Time is Running Out to Execute on Our Marshall Plan for Climate Change

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As we look back on the last few years, roundups of top weather disasters have become a regular component of annual recap articles. Unlike the excitement of record-setting box office weekends or athletic achievements, ever more severe and costly impacts of the climate crisis carry an increasing sense of dread and fear at the realization of just how little time we have left (seven years) to reach 2030 goals to mitigate the very worst effects of climate change.

Even with existing commitments, reports indicate that, unless strengthened, promises so far will still put us on track for a 2.8-degree level of warming by 2100. Emissions are only expected to fall about 10% by 2030 at best, while they would need to drop 45% by 2030 to keep warming to the crucial threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Currently, the situation seems dire. The IPCC says, “There is no credible way to hold to the 1.5C° threshold.”

While the 2030 net-zero goals may seem near impossible, humanity has achieved impossible things in the past. From ending World Wars I and II, as well as Vietnam, rebuilding Europe, landing on the moon, and curbing the AIDS and COVID-19 pandemics, we know that we can reach incredibly challenging goals when we all work together and commit financing to the problem.

The time has come again for us to muster our collective will, ingenuity and commitment to reduce the very real risk of total climate breakdown and protect a livable planet for future living things, including us.

The Earth is Getting Sicker

Europe’s “worst heatwaves since the Renaissance” killed more than 16,000 people. At the same time, over 3,000 died from record-setting flooding in India and Pakistan that “turned villages into islands.” While Hurricane Ian’s death toll was far less at “only” 137, it topped the list of the most costly damage with more than $20 billion, devastating homes and businesses along U.S. southern coastlines and Cuba. Wildfires and droughts are impacting communities and driving up food prices. Our changing climate is detrimental not only to human life but also to wildlife. Scientists are saying that Earth’s creatures are on the brink of a sixth mass extinction, comparable to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.

The frustrating (and depressing) part is that Earthlings have known about climate change for more than a century. In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius predicted that changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels could substantially alter the surface temperature through the greenhouse effect. In 1938, Guy Callendar connected carbon dioxide increases in Earth’s atmosphere to global warming. Gilbert Plass formulated the Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climate Change in 1956. Yet, fossil fuel lobbyists have actively worked to slow down the climate fight and energy transition. Over time, we still have not achieved adequate damage control and are now faced with a global emergency—a climate crisis.

A Marshall Plan for Climate Change

We finally saw a glimmer of progress in 2015 when the Paris Climate Agreement set a goal of preventing the Earth’s temperature from rising no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (about 2.8 degrees Fahrenheit). Then, in 2021, the world’s wealthiest nations, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S., gathered for the G7 summit in Cornwall, England and committed to meet a $100 billion target in annual climate funding in what was dubbed the “Green Marshall Plan.” Yet, COP27 ended with few countries submitting new plans to reduce their emissions, and the final agreement didn’t impose any firm deadlines for new commitments. Today, the IPCC says there is no “credible pathway to achieving 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

COP28 is planned for the United Arab Emirates this December. UAE’s choice to have the head of its main state oil company lead negotiations is upsetting to environmentalists and is not likely to create much further positive climate progress.

A History of Achieving the Impossible

While getting countries to commit to doing more and dramatically shifting their activities to combating climate change may seem impossible at this point, history is replete with stories of humans overcoming daunting hurdles through their collective commitment and collaboration. Our history is filled with examples, from ending World War II to putting a man on the moon to rebuilding Europe and slowing nuclear proliferation and the AIDS pandemic — all instances from just our modern era.

Nuclear non-proliferation:

Remembering the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, fear arose that a nuclear war could lead to mutual destruction. This effort was kicked off by the creation of The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to promote and oversee the peaceful use of nuclear technology. It helped that the concept had the support of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower in his December 1953 “Atoms for Peace” proposal. By 1968, several powers signed The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, agreeing to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. A total of 191 states signed the treaty, and more countries have ratified it than any other arms limitation and disarmament agreement, a testament to its significance. With the threat of nuclear war consistently imminent, it’s obvious why governments were motivated to create and sign the NPT.

Collaboration in space:

In the 1950s, space became a dramatic arena for competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Each side sought to prove its technological superiority, military might and — by extension — its political-economic system by one-upping each other in space. By 1959, President John F. Kennedy made his famous and bold public claim that the U.S. would land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. NASA’s budget was increased by 500 percent between 1961 and 1964, and by 1969 Neil Armstrong was making history.

As the Space Race competition died down, international cooperation emerged. Today, treaties and agreements establish the use of the International Space Station among agencies. On the ISS, politics don’t exist as teams work together to test technology, run experiments and support long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars.

In all, $25.8 billion was spent on Project Apollo between 1960 and 1973 (or approximately $257 billion when adjusted for inflation). Here, competition drove government agencies and their leaders to commit their countries to bold action.

