Millions of usable Covid-19 vaccine doses in the United States could expire by the end of January before being administered. Roughly 10 percent of the available 40 million doses have been dispatched so far. Coronavirus testing and contact-tracing efforts have stumbled over similar bureaucratic dysfunction, with the country falling behind governments with comparatively paltry resources. Even judged against its former self, the U.S. is coming up short. As New York magazine’s David Wallace Wells pointed out last week, New York City vaccinated five million people against smallpox over just two weeks in 1947. Since vaccinations began in the U.S. on December 14, 4.3 million people here have received their first shots.
Covid-19 is one of the simpler problems humanity will have to deal with this century. America’s poor handling of it doesn’t inspire much confidence. Although distributing a vaccine is logistically complicated, it’s nothing compared to the system overhaul required for speedy decarbonization and to adapt to a warmer world. With Trump reluctantly on his way out of the White House, Democrats are now eager to reclaim this country’s mantle as the leader of the free world. Whether that title was ever one to be proud of is its own question. And ever-climbing Covid-19 deaths should now cast doubt on whether it’s even remotely accurate. It’s worth keeping that in mind as policymakers think about how to meet future challenges.
There’s no vaccine for global warming. The energetic basis of society as we know it needs to be simultaneously dismantled and rebuilt. That means building prodigious numbers of wind turbines, solar panels, and transmission lines, and rewiring the grid to both accept and distribute electrons. All the while, fossil fuel profits that have historically furnished state budgets the world over will have to go unrealized. Internal combustion engines will need to become a thing of the past, as will the way most of us currently cool and heat homes and cook dinner. In all likelihood, at least millions of people will have to leave their homes and find new ones in other neighborhoods, regions, or countries—from the wealthy homeowners in California’s combustible hills to the middle- and working-class beachfront communities being swallowed by the sea, to farmers on infertile land. In some places, it’ll just be too hot for humans to live. All of these problems amount to a coordination nightmare orders of magnitude larger than the one posed by Covid-19.
It’s tempting to blame the U.S. failure in dealing with the pandemic on Donald Trump. And the outgoing president does have blood on his hands. But his administration didn’t single-handedly hollow out the parts of the state best suited to handle this crisis. The government that’s failing to contain and inoculate against the novel coronavirus has been decades in the making, as policymakers starved some parts of the state while grotesquely bloating others. Over roughly the same period, when a record amount of greenhouse gases have seeped into the atmosphere, both the military and the prison system have grown in the U.S. as its safety net has been winnowed. Gross domestic product has ballooned too, although wages here have stayed roughly flat since about 1973, amid a record takeoff in corporate profits. The mission to protect those profits is a global one: The U.S. has joined other wealthy nations in blocking a proposal by India and South Africa to suspend intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines. So as it hoards and wastes vaccines, the U.S. is helping cut off their supply to millions in the global south.
The right-wing intellectuals, think tanks, and politicians who spent much of the last century enshrining these core governmental capacities have simultaneously taken a sledgehammer to the idea of a government that can improve and protect working people’s lives—and enlisted both Democrats and Republicans in their cause. “While neoconservatives and neoliberals diverge in their political ideals,” geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore has written, “they share certain convictions about the narrow legitimacy of the public sector in the conduct of everyday life, despite the U.S. constitutional admonition that the government should ‘promote the general welfare.’ For them, wide-scale protections from calamity and opportunities for advancement should not be a public good centrally organized to benefit everyone who is eligible.” She calls this phenomenon the “antistate state,” driven by “people and parties who gain state power by denouncing state power. Once they have achieved an elected or appointed position in government they have to make what they do seem transparently legitimate, and if budgets are any indication, they spend a lot of money even as they claim they’re ‘shrinking government.’”
The “antistate state” is now dealing with the pandemic and climate crisis. And while its hallmarks aren’t unique to the U.S., it exists here in a particularly advanced form, having been encouraged to fester for the last few decades. On New Year’s Eve, in one recent example, all but five Senate Democrats and Independent Bernie Sanders voted to squash a debate about $2,000 survival checks for the sake of passing a $740 billion defense authorization bill.
Joe Biden ran on the promise of healing the nation and nursing it back to a greatness allegedly achieved sometime between December 2008 and November 2016. Restored to its Obama-era highs, the U.S., he promises, will once again be “at the head of the table,” leading the way for the world in dealing with—among other things—the climate crisis. Given its response to Covid-19, though, it’s not at all clear whether that’s a challenge the U.S. is up to.
That’s not to say the U.S. can’t meet the challenges ahead. We know from past example that quick, massive change is possible. Days after his inauguration in March 1932, Roosevelt pitched a program called the Civilian Conservation Corps to his closest advisers. It was signed into law by the end of the month, and the program accepted its first recruits by April 7. The New Deal proceeded to build a welfare state without so much as a computer. There aren’t many hard and fast barriers around what the U.S. government can and cannot do: With virtually unlimited wealth at its disposal, the ceiling is high. But taking the lead on Covid, climate, or anything else will require fundamentally rethinking what it is the U.S. government does and who it serves.
As the world’s largest economy and its second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the U.S. has a critical role to play in averting catastrophic levels of warming. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will or even can take the lead, however much time Biden climate envoy John Kerry might spend hobnobbing with world leaders and fossil fuel executives about it. As with Covid-19, American failure doesn’t need to be the world’s: Other countries and regions are already showing more effective and humane paths forward, both against pandemics and against fossil fuels. It may well be time for the U.S. to follow—with all the humility and adaptability that role implies.