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What about Climate Change then?

Written By: - Date published: 9:49 am, March 31st, 2020 - 26 comments
Categories: climate change, Environment, health, health and safety, science, uncategorized - Tags: ,

Shouldn’t this global shock from this COVID-19 virus make us all wake up to the power of collective global action on climate change?

Well, the minor upsides are vastly outweighed by the bad on this question – so far as I can see.

We do know, again, that the state is indispensable. We probably know that it needs to be stronger and have institutions that are rebuilt or indeed that new ones need to be formed in the face of such a massive global threat to humanity. But it’s necessary.

We can already feel it bring us together digitally as never before.
We know that national collective action is possible, and it is necessary, and sometimes it even works. Maybe too early for the last part of that sentence.
We understand that it is possible to upend entire social norms like international travel, and whole parts of the economy (and that regrettably it is also going to make a lot of people miserable).

We know that the state when its mind is put to it can communicate with nationwide coherence and bring us all together. Probably New Zealand doesn’t need reminding of that, given the 12 year near-continuous sets of crises we have experienced.

Those are pretty dim silver linings when you’ve been made redundant because your entire industry has been destroyed, you can’t pay the rent or the mortgage no matter the rent freeze or the rebates, and your relationships are being put through hell. Multiply that by most of society, and our wealth disparity and our child poverty disparity – those silver linings start to look gunmetal grey.

But surely if we can face this we can face what we need to upend society and wean ourselves off petroleum as well? Isn’t this the call to arms we needed?

If governments can take extreme actions to shut down workplaces and restrict movement, surely they can take similarly drastic steps to change how we produce and consume energy?

1. The Problem of Collective Action

“Flattening the curve” of the pandemic is a classic collective action problem. Some people will choose to self-isolate to be responsible and help others, but if most others don’t do the same, there will be little benefit from that sacrifice to slow the disease’s spread. On the other hand, if everyone else self-isolates, a low-risk individual might choose to “free ride” on those sacrifices by continuing to live life as normal.

When the Obama administration was developing an estimate for the harm to society from carbon emissions, it chose to use the global rather than domestic estimate of damage for this reason. Because carbon dioxide impacts are global, if all nations looked only at the impact of a ton of CO2 on their own nations, the collective response of all nations would be vastly inadequate to address the true damage from climate change.

What we’ve seen with this current crisis is: they don’t.

2. The Public and their Leaders

Over the last ten years many Asian societies have had big pandemics. So they’ve responded to COVID-19 far more rapidly than the English-speaking world. Hong Kong, Wuhan, Singapore, South Korea, Japan: they’d seen this kind of risk before. At a level of both government and of broad public education about the risk of the issue and the degree of governmental management needed to turn the curve of the crisis, they get it.

They don’t get it in the United States – either on the virus or on climate change. Only half of Americans believe climate change should be a top priority for the federal government, and the figure is far lower on the Republican side of the aisle.

Canada is the same, and their states are fighting the Federal government all the way to their Supreme Court about it. Few if any of the Gulf States get climate change. Who remembers Paris now?

So the unanimity of states to provide consistent and accurate messaging both across the world and to their respective citizens is staying weak. If they can’t do it for COVID-19 there isn’t much chance for unity on that scale on climate change.

I think this virus throws climate change under the bus for at least the next year. It will be impossible to sustain the pace of climate mitigation ambition during the economic recession about to hit us.

3. It’s the Economy

From 2014 to 2016 global greenhouse gas emissions did not rise at all, leading many to celebrate that emissions and global growth had decoupled. But while carbon intensity has declined as we do stuff more efficiently, the link is still there.

Our economy – and that of much of the world – has been brought to a standstill through COVID-19. Tourism is about to die for a while here. With air travel and other transport ratcheted back globally, oil demand has fallen.

If the recession is bad enough we could see CO2 emissions fall for the first time since the 2008 GFC. That wasn’t a moment to celebrate, and it took massive government intervention (and ourselves pushed into action with the Christchurch and Canterbury rebuilds) to pull out of that.

It is really hard to plan for another Black Swan event, AND come out of it, AND have a strategy and the means to manipulate the crisis to specific policy ends such as climate change mitigation. Who knows maybe deep in the bowels of DPMC or Defence House there are small hairy meat-fed caged risk animals who get to scenario that kind of Machavellian thing. Must be dark in there. It’s not called a crisis for nothing.

