The coronavirus will augur change and while it is far too early to say with any certainty, it may very well drive the kind of radical transformation that we need to address the climate crisis. People are coming together to face this modern day plague. We are seeing a return to multilateralism and perhaps even a reversal of the trend towards increasing polarization. In the first few weeks of the pandemic we also began to see a reduction in climate change causing emissions.
To be clear we have little reason to celebrate at present. Health care systems are being overwhelmed and people are sick and dying. To make matters worse this pandemic is unfolding against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s tragic mishandling of the crisis and a global economic meltdown. The stock markets are experiencing unprecedented volatility and U.S. job losses have spiked to a record 3.3 million making recession a virtual certainty.
However, amidst the pain and suffering we are seeing glimmers of hope. The pandemic has encouraged people to once again appreciate the value of expertise and the importance of science. We can expect renewed interest in fact-based decision making and this may arrest anti-science politics in the U.S.
The global pandemic gives us an opportunity to reconsider the myopia of our propensity to avoid long term thinking and planning. It is not unreasonable to assume that global efforts to combat the coronavirus will contribute to renewed interest in climate action. We have been repeatedly warned that we must act to avert this crisis. It stands to reason that we may see an increase in support for efforts to avert the most serious global threat humanity has ever faced.
In recent weeks we have stood together to fight this pandemic, there is no reason why we cannot do the same to engage the climate crisis. COVID-19 could be the shock we need to finally get serious about combating climate change. We are on the cusp of a climate catastrophe and we must act quickly if we are to avoid surpassing upper threshold temperature limits from which we may not be able to recover. Climate change is the cause of a wide range of diseases and other health concerns. Acting on climate change is about staving off a catastrophe that represents an existential threat to life on earth.
Managing the economic consequences of this pandemic will require a rethink of some basic economic values. Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. We need a coordinated global response that will take us into the next century and it should be obvious that business as usual won’t do. If we reconsider the de-regulatory mayhem that resulted in the financial meltdown of 2008 and the insanity of deregulation under the Trump administration, we may be able to change our perilous course.
As we are forced to deal with recession we will have to carefully consider the kind of economic stimulus we will apply. It is reasonable to assume that governments will heed the economic case for climate action. The economic benefits of climate action combined with the disincentive of economic collapse if we fail to act, make a compelling case that will be hard to ignore.
Any serious climate action starts with a reappraisal of our energy landscape. Even before the pandemic hit the oil and gas industry was on life support. We need to acknowledge that the dirty energy industry is being abandoned by investors, banks and insurance companies. Rather than trying to prop-up a dying industry governments need to prepare for the way for the kinds of energy that can safely power our future. Clean energy is vital to our future as it will both grow the economy and provide millions of good jobs. The auto industry will be hit hard by the economic downturn, however, with the appropriate government support this could be an opportunity to transition away from the combustion engine. We need to come to terms with the reality that the benefits of climate action far outweigh the costs.
Resistance to the economic reality comes from politicians that are beholden to the old energy industry. However, this pandemic may signal the end of the fossil fuel powered politics of both Trump and the Republican party. After decades of deceiving the American public, the American electorate could bring the GOP’s corruption to an end.
Our times challenge some longstanding principles that are at the core of western civilization and the virus may cause more people to question our market driven economy. We need government support to keep the economy from completely collapsing and government stimulus packages should include efforts to retool the economy to prepare for the world of tomorrow. This should include massive investments in clean energy like wind and solar energy. It must also include carbon removal technologies like direct air capture (DAC) and carbon capture and sequestration or (CCS). These so called negative emissions technologies may be our last hope of reigning in climate change.
We need to see an end to business as usual and this pandemic might very well be the catalyst for the kind of change we need to see. This may include structural changes to our economy. .We are already seeing behavioral changes as less people travel and more people are working from home. If nothing else the reaction to COVID-19 shows us that rapid global change is possible.
Climate activist Greta Thunberg denounced governments for taking urgent action against the coronavirus outbreak but failing to treat global warming as an emergency. “It is shameful that for so long the climate and environmental emergency has been ignored. We are still in a crisis that has never once been treated like a crisis,” Thunberg said.
Her logic is sound and if reason prevails COVID-19 could bring about an unprecedented paradigm shift. However, there are some dark days ahead. This pandemic is far from over, and many more will suffer from the disease and the economic aftershocks. As Naomi Klein points out such shocks augur change, sometimes they are for the better and sometimes for the worse. We need to anticipate the very real possibility that if we let it, COVID-19 and its aftershocks could drain money and political will from climate action. We must not allow restrictive capital markets to prevent the flow of financing for clean technologies. We must also be ever mindful of authoritarian efforts to use the crisis to undermine democracy. Let us hope that this dark period will be a womb and not a tomb.
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