From our vantage point today, 2020 looks like the year when an unknown virus spun out of control, killed hundreds of thousands and altered the way we live day to day. In the future, we may look back at 2020 as the year we decided to keep driving off the climate cliff–or to take the last exit. Taking the threat seriously would mean using the opportunity presented by this crisis to spend on solar panels and wind farms, push companies being bailed out to cut emissions and foster greener forms of transport in cities. If we instead choose to fund new coal-fired power plants and oil wells and thoughtlessly fire up factories to urge growth, we will lock in a pathway toward climate catastrophe. There’s a divide about which way to go.
In early April, as COVID-19 spread across the U.S. and doctors urgently warned that New York City might soon run out of ventilators and hospital beds, President Donald Trump gathered CEOs from some of the country’s biggest oil and gas companies for a closed-door meeting in the White House Cabinet Room. The industry faced its biggest disruption in decades, and Trump wanted to help the companies secure their place at the center of the 21st century American economy.
Everything was on the table, from a tariff on imports to the U.S. government itself purchasing excess oil. “We’ll work this out, and we’ll get our energy business back,” Trump told the CEOs. “I’m with you 1,000%.” A few days later, he announced he had brokered a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to cut oil production and rescue the industry.
Later in April, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, in a video message from across the Atlantic, offered a different approach for the continent’s economic future. A European Green Deal, she said, would be the E.U.’s “motor for the recovery.”
“We can turn the crisis of this pandemic into an opportunity to rebuild our economies differently,” she said. On May 27, she pledged more than $800 billion to the initiative, promising to transform the way Europeans live.
For the past three years, the world outside the U.S. has largely tried to ignore Trump’s retrograde position on climate, hoping 2020 would usher in a new President with a new position, re-enabling the cooperation between nations needed to prevent the worst ravages of climate change. But there’s no more time to wait.
We’re standing at a climate crossroads: the world has already warmed 1.1°C since the Industrial Revolution. If we pass 2°C, we risk hitting one or more major tipping points, where the effects of climate change go from advancing gradually to changing dramatically overnight, reshaping the planet. To ensure that we don’t pass that threshold, we need to cut emissions in half by 2030. Climate change has understandably fallen out of the public eye this year as the coronavirus pandemic rages. Nevertheless, this year, or perhaps this year and next, is likely to be the most pivotal yet in the fight against climate change. “We’ve run out of time to build new things in old ways,” says Rob Jackson, an earth system science professor at Stanford University and the chair of the Global Carbon Project. What we do now will define the fate of the planet–and human life on it–for decades.
The time frame for effective climate action was always going to be tight, but the coronavirus pandemic has shrunk it further. Scientists and policymakers expected the green transition to occur over the next decade, but the pandemic has pushed 10 years of anticipated investment in everything from power plants to roads into a monthslong time frame. Countries have already spent $11 trillion to help stem the economic damage from COVID-19. They could spend trillions more. “It’s in this next six months that recovery strategies are likely to be formulated and the path is set,” says Nicholas Stern, a former World Bank chief economist known for his landmark 2006 report warning that climate change could devastate the global economy.
We don’t know where the chips will fall: Will a newfound respect for science and a fear of future shocks lead us to finally wake up, or will the desire to return to normal overshadow the threats lurking just around the corner?
We find ourselves on the brink of climate catastrophe in large part because of the decisions made during a past crisis. As the world came out of the Great Depression and World War II, the U.S. launched a rapid bid to remake the global economy–running on fossil fuels. In the first postwar years, Americans moved to suburbs and began driving gas-guzzling cars to work, while the federal government built a highway system to connect the country for those vehicles. The single biggest line item in the Marshall Plan, the U.S. government program that funded the European recovery, went to support oil, which ensured that the continent’s economy would also run on that fossil fuel. Meanwhile, plastic, an oil derivative, became the go-to building block for consumer goods after the U.S. had developed production capacity for use in World War II.
The underlying philosophy of economic development in this time period was a focus on gross national product, a term developed by U.S. government economists during the Depression, which included consumption as a proxy for prosperity: the more we consume, the better off we are, according to this model, which, in the postwar era, the U.S. assiduously spread abroad. The promise of endless growth also required an endless supply of oil to power factories, automobiles and jet planes. In 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sealed a deal with Ibn Saud, the first King of Saudi Arabia, trading security for access to the country’s vast oil reserves. Every U.S. President since, implicitly or explicitly, has continued that exchange.
The coronavirus pandemic is the most significant disruption yet to the postwar fossil-fuel order. The global economy is expected to contract more than 5% this year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This is a challenge so big that it has also created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change direction.
This moment comes just in time. In 2018, a landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N.’s climate-science body, warned that allowing the planet to warm any more than 2°C above preindustrial levels would drive hundreds of millions of people into poverty, destroy coral reefs and leave some countries unable to adapt. A 2019 analysis in the journal Nature identified nine tipping points–from the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet to the thawing of Arctic permafrost–that the planet appears close to reaching, any one of which might very well be triggered if warming exceeds 1.5°C. “Going beyond 2°C is a very critical step,” says Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, “not only in terms of economic and human impact but also in terms of the stability of the earth.”
To keep temperatures from rising past the 1.5°C goal, we would need to cut global greenhouse-gas emissions 7.6% every year for the next decade, according to a report from the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP). That’s about the level the COVID-19 pandemic will reduce emissions this year, but virtually no one thinks a deadly pandemic and accompanying unemployment is a sustainable way to halt climate change–and recessions are typically followed by sharp rebounds in emissions.
To achieve the 1.5°C goal without creating mass disruption has always meant thoughtfully restructuring the global economy, moving it away from fossil-fuel extraction slowly but surely. Scientists and economists agree this is the last opportunity we have to do so. “If we delay further than 2020,” says Rockstrom, “there’s absolutely no empirical evidence that it can be done in an orderly way.”
As of late June, countries had spent some $11 trillion on measures to halt the pandemic and stem its economic impact, according to the IMF. Economists say that’s not enough, and countries and central banks plan to keep doling out money to help the global economy stay afloat. There are lots of things we could be buying with that money that would make our lives better and protect us from climate disaster. In recent months, leading institutions across the spectrum have offered approaches that are varied in their specifics but generally similar in philosophy: invest in greener infrastructure.
The International Energy Agency (IEA), for example, calls for an annual $1 trillion investment in clean energy for the next three years. At a cost of about 0.7% of global GDP, this would represent a small portion of the funds spent to combat COVID-19 but could be transformative. Expansion and modernization of electric grids would allow for easier flow of renewable energy. Governments could buy out gas-guzzling vehicles, pushing consumers to go electric. Homes and buildings could be retrofitted to consume less energy.
This spending would also help solve the immediate problem of lost jobs and economic stagnation by creating nearly 10 million jobs worldwide and increasing global GDP by 1.1%, meaning it would add more to the economy than it costs. Importantly, green investment would result in a slew of “co-benefits.” For example, some rural communities would receive access to electricity for the first time. For another, air pollution would decline all over the world. “If governments do not make use of this opportunity, they may miss a very important tool for the economic recovery,” says Fatih Birol, head of the IEA.
But this moment is not just about opportunity; even maintaining the status quo is dangerous. Research from the UNEP released last year shows that if nations stick with current plans to reduce emissions, global temperatures will rise more than 3°C by the end of this century.
For the past five years, climate advocates had positioned 2020 as critical in the fight against climate change. Under the Paris Agreement, countries are required to submit new plans to reduce emissions in 2020, and climate diplomats had planned a series of meetings around the world this year to build momentum, culminating with the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, in November.
The Glasgow event was postponed a year, but the coronavirus pandemic has created a new sort of momentum. Empty city streets have been transformed into pedestrian space with cars banished, and many cities say they’re not going back. The oil industry has faced a reckoning, with the U.S. benchmark price at one point in mid-April dropping into negative territory and investors fleeing the industry; smaller firms filing for bankruptcy; and some of its biggest players writing down assets they say have lost their value.
With the writing beginning to appear on the wall, many countries are starting to build a different world. In South Korea, the newly re-elected government has promised a $10 billion Green New Deal to invest in renewable energy and make public buildings energy efficient. In Costa Rica, one of a few developing countries to commit to eliminating their carbon footprint by 2050, leaders have created a new fee on gasoline to fund social-welfare programs and are planning to issue new green bonds to fund the next stage of climate adaptation programs. Rwanda, which has a GDP of roughly $9 billion, has adopted an $11 billion plan to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change, which includes a push for buses, cars and motorcycles to go electric. “We cannot afford to have the same mode of recovery, the same mode of doing business, the same mode of economic activity,” says Juliet Kabera, director general of the Rwanda Environment Management Authority.