The crisis of 2008 and the one we are in now shows how strongly tied emissions are to the good times of economic growth – and thus how hard it is to lower them.

So the answer is no. COVID-19 doesn’t help our response to climate change.

The upsides such as they are, are miserable. Any benefits are fleeting.

Collective action is really freaking hard when it runs right up against the state defending its own people and its own interests in its own way. And there’s not enough public understanding or common messaging across countries. And carbon – particularly CO2 – that’s the stuff that makes our economy sing and pays our wages and salaries and our Kiwisaver. Broadly.

Recovery from this next economic shock, not climate change action, is now the first order of business.

26 comments on “What about Climate Change then? ”

  1. bwaghorn 1

    After this is over it's going to be impossible to counter the argument from wealthy right wingers that the only way to recover is to open the pumps on consumption to full ,theirs nothing lifts living standards more than money churning around the would.

  2. RedLogix 2

    I really enjoy it when you put your thinking cap on and give us well reasoned OP's like this Ad. Too often the threads seem to ignore the OP and just take on a life of their own, which frequently fails to do justice to the effort put in by the author.

    We do know, again, that the state is indispensable. We probably know that it needs to be stronger and have institutions that are rebuilt or indeed that new ones need to be formed in the face of such a massive global threat to humanity.

    If there is one upside to this pandemic it's this; it hammers home not only that a high trust, competently run state is a huge advantage … it's also that when push comes to shove our lives are inextricably linked to all that high tech genetic, medical and manufacturing capacity which is churning out all the PPE, testing and ventilators we need right now. And then immensely complex supply chains that keep it all going.

    The 1928 Flu killed between 50 – 100m people world wide, out of a population of 2b at the time. This very similar virus will likely kill far fewer than this because 100 years of science and tech progress has given us the tools to defeat it far more effectively. The argument against science and industrialisation will be muted for at least a while.

    It will deliver the lesson that we need to think more about anti-fragile systems with more borders and redundancy built in. It will make us re-evaluate the deficiencies of how we are doing globalisation at present. The grossly defective responses from major govts everywhere, from the CCP, the USA, the UK and onward, along with the pitiful impotence of the UN and WHO to effectively manage the event … will stand as inexusable.

    Hyper-nationalism will be revealed as bluff and bluster, a deceitful creed that pretends we are not one human race who all live on one shared planet. Our inter-connectedness will be more starkly highlighted to us more than ever before. What happens in Wuhan, or anywhere else on the planet, does matter to everyone.

    The old idea that nation states can do whatever they please, with relative impunity and little accountability to the rest of the global community will be challenged as never before.

    Then, and maybe then, we can start to treat climate change as the truly global concern it always has been … and treat it at the correct scale.

    • Ad 2.1

      Cheers Red.

      You've been talking for a while about the need for stronger global institutions. I've generally been pretty skeptical in response. It's wrong to be right too soon, but then sometimes the right crisis shapes the right response.

      Sooner or later we'll have to start revisiting the works of those closely influenced by Keynes in Austrlalia like JT Laing the Premier of New South Wales in the Depression, EG Theodore the Federal Labor Treasurer, and Prime Minister Ben Chifley. … and of course New Zealand had its own notably WB Sutch and Prime Ministers M Savage and Peter Fraser.

      I'm keen to see whether someone in our current lot has the bulldog tenacity to drive stuff that Bill Birch had. That was a guy who could form and push plans in a crisis.

      We are pretty much beyond living memory of the actions of the 1930s Keynseans. Thankfully we still have a few books around on it.

      The good patriotic question to ask is: which citizens will stand with the current government to rebuild Australia, and rebuild New Zealand?

      Who will be our next nationbuilders?

      • RedLogix 2.1.1

        Who will be our next nationbuilders?

        I'd love to be on the team 🙂

        You've been talking for a while about the need for stronger global institutions.

        I want stronger people, stronger families, stronger communities, stronger nations … and stronger global institutions. Each play's it's own essential role … weaknesses are where the dark creeps in.

  3. Anne 3

    Recovery from this next economic shock, not climate change action, is now the first order of business.

