Flatten the (Climate) Curve

A graph of global temperature rise scenarios related to climate change.

By David J. Hayes
March 31, 2020

COVID-19 is teaching us an important lesson about “flattening the curve.” We now know that by taking early action like social distancing, we have a fighting chance to avoid a catastrophic build-up of infected patients that can overwhelm the health care system. Pushing out the crisis timeline also provides an opportunity for medical innovators to find and test therapeutics and, ultimately, a vaccine that can vanquish the virus.

This flatten-the-curve teaching also applies to the climate crisis. The timeline differs and, thankfully, the strategies for attacking climate are far more economically palatable than those for the coronavirus. But the message is the same: If we take action now to decarbonize our economy, we have a fighting chance to keep the global temperature rise in check, avoiding the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. Indeed, because of the long life of the climate-damaging greenhouse gases that we are adding to the atmosphere, if we miss our chance to shave off peak emissions, we may be living “above the line” with a climate catastrophe for a very long time.

Unfortunately, when it comes to climate, this administration is ignoring the experts and taking steps that will steepen, not lessen, the destructive climate curve, while also showing little interest in investing in the climate equivalent of therapies (adaptation) or vaccines (net zero emissions technologies and practices).

This week, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Transportation Department finalized a rule that rolls back existing mileage efficiency requirements that the auto industry already had agreed to meet. As a result, the U.S.’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions  the transportation sector  will cumulatively generate an additional 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon emissions by 2040, according to an analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund an increase in cumulative emissions larger than the annual economy-wide emissions of more than three-quarters of the countries on earth.

Likewise, as reviewed in our recent 300 and Counting report, the administration steepened the climate curve a few months ago by abandoning carbon reductions in the power sector  the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. The EPA also has proposed nixing the oil and gas industry’s obligations to restrict its highly-destructive and wasteful methane emissions, missing another important opportunity to bend the curve. And by rolling back highly-successful energy efficiency standards for lighting and other appliances, the Energy Department is accelerating the rise of the climate curve.

It is utterly irresponsible for the administration to not acknowledge  or take preventative measures to flatten  the climate curve and, worse yet, to insist on steepening its trajectory. Its actions are completely at odds with the broad consensus held by the scientific community, elected officials (particularly at the state and city level), corporate leaders and the public at large, that we need to take meaningful steps now to fight climate change and transition to a clean energy economy. And, unlike the response to the coronavirus, climate protective measures can be implemented without harmful economic disruptions  in fact, many will create jobs and reduce costly health impacts.


David J. Hayes is a nationally recognized environmental, energy and natural resources lawyer who leads the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center.