What the Coronavirus Means for Climate Change

Lockdowns and distancing won’t save the world from warming. But amid this crisis, we have a chance to build a better future.

By Meehan Crist, The New York Times

Ms. Crist is writer in residence in biological sciences at Columbia University.

  • March 27, 2020

The two biggest wild cards for climate going forward are how policymakers respond to the threat of a global recession and how the pandemic changes political will for climate action around the world.

Maybe the rupture caused by “shelter in place” orders provides a glimpse of what work is “essential” to society — care work, education and food distribution. Maybe it offers a glimpse, distorted though it may be, of what life might be like if we all went to work a little less.

 The climate crisis has already demonstrated that the way our societies and economies are organized is unsustainable on a planet of finite resources. And as people face increasing and unevenly distributed climate risk, it is reasonable to wonder what sort of support we can expect from our government. When your community is in crisis, how will your government respond? The pandemic is a gut-wrenching reality check.

The new coronavirus spread through the activity of global markets, and it remains to be seen whether we can respond to this crisis without relying on and reinforcing the same market logics that got us into this mess. Rather, to face the profound challenges of pandemics — of which this coronavirus will not be the last — as well as the threat of climate change, to survive and even flourish on this interconnected planet, we have to learn to subordinate the needs of the market to our own needs.

This week has seen a chilling shift in conservative rhetoric around the virus that echoes all-too-familiar patterns of climate denialism, suggesting that a more dangerous sort of transference is taking place. As the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe wrote on Twitter, “The six stages of climate denial are: It’s not real. It’s not us. It’s not that bad. It’s too expensive to fix. Aha, here’s a great solution (that actually does nothing). And — oh no! Now it’s too late. You really should have warned us earlier.”

There is another world in which policymakers and politicians planning for economic recovery decide to make building a carbon-neutral society a priority. Because while the new reality could easily drain political will and funding from efforts to address the climate crisis, it could also inject a sense of urgency at a time when politicians are suddenly willing to spend vast sums of money. In this world, governments would create meaningful jobs in areas such as education, medical care, housing and clean energy, with an emphasis on “shovel-ready” projects that put people to work immediately.

The U.S. government, for example, could continue to provide jobs as needed — the program would expand during recession and contract when the economy recovered and people could find work elsewhere. As Kate Aronoff writes in The New Republic, “One possible benefit to such a program is that it could provide an alternative to low-paid work bound up in carbon-intensive supply chains like those at McDonald’s and Walmart — currently the only employment on offer in many communities around the country.” This approach would address the climate crisis with the urgency it demands while also addressing the immediate needs of workers who will be laid off or have hours reduced because of shutdowns.

Governments drive more than 70 percent of global energy investments, and recovery plans could shift those investments as well as include new large-scale investments to turbocharge the development, deployment and integration of clean energy technologies. As Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency, recently pointed out, the drop in oil prices also offers an opportunity for countries around the world to lower or remove subsidies for fossil fuel consumption, which disproportionally line the pockets of wealthy individuals and corporations with money that could go to education, health care or clean energy projects.

There are, of course, more radical policy interventions that could improve the health of the planet, our communities and our lives. Adopting a 32-hour workweek in the United States could lower emissions and vastly improve the quality of American life. It’s unlikely we will see a four-day workweek anytime soon, but the profound disruptions of the pandemic provide a rare opportunity, even in the midst of great suffering, for rewiring our sense of what is possible in American society. Maybe the rupture caused by “shelter in place” orders provides a glimpse of what work is “essential” to society — care work, education and food distribution. Maybe it offers a glimpse, distorted though it may be, of what life might be like if we all went to work a little less.

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