Maybe the Nerds Will Just Save Our Stupid Asses
What Covid Might Teach Us About Climate Change
Did any government do well in response to Covid? Early in the pandemic, Japan and South Korea were Gallant to the West’s Goofus, but they’ve had a bad second act: Only 6.4 percent of Japanese are vaccinated, as are 7.5 percent of South Koreans. The U.S. and the U.K. are great at making vaccines available, but early in the pandemic, Trump and Johnson were Laurel and Hardy if both were the fat guy and neither was funny. India’s infection rates were low until they were very high. The only two countries to receive solid marks across the board are New Zealand and Iceland, but they're small island nations that are so remote they're only barely on planet Earth.
It’s hard to have faith in governments’ ability to manage crises after Covid. No form of government or political persuasion emerged as the gold-standard model for crisis management. Liberal democracies were open and adaptive, but could only shrug their shoulders as citizens ignored instructions designed for the common good. Autocratic governments could make people do things -- and after all, what is an autocratic government if not a system for making people do things? -- but they were opaque and untrustworthy. Often, governments were just overwhelmed; even when you had smart people in good systems making well-considered decisions, the challenge was just too great. The virus won pretty much everywhere. If a clear lesson emerged, it’s probably just that being led by a historically-lazy dipshit who encourages people to drink Mr. Clean isn’t likely to help.
And yet: It’s now possible to imagine a world in which Covid is behind us. The vaccines might save us. It’s not a lot of fun for me, a liberal, to sing the praises of big pharmaceutical companies; it feels a bit like Slenderman invented un-meltable ice cream, and I’m forced to admit that, yes, Slenderman did some real solid work there. But there’s no denying that the pharmaceutical industry passed this test with flying colors. We needed a miracle, and they delivered one, fast.
Which brings me to a thought I’ve sometimes had about climate change: Maybe we’ll just invent our way out of this. Maybe we’ll do everything wrong, maybe we’ll thoroughly deserve every scolding Greta Thunberg dishes out, but low-cost, low-carbon technology will get invented anyway and we’ll be alright. It’ll basically be this scene from South Park:
(the boys are trapped in a cave, trying to swim to safety. Kyle is swimming while carrying Cartman, who has incapacitated himself)
KYLE: You’ve got to swim! Kick with your legs!
CARTMAN: I can’t kick.
KYLE: Yes you can!
CARTMAN: I can’t kick, you just have to save me!
KYLE: I need your help!
CARTMAN: No, you just have to save me!
That seems about right. I think we, as a species, have earned a comparison to a bratty little asshole who won’t help himself and demands that someone else save him. The “Kyle” in this analogy is scientists - the inventors and entrepreneurs who might save us by building the technology we need. Before Covid, I considered this to be one of the more likely scenarios in the "we'll be okay" category. Now, I consider it even more likely. Here's how Covid has changed my thinking:
The odds that we'll save the planet through behavioral change have gone from zero to whatever's less than zero
When I was a speechwriter at EPA, my most-frequently-used phrase was: “We need to build a culture of conservation." I really patted myself on the back for that one. “It alliterates,” I thought, “which means that it’s true!” Unfortunately, “culture of conservation” is nothing more than a nice thought; it would, indeed, be nifty if humanity developed an ethic of environmental stewardship that would mitigate climate change. It would also be keen if my cat learned to cook and served me French toast in bed every morning while wearing a little cat-sized chef’s hat. Neither will fucking happen.
Forget America -- could we, should we expect people in the developing world to forego the blessings of technology due to the abstract threat of climate change? Could we really ask people in India -- where it’s so hot that you could create a second Ganges out of each summer’s butt sweat -- not to use air conditioning? Could we ask someone in Nigeria to cut back their electricity use because, you see, Americans already used too much electricity in the '80s watching Dallas? We could ask, but we’re just going get “fuck you” back in 200 languages.
It was always far-fetched to think that encouraging good behavior would make a real difference. It seems completely fucking bonkers in light of the unbelievably-minor sacrifices people were unwilling to make during Covid. Surely the easiest thing we were asked to do was to wear a mask to the grocery store, yet people reacted to that simple request as if prima nocta had been put back in effect. We currently have life-saving vaccines in stock at Walgreens, and people walk into Walgreens and buy Cheerios but skip the vaccine! Any plan that depends on people making sacrifices will fail; the only strategy that will work is to make the low-carbon option the best option.
Effective, large-scale, coordinated action by governments is really hard to come by
An effective international response to Covid would have involved aggressive data collection according to agreed-upon standards. That data would have been quickly shared with virtually no regard for national borders. Best practices would have been developed and agreed upon, and governments would have coordinated policies and shared resources. An international effort to develop a vaccine would have begun almost immediately, and a plan to disseminate the vaccine globally would have been made while the vaccine was being tested.
That not only didn’t happen: Basically the exact opposite of that happened. The response was patchwork, largely uncoordinated, and highly responsive to national interests. That’s not really anybody’s fault; it happened because there’s no world government. Nobody has the authority to develop and implement policy on a global level. Not that I’m advocating for that; as much as I’d enjoy the retro irony of joining the World Movement for Federal World Government, whose members once included Churchill and Gandhi (I’ll bet they had a lot to talk about!), that group went defunct in the ‘50s. Today, if you search “WMFWG”, Google says “wait...what kind of porn are you looking for? How many women and guys?”
We mostly failed the collective action problem of Covid, and we’ll probably mostly fail the collective action problem of climate change. In fact, we’re already failing; we’ve known about climate change since cell phones were the size of Triscuit boxes, but we haven’t done much. Kyoto face-planted, and the Paris Accord -- which I am rooting for like a supportive-but-realistic parent watching his child shove pawns up his nose at a chess tournament -- will probably produce mixed results at best. Princeton climate scientist Michael “Not The Father Of The Atomic Bomb” Oppenheimer recently said Paris has “made a real difference,” but also graded it “a D or an F” in terms of meeting the goal of keeping temperature rise below two degrees Celsius. Paris is the best we have, but it probably won’t lead to major change. Governments haven't shown much aptitude for taking decisive action to address a global threat.
Nerds be smart
The nerds really delivered. Early in the pandemic, experts said it would be a miracle if we got a vaccine within a year; that miracle happened. Of course, about half of America has opted out of that miracle, which makes me wonder: Do people often reject miracles? Maybe for every leper -- I’m sorry: “person experiencing leprosy” -- that Jesus touched, there was another one saying “GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME, ASSHOLE!” And no matter how much Jesus said “it’s also about the people you might infect”, they would still reference some cuneiform tablet they saw claiming that Jesus causes autism, and he’d say “well yes but that’s only because I created everything,” and they’d talk past each other. If that happened, I’ll bet it really pissed Jesus off.
Miracles in environmental technology are happening, but they’re too slow. The cost of solar and wind power continue to plummet, but the advances in batteries and supplemental energy sources required for large-scale use lag behind. Electrical vehicles sales are growing fast, but they’re still less than two percent of the American vehicle market. Carbon capture is currently a cat-serving-French-toast-level dream. We need quick, puff-of-smoke, “Ala-ca-ZAM!” miracles, but the magic we’re getting is David Blaine shit: Way too fucking slow with a high chance of mortality.
We need to do a better job supporting the nerds. And anyone who knows me knows where I’m going with this: We need to put a price on carbon. I’m a broken record on this topic; at any moment in my life, there’s a one-in-five chance I’m talking about a price on carbon. But we really need to do it: We have to create incentives to raise the capital to pay the nerds to build the stuff. The climate measures in Biden’s infrastructure plan are great -- totally for them, two thumbs up -- but they’re a distant second-best to a price on carbon. And I’m not thrilled that Biden is going all-out to oppose a gas tax; I understand that a gas tax is unpopular and regressive (when not paired with offsetting measures), but favoring both climate change action and cheap gas is like being pro-healthy lifestyle and pro-crystal meth. You really can’t favor both.
The politics of a price on carbon are notoriously tough. Luckily, there’s a lesson from Covid that’s relevant here, and it’s good news:
People like it when free money is mailed to their house
The Covid relief checks were very popular. Almost too popular; I slightly worry that Democrats and Republicans will eventually compete to be the Party of Fabulous Cash Prizes.
The most politically-palatable version of a price on carbon is “tax and dividend.” That means you tax carbon and immediately send the revenue back to citizens in the form of a check. You don’t spend the money on other things; that’s what Emmanuel Macron tried to do in 2019, and it led to protests from the gilets jaunes (which translates to “nihilist dumbasses”). The dividend keeps the total effect of the tax from being regressive; in fact, it can be highly progressive.
Maybe we could tweak the politics even more. Instead of “tax and dividend,” we should start calling it “dividend and tax.” Or even:
We need to play up the “free money” angle. Start portraying this as five minutes in the cash booth that, yes, does use revenue from a tax that incentivizes low-carbon technology, but did we mention the part about FREE FUCKING MONEY??? Make a campaign ad where the cash is on a table in hundred dollar bundles with a smiling Joe Biden behind it saying: “Want some of this?” Send Kamala Harris door-to-door in the Prize Prius handing out giant checks. The effect of a monthly check on people’s budgets is at least as palpable as the effects of higher energy costs; lead with the good news and try to minimize the bad news. The politics around a price on carbon might have changed since cap & trade died in the Senate in 2009; it might be time to reopen the issue. Because while the nerds might end up saving us entirely on their own, we should probably try to help them at least a little.