It's Time To Flatten The Climate Change Curve Too

There are important lessons to be learned from how the world mobilized to contain the novel coronavirus.

A person touches one of the human figures elaborated with ice in Santiago, Chile.
A person touches one of the human figures elaborated with ice in Santiago, Chile.
Gonzalo Muñoz


SANTIAGO — A century ago, humanity was recovering from another pandemic, the worst the world had known, at least judging by the fatality figures. Some 50 to 100 million people — or 10-20% of the world's population died — died from the misnamed Spanish flu, which began near the end of World War I and originated, in all likelihood, in the United States.

Fearing generalized panic among the population, most states favored hiding information on the flu. We should recall that there were no antibiotics until the early 1940s, so treatment options were limited a range of unfounded suppositions and various "miracle" remedies. These included medicinal waters, tonics, extra aspirin or quinine-based mixes. Some doctors even recommended smoking, as tobacco smoke was supposed to kill the germs.

We know today that the illness was exacerbated by a cytokine storm. The main disseminating agents were the war, which moved soldiers around the world, along with with a generalized increase in mobility worldwide. Spain was the first country to responsibly inform its citizens of the epidemic, which merely earned it disrepute as the flu's starting point. It took a decade to identify the pandemic's viral origin.

We might have been better prepared had we heeded history, or listened to the scientists.

After three contagious waves, the illness did eventually subside, thanks to hygiene measures and distancing. The measures made possible a sufficient level of herd immunity that ensured we could live with the virus until a vaccine was developed. For many historians of course, the pandemic and its following recession were the prelude to the Great Depression of the 1930s, which a little later led to World War II.

This may seem familiar in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis. We might have been better prepared had we heeded history, or listened to the scientists who have been warning for decades that a globalized world is vulnerable to any new pathogen that is potentially deadly and swiftly contagious. We underestimated the threat and remained complacent, thinking it had yet to come or would affect others, not us.

A view of Lake Penualas, affected by drought in the region of Valparaiso, Chile. — Photo: Cristian Bueno/DPA/ZUMA

But at the same time, it's fair to say that we have duly learned about the essential role of science in managing crises. Today, most authorities aren't putting their stake in miracle cures. They're relying, rather, on science, information analysis and crisis-management techniques. We have also learned the central role played by responsible communications and the need for leaders to urge hygiene measures — like the use of face masks (which they too must wear) — and to refrain from promoting invalid or unproven pharmaceutical products.

It's also the case now that anyone with an internet connection can on a daily basis monitor the pandemic's advance in regions. We may thus verify which measures were taken, and how individual or collective conduct is contributing to resolving or aggravating the crisis. There is some way to go certainly, but the world has made progress in reacting to a pandemic.

And yet, with regards to another existential problem — climate change — we do seem to be following the pattern of 100 years ago. We are underestimating the risk with the same cavalier attitude we adopted toward that earlier pandemic. Science warns us that we are facing a crisis so big that it requires urgent and radical cuts in emissions, which means cutting dependence on fossil fuels and changing farming so that it will restore, not degrade nature.

The effects of climate change have already become our "new normal."

Nevertheless, there are still leaders who negate the scientific evidence and the repeated warnings issued since the first IPCC report was published in 1990. We prefer to delay the decision, inventing miraculous solutions that merely exponentially increase our vulnerability to global warming.

In the meantime, the effects of climate change — including the drought that has impacted Chile for almost a decade — have already become our "new normal." It's real, in other words, which is why we need to stop behaving as the world did with the Spanish flu and recognize instead that we're facing a veritable climate emergency.

Unlike in 1918, we do have the technology, information and scientific evidence to face this emergency. We're also learning lessons from this new pandemic, so let's heed them and act — right now!

Just as we've called on doctors to spring into action, on states to provide ventilators and other necessary equipment and on everyone else to help by wearing face masks, we need to ask people and governments right now to do the environmental equivalent: to use energy efficiently and invest massively in energy alternatives. It's time, in other words, to flatten the global warming curve.

*Muñoz is a Chilean businessman and UN-designated High Level Champion of private-sector climate activism. The article was written in collaboration with Ramiro Fernández, head of climate change at AVINA.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

— Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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