International institutions are playing a critical role nudging these countries. The IMF, which has said it “stands ready” to use its $1 trillion lending capacity to stave off the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, has made climate resilience a key criterion for its lending. This has already paid dividends: some 50 nations, including dozens of developing countries, committed in late June to address climate change in their coronavirus recovery plans.
“It’s a great catalyst to think about building a new world,” says Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado Quesada. “Whatever we decide as a country or as a global community in the next six or 10 or 12 months is going to determine what happens on the earth for the next decade.”
Nowhere will such an approach have as large an impact as in the E.U. When compared with countries, the bloc is the world’s second largest economy and third largest emitter. Its pandemic recovery will help achieve the proposed target of halving its emissions in 10 years by spending $100 billion annually to make homes energy-efficient, $28 billion to build renewable energy capacity and up to $67 billion for zero-emissions trains. The European investment in going green will hurt coal-mining jobs in places like Poland and the Czech Republic, but the European recovery program will pay billions to retrain the workers and transition them to other industries. The measure awaits approval by the member countries, and the details are subject to negotiation, but observers do not expect the direction of the policy to change.
Other major players in the global economy, most notably the U.S. and China, have not made as clear commitments to a green-tinged recovery. Upcoming decisions in both of those countries, which combined are responsible for nearly half of global emissions, are urgent.
China is being pulled in two directions as it develops a plan that will set the course of its development–and, by extension, its emissions–for the next half decade. In March, as China’s coronavirus epidemic began to subside, the nation’s powerful Politburo Standing Committee, which is made up of senior leaders of the Communist Party, including President Xi Jinping, endorsed a proposal to expedite $1.4 trillion in spending on so-called “new infrastructure” that includes electric-vehicle charging stations and high-speed rail, as well as 5G technology, which wouldn’t cut emissions per se but would help advance the country’s tech sector rather than its heavy industry, stimulating economic growth with lower emissions.
But the degree of commitment to those green recovery measures remains unclear. The Politburo Standing Committee’s push is unfunded, leaving provincial governments to follow through. So far, the evidence on the ground has not been encouraging. Local Chinese governments have approved new coal-fired power plants this year at the fastest clip since 2015–a surefire way to stimulate economic growth and emissions. And the country is reportedly planning to ramp up production of oil and natural gas. Demand has fallen, but cheaper oil and gas typically stimulate the economy. Abroad, China continues to fund emissions-intensive projects through its Belt and Road Initiative. In Africa, for instance, China is financing new coal-fired power plants, even as many international financial institutions have walked away from the energy source.
External pressure is likely to force the issue, and the E.U. is trying to offer just that. To push China and others along, the bloc is crafting a new tax on imports from countries that aren’t reducing emissions. Climate and trade are both currently being discussed by officials behind the scenes and were planned to be on the top of the agenda at a now postponed September summit between the E.U. and China. “Europe is a very important market for the Chinese,” says Laurence Tubiana, the CEO of the European Climate Foundation and a key architect of the Paris Agreement. “China can be secured in its potential exports to Europe by understanding that it can secure positive trade relations by increasing its climate ambition.”
Still, when it comes to turning the climate ship around, there’s no substitute for the U.S., and the country has already missed opportunities. For example, before doling out bailout money, France demanded that Air France stop operating emissions-intensive short routes, and Austria forced Austrian Airlines to agree to cut its emissions 30% by 2030. Contrast that with the U.S., where the government decreed that to receive federal dollars, airlines could not drop any of their destinations–even if that meant flying planes empty–and Congress rejected an attempt from several Democratic Senators to attach green strings to the airline bailout.
It’s hard to imagine anything substantive so long as Trump is President. He and his GOP allies in Congress have an effective stranglehold on any policy that could push the U.S. to decarbonize, and thus far they have rejected big legislation to address climate change–portraying it as “socialist” and part of the Green New Deal that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party proposed last year to the derision of Republicans. Instead, the Trump Administration is reportedly preparing a $1 trillion infrastructure package focused on roads and bridges. “If we label it green, that would actually probably decrease its chances of being included,” said a Democratic congressional aide who works on energy and climate.
So the future of U.S. emissions will likely fall to the winner in the fall. Joe Biden, the former Vice President and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is well aware of the role the pandemic recovery will play in shaping emissions. Biden oversaw the last U.S. stimulus a decade ago in the midst of the Great Recession. That package totaled nearly $800 billion, with $90 billion for clean-energy measures, and helped launch many of America’s green advances, including funding Tesla’s transformation from a boutique car company to the world’s most valuable auto manufacturer; funding a program that doubled the fuel efficiency of Daimler Trucks’ Freightliner model; and supporting the weatherization of more than a million homes to reduce residential energy consumption. That package created 900,000 jobs and turned a profit for the government, even as it suffered high-profile failures like the collapse of the Solyndra solar-panel company.
