There is no vaccine for climate change

As I sat waiting the requisite 15 minutes to make sure I didn’t go into anaphylactic shock, I looked out over the arena and reflected on the historic nature of that moment. A building designed for basketball, concerts, and large-scale events sat empty for nearly a year because gatherings were a threat to public health. It had then been repurposed into a makeshift medical facility where vaccines were being administered on a mass scale. There’s something dark — and decidedly not normal — about a space designed for fun being used as a medical facility.

UIC arena sits empty as people get vaccines on the upper level

I felt grateful for the incredible work of the many brilliant and hard-working people both before and during the pandemic who allowed us to reach that moment. But fear of what this medical marvel might symbolize was also on my mind. We had all been waiting for medicine to end the pandemic, any too many people had been ignoring epidemiology’s “inconvenient” non-medical interventions like social distancing and mask wearing. We had been passively waiting for science to save us with vaccines, and this time we got lucky: science delivered.

This technological solutionism, waiting for a technological savior instead of making sacrifices, is at play in climate change, too. I am absolutely thrilled that mRNA vaccine technology was practically ready and waiting to be applied to SARS-CoV-2 in record time, but it scares me that it reinforces a solutionist attitude: “See? Science saved us from the pandemic, so it’ll also save us from climate change!”

There is no vaccine for climate change. We’ll need science to get us out of this, yes, but also political will. Political will to reign in corporations. Political will to fund science that can get us even partway there. Political will to do things that hurt in the short term before the status quo does even more damage to more people. Had we heeded epidemiologists’ advice on COVID, millions of lives around the world could have been saved. Let’s not make the same mistake with climate change, squandering the remaining time we have while waiting for a scientific miracle.