So, what exactly is the COVID-19 pandemic doing to the fight against climate change?
I’m hardly the only one asking, and this isn’t the first time I’ve asked–I’ve addressed the outbreak on this blog here and here and here. But as the pandemic proceeds, the conversation evolves. I see fewer posts on social media extolling the environmental benefits of an economic down-turn. While carbon emissions and other environmental problems are in fact lessening, they are caused by a situation that is obviously temporary. The real question is how will we be different when the pandemic passes? Will we collectively be better or worse?
Silver Linings, the Cases for and Against
I keep thinking, if we can shut down the economy and radically up-end our lives for a pandemic, surely we can do the same for climate change? There is no excuse, now, we’ve seen what fast action looks like, the bluff has been called. Quite true. But does that mean we’re going to collectively wake up, or are we seeing one more nail in our self-built coffin?
The Case for Optimism
There are writers who see cause for optimism in our current situation.
It’s true that we will need to rebuild society when the pandemic is over–what’s happening now is doing damage, like a cast that protects a healing bone but also forces muscles to atrophy–and there is no reason we have to rebuild things exactly as they used to be. We can use the opportunity to change. And there is reason to think that our collective experience now is making us better suited to make the right choices for climate in the near future.
Many of the mistakes we’ve made that are making the current outbreak worse (poor political leadership, distrust of science, poor assessment of risk) are also making the climate crisis worse–while the successes we’re seeing exercise skills that climate action needs also (cooperation, altruism, a focus on necessities rather than luxuries). It’s possible we will learn from our mistakes and our successes and apply the results to climate.
Big changes tend to happen suddenly, not gradually–it’s in the nature of complex systems, such as societies, to maintain the status quo against huge amounts of pressure and then to flip like a switch when a critical point is reached. Such critical points cannot be predicted from prior conditions alone. If the climate cause has seemed hopeless, it may be only that we can’t see the coming changes from our current vantage point; the shift we need may be right ahead.
Maybe the shift is going to be triggered by a novel coronavirus?
The Case for Pessimism
On the other hand, the American response to COVID-19 has been, by and large, terrible. Major population centers are starting to see their medical infrastructures over-run by the new disease, largely because of inadequate prior planning at the Federal level, and some states still have essentially no response policy. There are many individuals who don’t believe any emergency measures are called for and are resisting the measures now in place. People are dying who didn’t have to.
The fact that all this woe is caused by the same sort of political and psychological woes that have delayed climate action is no proof that such woes are going to evaporate any time soon. As some writers have pointed out, large-scale disaster is hard to deal with, and it’s likely to stay that way.
Indeed, environmental issues, including climate change, are usually seen as secondary, even by many environmentalists, fights that can and should be suspected in the face of real emergencies. And the pandemic has already derailed the process of climate-related diplomacy, since traveling and meeting together is not an option right now (why delegates can’t teleconference I don’t understand). The EPA has suspended enforcement of environmental regulations during the outbreak.
While You Were Busy….
In the meantime, what is happening with climate change while the rest of us have our attention focused elsewhere? Here’s a quick sampling:
- The Trump administration is rolling back Obama-era auto-pollution rules.
- The Great Barrier Reef suffered widespread bleaching this summer (remember, it’s in the southern hemisphere, where it is autumn right now). Coral organisms derive both their color and their food from symbiotic algae. Exposure to too much warm water for too long cause them to lose their algae and turn white–bleached coral is not dead, but it will die if it bleaches too severely or too often. This summer’s bleaching event is part of an ongoing trend of increasing bleaching that could soon become an annual occurrence.
- 150 people have died in in Brazil in record-breaking severe weather events since New Years alone. While people die in floods in Brazil every year, this is excessive, and attributed to climate change by many experts.
- An internet search on “tornadoes 2020” yields multiple stories from this past week about tornadoes in Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Alabama. While March tornadoes are not unprecedented, they are unusual; the normal peak for these storms is April and May. The Gulf of Mexico is currently about three degrees above normal, one of those small numbers that actually refers to a huge increase in the amount of energy in the water–and unusually warm water in the Gulf is associated with more severe storms, including tornadoes. If the anomaly persists into hurricane season, it could make Gulf hurricanes more severe as well. And the warmer the planet gets, the more likely warm pools of water in the Gulf become.
- Florida is experiencing a record-breaking hot, dry spring, creating serious wildfire danger. Spring is usually Florida’s driest season, but this year is far beyond the usual.
- A huge wildfire in China’s Sichuan Provence has just killed 19 people. 1,200 people have been evacuated and thousands of firefighters and rescue workers have pulled in to the region. I have not been able to find out whether large fires are common in Sichuan, but fires are more common in many parts of the world with climate change.
And on and on.