Why the coronavirus outbreak is terrible news for climate change
‘This is a yes-we-can moment’: What the coronavirus response means for climate action
Climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’
The relationship is complicated, very complicated. I’m struck with a few of the many comparisons. One is that corona and climate both demand present sacrifice to achieve future goals—fighting the virus in the short term, attacking climate change over an extended time. Some young people find this hard to accept because the burdens fall heavily on them. Their public protests must give way to social distancing, and the internet is no real substitute.
Both crises require a broadening of the concept of community, a fundamental change to demand of a country like the U.S. composed largely of radical individualists. The populace will have to learn to trust in science, or at least accept it. This will not be easy for a people heretofore dominated by consumerism and laissez-faire economics. The impediments will be our so-far limited understanding of coronavirus and the perceived “remoteness” of climate change.
Both corona and climate have penetrated and largely collapsed the idea of national borders. What’s happening in Europe demonstrates that borders don’t stop the disease though lockdowns may slow its progress. Ethnic nationalists look more and more absurd in the face of it. Nobody can dodge the bullet.
On the positive side, the economic slowdown has given the world cleaner air, a major benefit for the 8.8 million people who die from pollution each year. But it’s a wild card:
If countries like China try to revitalize their economy by subsidizing polluting industries like steel and cement, emissions could soar in the coming months. During a period of economic crisis, climate concerns often fade, many analysts have noted. But there’s another scenario: Governments could seize this moment to enact new climate policies. Low oil prices are often a good opportunity to remove subsidies for fossil fuels, which have been increasing in recent years, or raise taxes on carbon dioxide emissions, since consumers are less likely to feel the impact.
Comparing the notional effects of corona and climate, Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, had this to say: “The coronavirus crisis is a better lesson than the financial crisis because, while it is still quite like a creeping crisis, it is like a fast-forward run of the climate crisis. The difference is that instead of it taking place over four decades, it has taken place over four weeks.”
The global pandemic is giving us a preview of what’s to come with climate change. Each sets up a range of harsh choices we must deal with. Climate change and the virus both require us to give way to the experts. But the remedies proposed must also involve community action. The costs will be tangible and immediate but offer us the prospect of remote and abstract returns. That will be an interesting challenge to the human species.