The global coronavirus experience and climate change
Can the way we defend ourselves against the global virus guide our response to climate
change? “But the two have nothing in common”, you may say, “they are quite unrelated!”.
Quite so, but it is we who are the common element. Analysing the way the world has reacted
to the coronavirus offers lessons on mounting a global defence. The virus has hit us
biologically and socially. The way our cells respond to such an attack and the way human
society responds to its strictures are equally important.
In the past year we have seen how a successful global defence has three strands: the scientific
research to find one or more vaccines; the international business collaboration needed to
scale up and manufacture the vaccines for worldwide delivery; the publicity required to
ensure that the vaccine is not rejected by the people or their politicians. If we thought the
main task was just to find and demonstrate a vaccine, we now appreciate the importance of
global production and coping with adverse opinion.
We have seen, too, some disruptive consequences of commercial and national competition.
When everybody has the same interest in defeating a global attack, the adversarial influence
of pricing and local legal jurisdiction are likely to be obstructive. Even conventional risk-
sharing mechanisms like insurance are largely ineffective when all are faced by a danger in
common. The dominant need is to cooperate – a conclusion that cuts across normal
Darwinian competition and the accepted freedom of a democratic way of life. The resulting
discord gets magnified in the media and is readily exploited by political elements.
While the risk from the coronavirus responds in a few weeks, the response of global warming
is slower, taking decades to centuries, despite its momentous consequences. The world’s
icecaps are melting fast and any return to normal is unlikely. The best that can be hoped is
that mankind will have stopped releasing further carbon into the atmosphere by 2050. This
cannot be secured by the fine post-dated obligations enacted by today’s leaders. Rather it
depends on following the science today, as did the development of the vaccine.
Everybody needs energy to enjoy an acceptable standard of living and the science of energy
has been well understood for a century and more. There are only three sources known to
science that are readily available: the renewables, the fossil fuels and nuclear energy. An
objective scientific comparison concludes that renewables are weak, unreliable, vulnerable
and harmful to the environment – though publicly accepted because familiar and self-evident
to the senses. Nuclear energy is just the opposite. Though unfamiliar, it has shaped the natural
environment since the dawn of time, has an exemplary safety record and been an essential
agent in clinical medicine since the seminal work of Marie Curie a century ago. Nevertheless,
for historical cultural reasons dating from the Cold War, the public are frightened of it – except
when used for their own health. So, when natural science is taught in schools, the reassuring
fact that nuclear energy is essentially harmless compared with fire is never discussed and
The conclusion is that nuclear energy is the only way for us to enjoy a reliable, environmental
and safe standard of living, despite a changing climate. Like the virus vaccines, there are
several competing technical realisations. Some nuclear solutions are large and expensive,
existing now or ready to go. Others are smaller, cheaper and will be ready and tested in a few
years. These Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are the “vaccines” we need.
But as experience with the coronavirus has shown that is just the scientific starter. The next
stage is the mass production of these SMRs that should provide local sources of electricity,
heat, hydrogen and fresh water by desalination – for the whole world. This truly monumental
task is made more realistic because SMRs are assembled from components mass produced in
factories and easily transported by sea, road and rail to a plant site close to where people live
and work. Such a deployment like that of the vaccine is essential to the global common
interest, like the production of Liberty Ships in WWII or the Marshall Plan. Nationalism and
the influence of intellectual property rights could obstruct it.
The final stage is to achieve public acceptance, worldwide. The example of anti-vax sentiment
has shown how crucial this can be. Overcoming anti-nuclear opinion is no less challenging.
Society may have first to experience the alternatives – loss of reliable electricity supply and
other services for extended periods, the trashing of energy grids that rely on large area
renewables by extreme weather, the threat of economic and social instability.
The experience with the coronavirus suggests that we should be working without delay on
these strands: the design and testing of SMRs; preparing to mass produce and deploy
thousands of units to replace burning carbon, worldwide; the education to welcome nuclear
power, starting with schools. This will take a generation or two. Intellectual property and
other rights in the design, as well as ownership of the power plants, should take second place
to the global common good – that is the big ask. The release of carbon gases anywhere affects
the whole world, just as a single outbreak of coronavirus endangers everybody everywhere.
By now we are all too familiar with the claims of exceptionalism. Global warming, like the
coronavirus, affects all – nobody can buy their way out.