Feeling insecure

Pandemic, war, and famine, oh my

In April 2020, as we began to comprehend the impact of COVID-19, I predicted in Climate Blue that efforts to address climate change likely would slow down as the world focused on stopping a global pandemic.

My statement was motivated by articles I read, at the time, on how the economic shutdown had reduced many types of pollution, and we were on the course of record reductions in carbon dioxide. Some experts even suggested the pandemic offered a model of usable science we could apply to climate science. Neither of these assertions turned out to be true.

I based my belief that the pandemic would slow rather than advance our responses to climate change on history and personal experience. Let’s look back on the history of industrial carbon dioxide emissions. There are only two types of events that have substantially disrupted the persistent rise in emissions of CO2: nation-state collapse and economic recession. In the first, I refer to the decline and dissolution of the Soviet Union. In the second. the most obvious example is the Great Recession that started in 2007. The COVID-19 recession is another example.

As a matter of policy, there is nothing appealing about global recession or nation-state collapse. Indeed, our most common reaction to such events is intervention — to assure jobs, food access, and energy access. We become very focused on the short term, which comes at the expense of the long term.

Deal me in

In one of my classes, I make up a deck of cards marked as Climate Change, Social Justice, Population, Wealth, and Standard of Living. Wild cards include National Security, Health Security, Economic Security, and Energy Security. I describe this game in detail in my video “Framing Climate Change Problem Solving.”


Ann Arbor’s Amer’s and Red Hawk, 2020. (Image credit: D. Holdship.)

When these wild cards show up, they bring consequences. Short-term issues dominate the forefront and we relax environmental protection rules, and challenge valued principles of privacy, freedom of speech, and the right to assemble.

My experience is that these wild cards always trump climate change. And though we in the field might lament this devaluation of climate as a priority, we are better served to expect it. It is something we must manage, and it is an issue for which we need to develop specific strategies.

The devaluation of climate as a priority in these crises makes sense. It is difficult to imagine a tremendous disruption to our physical or economic security that does not evoke an emergency response. The need to address jobs, access to health care, food, and energy are matters of social justice, political viability, and societal stability.

When faced with crises, most of us resort to what we know will work, what we know we can afford. We fix what we can; we push longer-term projects and desires to the background. In our families, we often amend personal rules and behavior. Governments do the same.

Yanked around

In a crisis, we strive to maintain our standard of living. In the absence of crisis, we strive to increase our standard of living. Currently, our economy and standard of living are based on energy consumption in the form of fossil fuels. And so much of our collective experience and entrenched political and economic power structures are aligned with fossil fuels that it’s as though society is attached to an immense spring. We are trying to pull away, but every societal disruption yanks us back.

At the core of our vision to address the problems of climate change is the move to renewable energy. Associated with this vision is “energy independence,” which, in principle, weakens our dependence on trade, relations with rival nations, and the use of energy as an instrument of power and conflict. Indeed, along with the lamentations of the climate community about setbacks with each crisis, some claim if we relied more on wind and solar power, we would not face so many security challenges. The argument has merit. Getting there is not easy.

Wild cards

Gas cans

Currently, our economy and standard of living are based on energy consumption in the form of fossil fuels. (Image: iStock.)

Over my life, I’ve experienced such wild cards as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the 9/11 attacks on New York, multiple pandemics, multiple economic crises, the 1973 oil embargo, and more. This casual list shows that the wild cards of national security, health security, economic security, and energy security are always in play. Indeed, sometimes they are played deliberately. Even those with the best intentions facilitate our reliance on fossil fuels by releasing oil reserves and easing barriers on the production and trade of fossil fuels. It is difficult to imagine doing otherwise.

This reality tells us that we must play a strategic long game to address climate change. This is one reason I object to the persistent and pervasive message that we have less than eight years to reduce our fossil fuel emissions to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. And I soundly object to the false choice of “10-years-to-do-something” versus “existential crisis.”

It is a daunting challenge to elevate climate change to national security, health security, economic security, and energy security. It will not be done abstractly or by decree. It will not be done because it is “right.” For years, my students have concluded that we will pay attention only when climate change is realized through one of those wild cards.

Taken as a whole, if we gather all of our efforts on climate change into a basket and count our wares, we have achieved significant progress. But I feel we now are at a point where we need to prioritize environmental security amid current wild cards like COVID-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Setbacks to addressing climate change will continue. But we need to persistently expand our efforts, build capacity, and stop that yank back to the comfort of fossil fuels.


  1. Dennis Griffin - 68

    Unfortunately the environmental tipping point that we keep blowing through don’t give a damn about “wild cards”.


  2. Peter Joseph - 1974, 1977 (Med school, residency)

    Prof. Rood: Thank for these wise observations. I agree that crises will always push the more “abstract” issue of climate change off the front burner, even when that crisis IS DUE to climate change. Living in California, it’s appalling to see how little attention is paid to root causes and solutions when entire towns go up in flames. The human drama is more compelling.

    I’ve now worked with the grassroots organization Citizens’ Climate Lobby for 11 years, advocating for a predictably rising, fully refunded carbon fee plus border carbon adjustments, the policy approach endorsed by a consensus of US economists (econstatement.org), including Treasury Secretary Yellen. A bill in Congress, The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, now has 95 cosponsors and could serve as a model for a stand alone climate bill in place of President Biden’s apparently defunct Build Back Better plan.

    A refunded carbon tax isn’t flashy and is easy to understand (and sell to the public.) It’s progressive, not regressive. It allows billions of decisions to align with market forces. It is a fundamental necessity to harness the power of money and markets to help us out of the ditch we’ve dug ourselves into on the way to unbelievable prosperity. Pricing carbon emissions acknowledges that as long as fossil fuels remain artificially “cheap,” their true costs to society divorced from their prices, they will continue to be burned. No amount of wishful thinking or regulatory bureaucracy can alter that fact of Econ 101.

    And nothing would annoy Vladimir Putin more than Congress giving birth to a global carbon price.


  3. Dick Bratcher - 1974, 1975

    As a UM environmental engineer who worked in the climate change field for 30+ years, I concur with virtually all of Ricky Rood’s observations. Unfortunately he offers no actual solutions that can make material differences. Nor can I. The sad truth may be that human nature is such that inhabitants of earth likely will never be motivated to sacrifice near-term wellbeing for long-term climate stabilization. That is a problem set that may be worth investigating.


  4. Phil Edmunds - 64 (Rackham)

    To regard national security, health security, economic security and energy security as mere distractions from arguably more important issues like “social justice” and “climate change” is utter madness. Americans have experienced the consequences of governance by people with that mind set following the certification of demented Joe Biden as president.

    The USA has a great abundance of fossil fuels, which have been the “sine qua non” of civilized societies for more than a hundred years. If our American society is to continue as a democratic republic with a capitalist economy, concern about “climate change “ will be the distraction and our dependence on fossil fuels will continue for a very long time.


Leave a comment: