From COVID to Climate: Four Pandemic Lessons That May Mitigate Global Warming

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As I have argued many times, current efforts to combat climate change are well-intentioned but doomed to fail. They ignore the economic realities that make it difficult for consumers and businesses to support low-carbon consumption. (For more on these arguments, see my posts Corporate Hot Air No Substitute for Real Action on Climate Change and Why We Need a New Manhattan Project to Combat Global Warming.)

Proponents of these efforts now maintain that the changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic give their approach to combatting climate change even more impetus. I believe that this view is misguided—but lessons from the pandemic could help the world forge an effective strategy for fighting climate change.

The line from coronavirus to climate

Jean Pisani-Ferry, an economist and former aide to President Emmanuel Macron of France wrote, “Die-hard green militants regard it as obvious: the COVID-19 crisis only strengthens the urgent need for climate action. But die-hard industrialists are equally convinced: there should be no higher priority than to repair a ravaged economy, postponing stricter environmental regulations if necessary. The battle has started. Its outcome will define the post-pandemic world.”

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said in April 2020 that the bloc’s green goals should be “the motor for the recovery.” She added, “The European Green New Deal is about investing billions of Euros in restarting the economy. We should avoid falling back on old, polluting habits.” Seventeen European environmental ministers signed a statement to “make the EU’s recovery a Green Deal” and “to build the bridge between fighting Covid-19, biodiversity loss and climate change.”

On July 14, the presumptive Democratic nominee for the US presidency, Joe Biden, outlined a far-reaching version of climate policy, which included most of the so-called Green New Deal. It called for investing $2 trillion in committing the US to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, investing in clean infrastructure and industry, expanding public transit and high-speed rail, and increasing federal support for research and development in no-carbon energy generation.

The line is broken by economics

While laudable, these lofty aspirations miss the biggest obstacle to implementation—the COVID-19 pandemic is driving more poverty, higher unemployment levels, and mass business bankruptcies. This economic and social fallout will ensure that climate-related goals such as persuading consumers to buy “green” products are even less viable in a post-pandemic world than before the Coronavirus erupted.

Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London, concluded: “I suspect the next value clash in politics will be between environmentalism and those who favor economic growth, and I fear the economy will be the winner in this.”

Consumers will flock to cheap products with less focus on how they are made. Companies’ priorities are going to be: 1) revenue increase, 2) cost control, and 3) risk management and resilience. Sustainability may not rise to one of their top three concerns. Governments will be preoccupied with reviving their shattered economies.

John Sawers, former head of the British intelligence service MI5, said it best: “The harsh realist in me says that we’ll emerge more divided, less capable and poorer than before, and that will make governments less inclined to invest in problems that will emerge years and decades down the line,’’ he said. “I would say that the government will pay less attention to climate.”

But all is not lost

However, the post-pandemic outlook for climate change is not unrelentingly gloomy. The crisis may warm us to the fight against global warming in four ways: bolstering the role of technology, increasing the availability of money, encouraging global cooperation, and making scientific and professional advice more impactful. Here’s how:

The Role of Technology

In my writing, I have always argued that the solution to the climate challenge will be rooted in technology. Some technologies are already bearing fruit—specifically renewables. A 2019 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that “More than half of the renewable capacity added in 2019 achieved lower electricity costs than new coal. New solar and wind projects are undercutting the cheapest of existing coal-fired plants.” However, while solar and wind sources have been growing at a fast clip, they accounted in 2018 for only 4% of all energy used in the US.

Similarly, the environmental movement’s multi-decade educational and persuasion efforts aimed at consumers have met with limited success. During that time, global GDP has been rising faster than CO2 emissions per dollar of GDP. Adding billions of people from the developing world to the middle class will further frustrate these efforts.

Future technological solutions will have to rely on more than mitigation and reductions in the rate of emissions. They must focus on negative emissions technologies—taking out carbon from the atmosphere and reversing the effects of climate change. These methods include bioenergy carbon capture and storage, direct air capture and storage, vegetation-based capture, and several others.

The COVID-19 crisis will have demonstrated that when the chips are down, the world relies on the ingenuity of scientists and engineers to develop technological solutions. During the coronavirus pandemic, it became clear that policies used since biblical times—identification of the sick and quarantining them—have unsustainable economic costs. The world has turned to technology to develop vaccines and therapeutics. The experience of the pandemic underscores the critical role of breakthrough technology in tackling climate change.

The Might of Money

The second conclusion from the COVID-19 experience is that when the dangers are clear and compelling, untold sums of money can be found. Thousands of scientists worldwide are working in a mad dash to develop therapeutics and vaccines that will combat the coronavirus. Governments and non-government organizations are investing many billions of dollars in research to understand the virus, its modes of transmission, and the supply chains needed to distribute these remedies. Trillions of dollars are also invested in helping people and companies devastated by the shutdown of the economies. The fight against COVID-19 and its consequences is proving that for important goals, “money is no object.” As leading governments around the world actually do something about climate change, the Coronavirus event has shown that money can be found.

Bringing countries together

Despite initial economic nationalism, several important scientific cooperation signs have emerged. Not only researchers and health professionals the world over sharing technical details and processes that work, but countries are are changing their posture concerning cooperating. For example, China has announced that the vaccines it develops will become a “global public good” once ready. This “public good” will include support for vaccine programs in developing countries. Just like fighting a pandemic, climate change requires worldwide cooperation. This is already happening to some degree, mainly under the umbrella of the Paris Agreement. But this accord has been blunted by political divisions. Perhaps the pandemic will catalyze international cooperation on the climate front.

Listening to the Experts

The fourth lesson from the pandemic that may apply to global warming is that scientists’ warnings will be taken more seriously by decision-makers. A bitter lesson from the crisis is that countries were caught unawares by the coronavirus even though they were warned repeatedly of the threat for years. For example, the covers of Time magazine since 2003 include dire warnings:

  • 2003 – The truth about SARS; China’s coverup; How scared should you be?
  • 2004 – Bird Flu: Is Asia hatching the next human pandemic?
  • 2005 – Avian Flu Death Threat
  • 2007 – H1N1: How bad will it get? As students head back to school this September, Swine Flu could infect millions
  • 2009 – Why you’ll be wearing masks again: The world may have dodged a deadly flu pandemic this time. We won’t always be so lucky
  • 2017 – Warning: We are not ready for the next pandemic.

Others who sounded the alarm include Bill Gates in a 2015 TED talk and the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US intelligence community. Less than a year before the COVID-19 crisis, the intelligence report stated: “We assess that the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources…”

If the pandemic makes us more willing to listen to experts’ warnings, that could strengthen our resolve to fight climate change.

Lessons learned or spurned?

Tragically, we are a long way from resolving the COVID-19 crisis; perhaps the virus will never be eradicated. Hence, more lessons could emerge that will help put the world on a sounder footing in the fight against climate change—or another world-scale crisis.

Of course, such an outcome will only come about if we heed the pandemic’s lessons—which is by no means a foregone conclusion.