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COVID-19 and the Climate

Henry Robertson

By Strmsrg - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

None of us saw this coming and all of us want it to end. In late March 2020 most of us (I hope) are stuck at home while grocery store checkers and stockers put their lives on the line when they go to work. Silver linings are hard to find, but amid the myriad consequences emerging from this viral upheaval may be glimpses of better things that could be.

Pollution levels are down, and in retrospect we will see that there was a sharp, temporary fall in the amount of CO2 being pumped into the air in 2020. Some aspects of our response to COVID-19 foreshadow what will be, in more normal times, aspects of a better-planned, successful response to climate breakdown.

We’ve come to a screeching economic slowdown. There’s no way to sugarcoat this. People are out of work and out of money. In the short term, at least, we seem to be adapting well to virtual socializing, seeing and talking to one another online. The parks are full.

Not coincidentally, economic contraction goes with contracting use of fossil fuels. Even though the price of oil has nosedived, the demand for gasoline has fallen by half — because there’s nowhere to go.

I don’t expect to win converts to simple living, but the point is, we’re doing it. We’re getting by with less. There’s nothing unusual about economic growth going into reverse; that’s what a recession is. But this is major. The unemployment rate may exceed the worst of the Great Depression.

Economic activity will have to drop permanently because global warming is a consequence of overexploiting our natural resource base. We’re impairing the ability of nature to support us. Some of the things you’re missing while marooned on your desert isle of self-quarantine are things you can do without.

Is the market looking out for you?

There are things the market can’t do. The creed of the “free” market could take a beating here. It’s at the root of the ineptitude of right-wing officials who have denied the reality of the pandemic just as they deny the reality of global heating. It’s no worse than the common cold, they said. The economic boom was worth more than people’s lives. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the elderly and unfit should sacrifice themselves to the Darwinian competition for economic supremacy. A libertarian Kentucky congressman forced a quorum of the House of Representatives to convene in person to pass the $2 trillion relief bill at the risk of catching the virus, because he was more concerned about the federal deficit. Trump blows hot and cold and threatened for a while to lift the whole national quasi-quarantine by Easter even if the pandemic had still been raging.

The free market is not equal to a task like this, when there’s no profit to be made because there’s too little money to be spent. It’s time to put people first for a change.

Governments allow the interests of business to override the public interest when they let businesses decide for themselves that they’re essential, or issue long lists of “essential” functions that can be stretched to cover almost anything. Lobbyists can elbow their way to the trough ahead of us.

The market economy never stops to ask what’s essential. COVID-19 has alerted us to the idea. What can we stop doing, and how can we do what we absolutely have to do without spreading the virus? In the climate context, how can we shut the valve on the fossil fuel pipeline while letting enough through to do what we absolutely have to do to make the transition to a carbon-free life?

The essential transition

Adjusting to the climate crisis will be a permanent change. The transition must be planned. The capitalist free-for-all, where anyone can make any piece of crap they think they can find a market for, must end.

The things that are essential are ones we can do without burning oil, coal or natural gas. The things we absolutely have to do anyway are those that make possible a world that runs on renewable energy only; we can’t build our way there without burning fossil fuels, not yet. But we have to keep the rest of the oil, coal and gas in the ground or we’ll fry.

There will have to be a shift in production comparable to the conversion of private industry to war production during World War II. COVID-19 gives us a glimpse of that too. Whole industries and occupations have been shut down. Some have shifted to making protective equipment and ventilators. Millions of workers are home waiting for checks from the government. Many more are switching jobs from their non-essential employment to occupations that have suddenly seen a huge spike in demand, most obviously health care and home delivery. It can be done. We’re doing it.

The task of restoring a livable climate will ramp up employment in some industries, create new industries, but also make many others permanently non-essential. COVID-19 has made government relief essential. Climate relief will initially be another wrenching transition. The value of the individual will no longer depend solely on an inflated CO2 bubble of profit calculation. It’s time to seriously contemplate new forms of social provision — shorter work weeks, working shorter hours by sharing jobs, a guaranteed basic income and, of course, universal health care.

An economic slowdown, if it’s done right and not at the whim of a virus, is just what we need.

Henry Robertson is an environmental lawyer and activist in St. Louis, Missouri, and a member of the editorial board of Green Social Thought.