Overcoming AIDS Stigma:

In the early 1980s, a deadly disease began taking the lives of otherwise healthy men. However, as what was ultimately dubbed AIDS surfaced in notably gay neighborhoods in Los Angeles and New York City, and with injection drug users, those with the disease were often stigmatized by panic-stricken Americans. Misinformation led to AIDS being understudied and underreported for many years until protest groups like ACT UP arose in response to social government and medical neglect. Similar activism spread to other parts of the world, like Europe and South Africa. Social pressures eventually prompted action, such as the 1987 CDC campaign America Responds to AIDS (ARTA), to increase understanding of AIDS from a science-based perspective while also teaching compassion for those who were HIV positive.

While AIDS remains a public health challenge, the U.S. government has invested over $100 billion in the global HIV/AIDS response through PEPFAR, the largest commitment by any nation to address a single disease in history, saving over 25 million lives, preventing millions of HIV infections, and accelerating progress toward controlling the global epidemic in more than 50 countries.

Controlling a Pandemic:

In 2020, COVID-19 was claiming millions of lives worldwide. Global medical infrastructure struggled. With the danger clear and present, governments around the world –– both regulatory agencies and private corporations –– worked to gain regulatory approvals and make vaccines available in record time. These technologies had been proven for years but lacked the funding to navigate the red tape and gain approval. The U.S. alone spent $30 billion on COVID vaccines.  Today, more than 5.45 billion people worldwide have received a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, equal to about 71.1% of the world’s population.

Rebuilding Western Europe:

Western Europe was devastated by World War II. Important industrial and cultural centers, as well as infrastructure, were destroyed, and fighting caused disruptions in agricultural and food production, leaving some regions facing famine.

Realizing Europe’s debilitated state after World War II and the opportunity to foster commerce and halt communism (two things that would give the U.S. an advantage), U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall developed a four-year reconstruction initiative. Enacted in 1948, the Marshall Plan provided more than $15 billion (roughly $166 billion when you account for today’s inflation), about 5% of the U.S. gross domestic product, to finance projects in 16 nations. By 1952, their economic growth exceeded pre-war levels.

Refocusing our Efforts

Even as current emission-reduction commitments are still putting us on a path for a rise in global temperatures, we have an opportunity to gain inspiration from the achievements of our predecessors and join together government, financial and social commitments in a meaningful way to respond urgently to the climate crisis by directing focus back on our Green Marshall Plan.

We must focus on raising ambition around real results while maintaining momentum amid short-term issues as the climate crisis intensifies. Most climate financing has been allocated for renewable energy projects, but poorer nations also need flood defenses and drought-resistant crops to cope with current levels of warming. COVID-19, inflation and political division have led to a slow in funding in recent years. John Kerry, the United States’ special presidential envoy for climate change, says developed nations will hit their $100 billion funding target in 2023, emphasizing the need to make good on the financial goals set by developed countries. However, Climate Policy Initiative reports that an increase of at least 590% in annual climate finance is required to meet internationally agreed climate objectives by 2030 and to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change.

If we don’t level up our commitment to fighting this crisis, we will continue to fall behind. This includes continuing to drive toward initiatives such as King Charles III’s six-step Marshall-like plan and the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), a non-partisan policy organization founded through a gift from Germany as a tribute to the Marshall Plan, champions the principles of democracy, human rights and international cooperation. One of its articles discusses three key elements of a Marshall Plan to successfully enable a clean energy transition. Incorporating these aspects into the Green Marshall Plan could increase the chance of its completion and success.

  • Leveraging markets: A Marshall Plan must spur innovation to further clean technologies and deploy them on time. This includes using an integrated transatlantic market, abolishing tariffs, setting common standards and aligning trade policies. Leveraging markets will mobilize the private capital needed to underpin the necessary clean-energy investment.
  • An open and inclusive approach: As much as technologically advanced countries will need to lead the way, the pathway toward net zero must be open for emerging economies and developing countries to join the efforts. An open-architecture governance approach could offer various flexible entry points for non-core countries, depending on their commitments and financial capabilities.
  • Leadership to avoid friction: A transatlantic alliance will be instrumental in exerting leadership and managing the Green Marshall Plan’s deployment.

Ironically, 2022 marks the 75th anniversary of the Marshall Plan. While it was completed in under a decade, our Green Marshall Plan must be fulfilled much quicker to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

While the situation may seem overwhelming, if we take great steps now, we can achieve the impossible again. We can learn from those who came before us and encourage international collaboration to drive green technology innovation to preserve humanity. We can remove bureaucratic barriers and accelerate timelines as we did in the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as the Marshall Plan rebuilt Western Europe’s infrastructure, we can rebuild our energy infrastructure with clean technologies.

Yes, it will be hard work. Yes, it requires pushing governments and corporations to do more and accomplish it faster. Yes, it requires a tremendous amount of money. However, the price of mitigation far outweighs the inevitable costs and human suffering if we fail to mitigate and are forced to spend on adaptation. While science tells us we’re tracking toward a climate breakdown, we owe it to ourselves as Earthlings to protect humanity.

Humans accomplishing the impossible is a hallmark of our existence. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again; we just need to commit and move.