding into slums without adequate water, sewers, transport or green spaces, “we are basically constructing the risks for a devastating future,” he said.
But spending to create cities with well-insulated dense housing, clean transport that allows people to get to work, new kinds of climate-smart jobs and green spaces to curb surging heatwaves could save lives, and demonstrate that climate-smart development is possible, he said.
Electric cars are on their way to becoming the norm — but it wasn’t traditional carmakers that started the trend.
“The idea was on the table for a long time, and the classic car companies had no interest at all in developing it. It needed someone else with money and a long time horizon to take it forward,” said Niklas Höhne, founder of the NewClimate Institute in Germany.
Now similar companies are needed to pioneer things like hydrogen-powered flight, ammonia-fueled shipping or solar-powered blast furnaces capable of producing the high temperatures needed to melt steel, he and other scientists said.
Investing strategically in new companies “that can show the world these new technologies are better than the existing ones could really move the ball forward significantly,” Höhne said.
Sam Fankhauser, director of London’s Grantham Research Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, would specifically support commercial-scale demonstrations of a not-new but crucial technology: carbon capture and storage, or the ability to bury climate-changing emissions underground.
Such technology could be used, for instance, to produce zero-emissions hydrogen, to power air transport and home heating, or to grow and burn trees and other biomass for energy, effectively sucking carbon out of the atmosphere to produce “negative” emissions.
Last September, more than six million young climate strikers took to the streets from Bangkok to Nairobi to demand faster action to curb climate change.
Many of them could become the next generation of leaders driving climate policy — like Greta Neubauer, a former college fossil fuel divestment organizer now pushing climate legislation as a Wisconsin state assembly member, said May Boeve, the head of environmental group 350.org.
What do the budding climate leaders need? Training in leadership skills and ongoing mentoring, as well as some seed money to back local climate-smart initiatives they’re pushing around the world, she said.
“If they are invested in, they could be the ones helping make the decisions in the next 10, 20, 30 years,” she said. “What would it look like if they got the support now to be the policymakers of the future, all over the world?”
A Price on Carbon Pollution
Right now, in most of the world, fossil fuel power plants, factories or even those of us driving cars pay nothing to emit climate pollutants. But those emissions have a huge social cost, in everything from more asthma hospital admissions to more extreme hurricanes and floods.
Establishing a global carbon price would include those costs in decision-making, make clean renewable energy cheaper, and reward those who opt for climate-smart choices, said Katharine Hayhoe, a climate and political scientist at Texas Tech University.
“Every economist in the world agrees the fastest way to cut emissions is a price on carbon. And every major oil company, on paper, says they support it,” she said. In the United States, “it has bi-partisan support and the money (you collect) can be returned to households each year.”
So how do you get a carbon price? Contribute cash to political campaigns aimed at voting out key politicians that block the measure “and then so many ducks will fall into a row” on battling climate change, she said.
Changing Minds – and Policies
Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, “we’re in such a moment of disruption that radical ideas people formally may have thought as absolutely impossible are now coming into the mix,” said Jennifer Morgan, the head of Greenpeace International.
But which climate-smart ideas — such as moving away from GDP growth as an indicator of success — might people now be ready to support? Public opinion polling could show us.
“We need to know where we will have public support to push ahead,” she said. Testing some ideas and finding what resonates might indicate where it’s possible to push ahead fast — and prove to policymakers there’s a groundswell of support.
Hayhoe, of Texas Tech, thinks another key is scaling up training programs to help people who care about global warming — particularly climate scientists — change minds in their own social circles, whether it’s the Rotary Club, the gardening society, the skiers association or, in her case, the evangelical Christian community.
Studies show people put their trust in friends and family first — and scientists come second, she said. To truly change minds about the need for climate action — a prerequisite for policy change — people need to hear the news from people they know.
About one in three people in sub-Saharan Africa lacks access to electricity. Getting clean power to those who need it could both hold down emissions on the fast-growing continent and spur economies, said Mohamed Adow, founding director of Power Shift Africa, a Nairobi think tank.
He would invest in decentralized, community-run solar and wind power systems at a scale sufficient to run energy-hungry businesses, not just lights.
“These decentralized models create more jobs, generate more growth,” Adow said. “It’s how we end up with a paradigm shift for Africa.”
To help communities from Afghanistan to Tanzania already struggling to adapt to deadly climate change threats, Saleemul Huq, of the Bangladesh-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development, would put his money into BRAC, the world’s largest NGO.
Famed for initiatives such as installing millions of home rainwater harvesting systems around the world and pushing hard for education for girls, the Bangladesh-based charity is now trying to make sure all the development it supports is climate-smart — making it possible to enormously scale up efforts to cut climate risks for the world’s poorest.
“If you want to help tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, they can do it,” Huq said.
Francesco Femia, co-founder of the Center for Climate and Security, sees a need to invest in climate-proofing everything from ports to hospitals to military bases, and making sure anything new is built low-carbon and designed to withstand risks from sea level
rise to water shortages.
“What this coronavirus moment is telling us is there’s a need for massive investments in resilience. Our systems are much more fragile than most people thought. We’re facing unprecedented risks — but we also have unprecedented tools to deal with those risks, if we choose to invest in them,” he said. Just as many of the world’s systems, from healthcare to supply chains, haven’t proved resilient to a pandemic, so most of the world’s key infrastructure is hugely vulnerable to climate change impacts.
What’s the smartest place to invest? A lot depends on your interests, climate experts say. But it’s worth keeping in mind that fighting the next big crisis is as much about changing minds as changing tech.
“A lot has to go into political awareness, changing behaviour, keeping up the public pressure — even persuading people electric cars are fun to drive,” said Fankhauser of the Grantham Institute.