Last year, Biden released a proposed Green New Deal, calling for $1.7 trillion in spending over 10 years on everything from electric vehicles to reducing pollution in low-income communities–all in service of the U.S.’s achieving net-zero emissions by the middle of the century. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Biden has doubled down: he’s touted his Green New Deal and has appointed a committee that includes both longtime Washington climate advocates like former Secretary of State John Kerry and emerging leaders of the Democratic progressive wing like current New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to craft new climate policy. Top congressional Democrats, signaling support for a big climate package, unveiled a 500-page legislative road map on June 30 that includes tax incentives and infrastructure spending to eliminate the country’s carbon footprint by 2050. It won’t become law this year, but it sends a signal that the issue will be on the legislative agenda if Biden wins in the fall.
“We’ve got to strike now. We can’t let this go,” Biden said at a League of Conservation Voters virtual event on June 16. “Not because of me but because of the opportunity.” Importantly, Biden has promised to re-engage with the rest of the world on the issue, including by helping fund climate measures in developing countries. China wouldn’t be eligible to receive such funding, but the nation is keeping a close eye on how U.S. climate policy is unfolding. China has delayed several key decisions and signaled its intention to hold off making new climate commitments until after the U.S. presidential election. Even after three years of Trump’s tearing down the U.S.’s global reputation on climate, it turns out the U.S. is still leading the world. In what direction remains to be seen.
To many who study climate, the pandemic looks eerily familiar. At first, the new virus seemed distant and inconsequential to most people, so long as you weren’t in the eye of the storm. The rest of the world watched in amazement as China shut down Wuhan. Horror stories of patients dying in hallways in Milan shocked the U.S., but not enough to make the nation prepare. In late February, at the last Democratic primary debate before voting in the critical state of South Carolina, moderators didn’t ask about the issue until one hour and 15 minutes into the discussion, and spent less than five minutes on it.
Researchers estimate that by the time the U.S. collectively woke up to the stakes of the pandemic on March 11–the day Tom Hanks said he tested positive, the NBA canceled its season and Trump banned travelers from Europe–thousands of people had already been infected in the country. In the few months since, more than half a million people have died worldwide, including some 100,000 in the U.S., and there’s no sign we’ll be rid of the virus anytime soon.
The story of climate change has unfolded over decades, but its trajectory is much the same. For years, we’ve watched as the evidence has grown. We’ve gaped as superstorms have battered the globe from Bangkok to Houston and unprecedented heat waves have popped up, killing a few thousand here and there. As I write this, it’s 100°F in Siberia, and wildfires are raging in an area infamous for its yearlong ice. “These are the warning signs” of cataclysmic climate change, says Gail Whiteman, a professor at Lancaster University who runs an Arctic research program.
If Wuhan and Milan offered a preview of what the U.S. is now experiencing with COVID-19, where should the country look for a glimpse of a climate-changed world? Last year, I traveled to Fiji and found that for many of those living on the small Pacific Islands, on the front lines of brutal storms and sea-level rise, climate change is already the defining issue. If a storm destroys a school, students can’t learn. If the sugarcane crops are flooded, farmers lose their jobs. If sea levels rise too much, entire communities disappear. Climate concerns are at the center of their economies and the center of their development plans.
“This can’t be the purview of even 25,000 or 40,000 or even 100,000 people,” says Christiana Figueres, who led the U.N. climate-change body during the Paris climate talks. “This has got to permeate through every single corner, every single channel, every single flow of economic development and modernization. It’s got to become the new norm.”
That will come one way or another. Every country will be combatting climate change for the foreseeable future; the change in climate we’re experiencing today is in large part the result of emissions that happened more than a decade ago. However, we do have a choice of how bad it will get. If we invest in preserving nature and transitioning our energy system today, we will stave off the worst, giving us the ability to manage the hurricanes and floods as they come. If we wait, we’ll be stuck flat-footed when the worst arrives, watching in dismay as the temperature curve ticks up and up.
The choice is ours. We just don’t have much time to decide.
–With reporting by Leslie Dickstein, Alejandro De La Garza and Josh Rosenberg
This appears in the July 20, 2020 issue of TIME.