“War Powers” in a Time of Corona: Learnings for the Climate Crisis (Chris Merker)

Speakers - Barron's Impact Investing Summit
Chris Merker, PhD
In light of significant and rapid changes occuring across the globe, arguably climate change and environmental impacts should be approached with similar urgency. 
Activists have been saying this for years, and now we have an opportunity to see how humanity reacts during an all-out crisis. In and throughout, the world has become in effect a laboratory for responding to a massive – and entirely global – economic shock, and every government has taken a range of a policy approaches with differing levels of efficacy.
Encouragingly we have seen a “can do” and “nothing will stop us” attitude that has crossed political divides as both the public and private sectors joined hands to resolve the crisis.
Image result for coronavirus
Coronavirus cases globally (WHO)
However, a major point of difference, is the absence of any similar level of intensity in addressing the climate crisis. This is in marked contrast to how the world addressed ozone depletion a generation ago, which, while not reaching “coronavirus” levels, did rally substantial, coordinated and targeted response globally in resolving that crisis. 
One commentator suggested that if carbon emissions came with a bad smell or turned the skies purple, we would see a more ready and visceral reaction from everyone. Because we can’t see, taste or feel carbon emissions, while no less damaging, the perception of immediate threat is not present in this instance.
So, after the dust has settled on the corona crisis, how can we apply recent learnings and experience to the climate crisis?
  1. Understand that collective actions can make an impact – Social distancing doesn’t work without everyone’s participation. What has slowed the spread of the coronavirus was everyone opting in and participating in this radical change in behavior. Similarly, we will need to change our behaviors in a number of ways: what we do and how we do it as we transition to a low carbon economy.
  2. Governments must overcome political divide to create effective policy solutions – While our leaders argued over some of the details as we worked to construct the largest fiscal stimulus package in history to mitigate the economic impact from COVID-19, no one disagreed over the objectives or need for immediate action. We need similar cohesion in addressing the climate crisis. This is still not present, and will be key.
  3. Countries must coordinate their actions – The coordinated actions of leaders and central banks has been key in addressing this crisis. Such multi-lateral coordination must take place in a way that we haven’t seen to date, despite attempts through agreements such as the Paris Accords, which has clearly been absent major countries – and the largest carbon contributors – in particular the U.S. and China. Just as important are the coordinated plans and execution of those plans following such agreements.
  4. Allow the experts and technicians to lead, and recognize that technology and innovation will play a role – Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, and others, who understand health policy and pandemics have been given license to act and lead in ways that are critically important on setting us on a path to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, and get on a path to recovery. Similarly we must turn to those who understand the climate and impacts to the environment to mitigate further damage, and put us on a transition path to sustainability. We must fund and incentize businesses to continue developing and expanding critical products and technologies to pave the way to the transition, just as we are seeing during this crisis.
  5. Plan the transition – How do we get from A to B? In this case the strategy was to “flatten the curve” to ensure our health system has the necessary capacity to respond to reduce the human cost, and delay the impacts to allow time to develop a vaccine. What will be our strategy for the climate crisis, and how do we get from A to B, to at the same time minimize disruption and minimize human cost?
In the final analysis, everyone has to agree to do whatever it takes – In this crisis, everyone has come together and responded, together. This collective purpose and global spirit of cooperation must pervade to the same extent to take on the monumental challenge of transitioning from a carbon-heavy to a carbon-neutral economy, an entire shift in the way our civilization operates today.
In recent days I have been encouraged, with commitments by companies that include those from the energy sector, including some major oil and utility companies. I believe we can get there, but it will take all of us working together to help assure a better future for us and the generations that follow.

Author: Christopher K. Merker, Ph.D., CFA

Christopher K. Merker, PhD, CFA, is a director with Private Asset Management at Robert W. Baird & Co. He holds a PhD in investment governance and fiduciary effectiveness from Marquette University, where he has taught the course “Sustainable Finance” since 2009. Executive director of Fund Governance Analytics (FGA), an ESG research partnership with Marquette University, he is a member of the CFA Institute ESG Working Group, an international committee currently exploring ESG standards, publishes the blog, Sustainable Finance, which covers current topics around governance and sustainability in investing, and is co-author of the book, The Trustee Governance Guide: The Five Imperatives of 21st Century Investing.