How Covid Can Help Us Fight Climate Change. Q&A: Gavin Schmidt

Since 2014, Gavin Schmidt has been director of the influential NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, located in New York’s Columbia University. One of the institute’s key objectives is predicting atmospheric and climate changes in the 21st Century – and Schmidt is one of the world’s most trusted guides to the latest data on the impact of rising temperatures and advocate for urgent action to limit climate change and its adverse impacts. Driving Change began our conversation by asking him about how, if at all, the pandemic has shifted his thinking about climate change.

 GS: So it doesn’t really change our long term forecasts of what’s happening but obviously there are some short term disruptions in what’s being put into the atmosphere, how the economy is working, where power is being generated, how it’s being generated, that have impacts on the amount of fossil fuels that are being burned, how much is being emitted into the atmosphere, or how dirty the air is. All of those things are perhaps detectable in the climate record but will certainly be detectable in things like air pollution statistics and rates of growth of carbon dioxide.

Driving Change (DC): So the air has been getting a bit cleaner as intuitively it feels to be the case in New York or some other cities around the world?

GS: Well it’s getting slightly worse again as things start to pick up. But yes, this spring was extremely clean. We have very clear satellite views of key pollutants that went way down basically everywhere where there was a lockdown. Starting in China, moving to Italy and other parts of Europe and then the Northeast of America the month afterwards. So now things are kind of picking up again and so we’re seeing pollutant levels picking up again but yes but for a while there we were thinking, “Oh this is really nice clean air, maybe we should try and keep that”.

DC: Have there been any structural shifts that you think are positive. For example, obviously air transport has taken a huge hit and some people would say it is going to be a long time before that industry gets back to the kind of levels of activity and therefore pollution that was the case beforehand. How much difference might that make?

GS: So we restricted lots of local transportation: that was the main driver of the reductions in in air pollutants and the improvements in air quality. We’ve taken probably a 10 to 15% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. A very small part of that is flying, but mostly it was from internal combustion engines. Stopping shipping is another small percentage thing that changed quite a lot. So you add up all of those small bits and you end up with a 10 to 15% cut. If sustained that would start to make a difference in the outcomes for for climate. But it isn’t going to be sustained. And so, it’s barely detectable in the carbon dioxide record because we’re already putting way more into the air than the planet can deal with. Just reducing that by 10% is still way more than the planet can deal with and so it’s not really going to make a difference in the total cumulative amount of carbon dioxide because it’s not going to be sustained.

People looking to this as a model for what we should do in the future – that doesn’t work. Shutting down local transport, shutting down airplanes, they’re not sustainable and they’re not commensurate with the size of the problem, which is much more systematic, related to how we design our cities, how we design our lives, how we design our power systems. And those things haven’t really changed.

Now, there are some interesting things that are happening, like the move towards more remote working for those that are privileged enough to be able to do that (which I guess that includes you and I). That does kind of portend a move towards less commuting, less concentrated transit systems, less flying. That might be sustainable. but you have to balance that with the aversion people now have towards public transit. Take New York. Even if there’s less people in the city or needing to come into the city, if they’re all now driving instead of taking the subway or taking the train, that’s a disaster in terms of the emissions and the congestion and the polution. So you’ve got two tendencies there, and  it’s not clear which will win.

DC: As you’ve watched the stimulus efforts around the world by governments, have you seen a trend towards taking this as an opportunity to attach green strings, to say, “We’re going to bail you out as long as you’ve moved to a much more sustainable business model”?

GS:  If I was in charge – which obviously I’m not – that is something that I would have pushed. If we’re going to subsidize and save things, we should be subsidizing and saving things that have a sustainable future. Trying to save things that are obsolete already: use that money to help the people who are being affected, but don’t sustain it further than it needs to go. Using stimulus funds to keep a coal powered coal mine in business is not sensible. Using using the money to to invest in better, safer infrastructure, that’s useful. 

DC: Do you have a sense of what the balance is out there, which way they’ve been going? Is it more keeping coal powered plants open or about switching industries to a more sustainable basis?

GS: That would be a great thing to look into as a kind of post mortem on on what people did with the money. What’s happening to the money is extremely opaque at this particular moment. Some people are just sitting on it because they don’t know what’s going to happen. People make plans when they think it’s just for a two month period or three month period, but now it’s being dragged out and it doesn’t look like the economy’s gonna come bouncing back. I think we’ll only have a good view of how progressive and how sustainable this stimulus was after a couple of years, when we can see how things have shaken out. Some governments seem to be pushing in the right direction, so we’ll see.

DC: And what lessons can you draw from how the world has reacted to this global pandemic for how it needs to react ,or will react, to the climate emergency that is already happening and is obviously going to get worse as the decade goes on, barring some dramatic action?

GS: Well, there are obviously a large number of parallels. I know we have scientists giving advice that that is sometimes imperfect, because we don’t know everything about the system, we don’t know everything about the virus, we still don’t know everything about the climate. Scientists try and do their best to to advise people on what the consequences of various actions would be. But you can see just in the cases of climate and COVID, there are gonna be administrations and politicians that are not only not gonna pay attention, but because it’s more convenient to them at the time, they’re gonna go totally in the wrong direction. And against the the advice of the scientists that they’re consulting and paying for, in many cases.

