The Window of Opportunity and Climate Change: Why 2020 Could Become a Turning Point

History teaches us that crisis and opportunity are interconnected. The 2020 pandemic urges an unprecedented, radical transformation of our system that offers a unique chance to move the needle on climate change policy.

Laura Hohmann
November 13, 2020

C+S 2020 students are blogging about topics that interest them for Applications in Climate and Society, a core spring class.

I’m a history nerd. Learning about world history, I often asked myself the same question: Were the eyewitnesses in my books aware of how big of a deal they were at the time, or is the notion of what’s truly historic only reconstructed in hindsight? Living through 2020, I've felt a novel inner awareness, the feeling of witnessing world history as it is being written.

While some think that this historic pandemic distracts from climate action, others believe it will turn 2020 and the near future into the defining era for climate policy. The World Economic Forum has called 2020 an “unmissable chance” for climate change and Patricia Espinosa, the UNFCCC Executive Secretary, noted in April that a “window of hope and opportunity” has opened. 

The idea that a global public health crisis can help solve the climate crisis is a bold statement and almost suggests that fire can be fought with fire. Let’s not forget that this opportunity comes with the very real cost of countless fatalities and an economic slowdown that has put millions out of work. There's also a chance that as Jason Bordoff from Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy noted, the virus shows why there won’t be global action on climate change.

This is quite the depressing takeaway. And I admit that I catch myself thinking that this “window of opportunity” is likely yet another empty promise. In the past 30 years, we have failed to open the windows that could have helped us lower the risk of rapidly warming the planet. The Kyoto Protocol, the 2008 recession, and the largely ineffective Paris Agreement were all opportunities to change course, yet emissions kept rising. Instead of divesting from coal, oil, and gas, we boosted economic growth using the same fuels that have set our climate on fire in the first place.

One lesson, however, that this year has taught me repeatedly is the importance of perspective. Sometimes we get so stuck in the present and what is right in front of us that we forget to put things into context and look at the bigger picture from afar. Human history reveals that difficult times can spur new ideas, innovation, and systemic shifts strong enough to reconstruct society. Crises can occur for different reasons but once they’ve arrived—and if used wisely—they can be turned into a driving force. For example, the labor movement fought through the Great Depression, and it resulted in expanded workers’ rights that still positively impact millions of people to this day. After World War II, a divided and devastated world came together to form the United Nations and Bretton Woods Institutions to fight for peace, stability, and human rights. 

As for the present, while the coronavirus crisis ravaged the world over the past few months, there are many things that make this current window of opportunity exceptional.  

COVID-19 changed the world, but it has also opened a window that was cracking open before.

Evecn before the pandemic, there was already serious momentum to address climate change before coronavirus hit. Starting with the Fridays for Future movement two years ago, young climate activists began to win in the court of public opinion. In January 2020, Greta Thunberg was invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos. She called out the wealthiest, most powerful people in the world—in their own venue—for their inaction on climate and in the process, denying young people their future. This is the narrative that is missing from all the other moments in climate history.

Stimulus packages of unprecedented scale can change the direction of the global economy.

Kristalina Georgieva, Director of the IMF, described the coronavirus pandemic as the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Trillion-dollar stimulus packages have been mobilized in record time for economic recovery. This not only shows that a large-scale response to a global crisis is possible, but it also implies that the right investment decisions can translate into a green economy. An Oxford study recently found that green stimulus projects will create more jobs and deliver higher returns than the measures taken after the 2008 recession.

The growing realization that we are all in this together.

The world is waking up to the fact that we are one global community. Just like greenhouse gases, the coronavirus does not respect borders, and just as the carbon dioxide lingering in our atmosphere, the virus is invisible to the human eye. Yet, we began to understand that events in one part in the world can affect us all, and we can feel that our individual actions have an impact. We can save lives simply by staying home and by wearing a  mask when we’re not at home. Building on this realization that we are intrinsically connected, despite geographical or socioeconomic differences, we can create strong momentum for climate action.

Facts matter and more people trust scientists!

Many more people realize how important it is to trust science and how valuable facts and knowledge are. Flatten-the-curve memes have burned themselves into the minds of an entire generation. We have yet another curve to flatten: our global emissions. An increasing number of people understand that there are consequences if we don’t.

There are more reasons adding to this new and unique environment. A common denominator seems to be that, if need be, we are able to achieve things that are beyond our own imagination. We now have a rare chance to rebuild our society and economy as we want. To do so, we need to hold the people in power accountable. We must watch them vigilantly and show courage when they offer short-term fixes that don’t address the long-term risks of climate change. We must demand large-scale investment in renewable energy. We must fight for no bailouts for the fossil fuel industry, a price on carbon, and equity in all facets of society.

We know that our house is on fire, but a window of opportunity is open. It will not be able to save us from the damages and suffering of a 1.5°C world would bring, but it is likely our last escape to prevent further warming and passing irreversible tipping points. We know we are all in this together—and I do believe—if we work to together to push that window open, we can still turn this crisis into an opportunity for protecting our climate, our health, and our future.