State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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COVID, Climate, and Collective Global Social Responsibility

Last week President Biden took two steps toward meeting America’s collective social responsibility to this nation and the rest of the planet. He set an ambitious goal for generating solar-powered electricity, and he used substantial presidential authority to require Americans to be vaccinated against COVID-19. What connects these two actions is that they are both governmental responses to the negative impact of technology.  Technology that brings great benefits also brings costs that must be addressed. This is a theme that I have been focused on throughout the combined COVID and climate crises now underway. Technology is so omnipresent in our lives that we barely notice it.

I am writing this blog piece on a small laptop computer wirelessly connected to the internet in my well-lit, nicely ventilated home. The technology that allowed me to research and write this churns invisibly in the background of our lifestyle, unnoticed and unremarkable. Unless we think about it. The technological base of modern life can damage both people and the planet, notably by causing the spread of COVID-19 or causing our climate to change. When technology causes negative impacts, we need to act as a global society to develop new technologies and policy or management techniques that can mitigate that damage. Solar cells and the COVID vaccine are examples of these technologies. Vaccine mandates, the project that developed these vaccines, and incentives for grid modernization are examples of policy and management techniques that can change behaviors that damage people and the planet.

In many parts of the world, people are desperately seeking the protection of COVID vaccines, but the vaccine is in short supply. In this country, we have more vaccine than we need, but about 80 million people have decided for one reason or another to refuse vaccination. Some people have genuine medical issues that prevent vaccination. But the overwhelming majority of the unvaccinated are willfully resisting due to ideology or spiritual beliefs. If COVID were not contagious, this would not be an issue. If someone refuses to reduce their own odds of getting sick or dying, I suppose that would be their own business. But COVID-19 is highly contagious and refusing to do everything you can to prevent it is far from a victimless crime. It is like driving while intoxicated. Yes, you may crash into a light post and die without hurting anyone else, but you also might run over a child before you hit the pole. Government has a responsibility to reduce DUI by punishing anyone who is proven to be a drunk driver. Government has a responsibility to protect people from infection by a deadly virus. If a safe and effective vaccine is available, government should use all its authority to encourage and even require its use.

Last week, the Biden Administration, in an aggressive use of its powers to regulate safety in the workplace, mandated vaccination or weekly testing for workers in large firms, the federal government, and federal contractors. Organizations that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding were also subject to vaccination requirements.  Katie Rogers and Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times reported that:

“President Biden on Thursday used the full force of his presidency to push two-thirds of American workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, reaching into the private sector to mandate that all companies with more than 100 workers require vaccination or weekly testing. Mr. Biden also moved to mandate shots for health care workers, federal contractors and the vast majority of federal workers, who could face disciplinary measures if they refuse. The sweeping actions, which the president announced in a White House speech, are the most expansive he has taken to control the pandemic and will affect almost every aspect of society. They also reflect Mr. Biden’s deep frustration with the roughly 80 million Americans who are eligible for shots but have not gotten them.”

Right wing reaction to the use of governmental authority was swift and negative, but many business leaders were happy to use the excuse of the president’s order to do what they already wanted to do. They understand that their businesses will not be able to fully function until COVID-19 is defeated and that the best tool for beating the virus is vaccination.

Climate change involves a more subtle cause and effect than COVID. A simple act, brewing my morning coffee has a relatively high carbon footprint. Growing and shipping the coffee beans, grinding them, manufacturing, shipping, and refrigerating the milk, brewing the coffee, and pumping water to my apartment all require fossil fuels. There is a relatively simple fix to this problem: decarbonizing our energy system. Last week the Biden Administration set ambitious goals for decarbonizing America’s energy supply. According to Ivan Penn of the New York Times:

“The Biden administration on Wednesday released a blueprint showing how the nation could move toward producing almost half of its electricity from the sun by 2050 — a potentially big step toward fighting climate change but one that would require vast upgrades to the electric grid. There is little historical precedent for expanding solar energy, which contributed less than 4 percent of the country’s electricity last year, as quickly as the Energy Department outlined in a new report. To achieve that growth, the country would have to double the amount of solar energy installed every year over the next four years and then double it again by 2030.”

While the cost of transforming the electric grid will be high, renewable energy is becoming less expensive and is already competitive with fossil fuels. Public infrastructure investment along with solar cell cost reductions should help transform the private market for energy. Accelerating the decarbonization process faster than the market would on its own will require both government incentives and compulsion through regulation. Both COVID and climate require government intervention and the utilization of government’s authority.

In both cases, the reason for the use of government authority is to fulfill the fundamental, irreducible function of government: protecting the lives and security of the public. The technology of energy and global travel have brought wondrous benefits to humanity. But they have also delivered climate change and COVID-19. The negative impact of COVID and climate requires government action as surely as police are required to respond to an armed robbery. Freedom to resist vaccination and to use fossil fuels cannot be unlimited. Resistance to vaccination and resistance to decarbonization harms people.

We can’t enjoy the benefits of our technological world without accepting rules that limit our freedom. When boarding an airplane, we and our belongings get scanned and searched. It’s not fun, but it sure beats being hijacked in mid-flight by armed criminals. I am reasonably sure that biological scans for viruses will be added to our pre-flight inspections as soon as they can be developed. Some airports are already using dogs capable of smelling COVID.  The NYPD has long scanned crowds for signs of radioactive material to prevent dirty bombs. All over the world, cameras videotape us in the streets, and cellphones tape us everywhere else. These cameras deter and detect crime. Privacy has been sacrificed in the interest of security. That is the world we live in. We live in a world where our interdependence limits our freedom while delivering a quality of life that our forbearers could barely imagine. When my grandparents were chased out of Europe a century ago, there was no FaceTime or Zoom to stay in touch with family left behind. No text messages announced their arrival to family already in New York. The trip to America took weeks rather than hours, and they were inspected at Ellis Island rather than airport security. But America offered them freedom from real secret police and anti-Semitic mobs along with freedom from want and need. They did not insist on some ideological notion of absolute freedom and correctly assumed that some limits to freedom would be the price paid for the freedoms they had gained by coming to America.

A century later, we live on a more crowded planet that requires an ethos of global social responsibility. We all must care for each other. A virus in Wuhan is soon a virus in New York City. Greenhouse gasses created in Brooklyn will change the climate in India. We cannot be free to flood or infect our neighbors. If we insist on that freedom, we place ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and our friends in danger.  President Biden’s actions last week represented an implicit understanding of this nation’s global social responsibility. I applaud and am relieved by his actions. They represent critical steps needed to protect us from global warming and a deadly global virus.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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