I used to think climate was a special case because of its kind of chronic nature.  It was like a diet that you had to go on to control your cholesterol or your high blood pressure, something that yes I should probably get around to doing, but, you know, not this weekend or not this week, you know maybe soon. Everything kept getting put off because we have a harder time dealing with long term problems than we do with short term problems. If you look at a lot of climate commentary over the years, the difficulty of long term thinking is a thread. There has been a lot of wringing of hands about why we haven’t done anything. But then you look at the situation with COVID. Now this is not a long term problem, right? This is a very immediate, acute issue. Yet you still see the same things happening. You see the wishful thinking. You see the conspiracy theories. You see the politicization. You see the nonsense and the lies and the and the refusal to face reality. So those are constants. It turns out to have nothing to do with how long term the climate problem is. It just has to do with people. Some people, when given license to behave in bad ways, will do so. So the difference between countries, I think, is really quite instructive.

DC: The ones that took science seriously seem to have had a much better response to COVID.

GS: Well, yes. You can be smart and you can be lucky, and you’re better off if you’re smart and lucky. There’s clear random components to how many super-spreading events you have, whether you catch this or whether you catch that. Then there’s also preparation and understanding the problem, which allows you to deal with that randomness in a much more robust way. So we can see across the world that some places that that behaved in ways that were consistent with what the scientists were saying, what the doctors were saying, have kind of come out of this well. Of course, nobody’s really out of it yet, but they have less losses and less tragedy, whereas others who have gone with the wishful thinking, convenient falsehoods type of thing, are doing very poorly.

So why did some countries do well and others not? You have to look at the leadership, you have to look at whether the leadership understood that this was not something that should be politicized. Where you’ve seen people trying to make political hay out of a serious urgent situation like this, that’s where things have gone wrong. People have said to me many many times over the years, talking about climate, that “You scientists shouldn’t politicize things by criticizing politicians that that say totally stupid things.” And we say, “Well, we wouldn’t be criticizing politicians if they didn’t say stupid things.” And this pandemic gives us an opportunity to see this play out over and over again.

DC: Are you hopeful that this will prompt populations to turn back towards scientists and see you as heroes?

GS:  I don’t want scientists to be the heroes.  It’s not like in  Jurassic Park or Jaws. We’re just normal people with feet of clay. We don’t want to be in a society that needs scientists to be heroes.

DC:  Let’s put it another way. Do you think we’re going to see more faith in science as we come out of this, or is that battle now lost?

GS: Societies are able to judge the competence of their leadership, and the more competent political leaderships will benefit from having been competent, and the ones that are not so competent will probably not benefit from that. If we have any faith in democracy, which I still do, one would hope that is the case. I can’t really comment on on any particular elections. But I think people do learn. 

DC: Whether it is the biodiversity conference in China or indeed the COP 26 meeting scheduled for Glasgow, because of the pandemic they’ve been pushed to next year. As we think about those events, if we were to have a more science-driven political leadership, what would they be agreeing to next year to get us back on track, to keeping, at least, the temperature increase below the crucial two degrees?

GS: So, if I might be permitted a slightly contrary view from the mainstream,.  I’ve never been to a COP meeting, but I’ve been to a few governmental meetings. I often find that they’re not very useful. There’s a lot of people who stand up and say things. But we don’t need to be saying things so much as doing things, and the action that that takes place is not at these meetings, it’s back in the legislatures in the home countries and states. That’s where things need to be moving. There’s a huge amount of baggage associated with these meetings.

DC: But what should we actually be agreeing, whether it be in our national parliaments or wherever? What do we need to do?

GS: What we need to do is translate the nationally determined [carbon reduction] contributions into legislation, into real changes. And we can benefit from leaders sharing what what worked, what didn’t work, what had all these other co-benefits associated with it. Every country is a little bit different and so I expect everybody’s plans to end up being a little bit different.  Countries are putting out new targets and they’re being more ambitious with them. But the actual challenge is how you’re going to get there, and that remains opaque in many cases. The planet doesn’t care about your target, it cares about your emissions. Actually getting emissions down and reorganizing things so that those cuts are sustainable, those are the real issues and they can be worked on and improved without necessarily having multiple new targets set.

DC: Just to sum up, on current climate trends, how is this year looking in a historical context, and how are you thinking about where we are likely to be in 10 or 20 years?

GS: So this year, we’ll probably have a 15% or so cut in carbon dioxide emissions. But next year, assuming that things go back to some new normal, we’ll be right back up there again. And, just so that we’re clear, to get to a point where carbon dioxide is no longer rising year on year is not enough. We need a 70-80% cut in emissions to actually keep the temperature stable. So, if somebody had said, “Hey, you can have a 10% cut in carbon dioxide emissions next year”, I’d have said “Great”. But the way that this is happening now is not sustainable, and it won’t make a big difference in the long term. So in 10 years time this will probably just look like a blip. The work on producing a sustainable and consistently downward track on emissions is only really just starting.

DC: And maybe COVID-19 will remind us that science does matter; that we need to actually take the science seriously, and not just on pandemics and climate change but more generally?

GS: Yes. But I never meet anybody saying that science is not wonderful. Everybody agrees that science is wonderful and we should listen to scientists. It’s just that some people just don’t do it right. The argument is never that science is no good, just my bit of science.

DC: Well, hopefully this will be a turning point, one way or another and that in the not too distant future we will see that some changes for the better are emerging out of this. Thank you, Gavin, for talking with Driving Change.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and context. Listen to a full recording here

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