    We've seen already a massive improvement in the quality of the atmosphere in those countries who have gone into full lock-down. It is confirmation beyond dispute that CC is a direct result of human activity and, in particular, the enormous growth of global commercial aviation.

    The first order of business has to be a global 'resetting' of economic activity which takes into account the increasingly alarming climactic disasters which will be visited upon all life on this planet if real action is not taken now. Nature in its inimitable fashion has now provided us with the perfect opportunity to do just that once this pandemic is under control.

    I am no economist so have no idea what it will look like, but it is imperative that global warming be an integral part of the economic reset.

  4. bill 4

    COVID-19 doesn’t help our response to climate change.

    What covid19 has done, is give the lie to the argument that it would be "impossible" to cut back industrial activity in order to impact on CO2 emissions.

    In relation to the statement that –

    It will be impossible to sustain the pace of climate mitigation ambition during the economic recession about to hit us.

    Pivoting industrial capacity to focus on the things needed in order to (in at least some way) survive climate change, would not only be replacing all that vapid talk of "mitigation ambitions", but provide the precise stimulus that NZ is going to need if it's, one, going to hang on to capitalist models of production and distribution and, two, drag its way out of the coming depression.

    Otherwise, there's that $US 4-5 trillion in the hands of US corporations (the Congressional bailout), a small portion of which could no doubt be used to buy everything of any use in NZ.

    Is there an actual term for the corporate colonisation of a settler colony?

  5. AB 5

    Seems reasonable. States are intervening to limit the loss of human life – but there will be tremendous pressure to revert to the pre-existing status quo as soon as possible. And that is most likely what will happen. As economies recover, CO2 emissions will go back up to pre-C19 levels.

    The current action of states against C19 is being tolerated – as long as it is not too éxtreme' and because the C19 crisis is naturally time-limited. CC however will require a permanent readjustment, and that will be fought tooth and nail until it looks like C19 with mass deaths everywhere. And even then we will see the sorts of comments emerging now – that some people (other than oneself) will have to die to keep the economy going.

    • greywarshark 5.1

      AB I think you are seeing through a glass darkly, and later when there is more light everyone will see clearly what you have said. Though that makes me feel sorry, but now resigned. All the thinkers can do is try to ameliorate the situation, have small successes and honour them.

  6. bwaghorn 6


    Someone thinking along the same lines as Ad.

    Use QE money to go hard putting to work the wave of unemployed to work mitigating cc and its effects.

    But just remember not to kill farming in the process because there're the ones bring in the bulk of the real cash for the foreseeable future.

    • greywarshark 6.1

      Thinking about economic recovery or whatever – there is a pretty nice chart showing the USA going down at various rates at present. But Trump will ride in on his horse Far Lap and save the hotels.

      Mar.31/20 https://www.peakprosperity.com/economic-shockwaves/

      The small/medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) like your local restaurant, dry cleaner, bookstore and building contractor are being hit especially hard, as they don’t have the reserves to withstand the many weeks of no income the lockdown is placing them under. Many of them have already laid off their employees. Many may never reopen.

      The jaw-dropping severity of this job carnage can already be seen in last week’s unemployment numbers. Claims spiked up to 3.3 million — nearly 6x higher(!) than the worst week of the Great Financial Crisis:…

      Both are in agreement that the current breakdown represents “the end of the road” for the 75-year Debt Supercycle we’ve been living through. And because of that, the future is going to look and feel very different to what we’ve been used to:

  7. infused 7

    People are trying to feed themselves and not die around the world. Climate change is at the bottom of that list.

    You saw this greta tried to get media attention by saying she was sick might be covid19 and got ignored by everyone.

    • In Vino 7.1

      What drives you, infused? Have you had an infusion of Meths? Climate change is likely to kill all of us – including you or your offspring – if we do not alter the way it is going. It should not be at the bottom of anyone's list if they have half an educated brain.

      Greta has become a victim of the sensationalist media. They will try to make a story out of anything however minor for clickbait. And you are sucker enough to click on it, aren't you?

      • infused 7.1.1

        someone discuss reducing the world population then i'll give a damm.

        • In Vino

          Dumb excuses like that will help nobody, least of all your offspring.

        • solkta

          You are waiting for a plan to exterminate humans?

        • RedLogix

          Here you go.


          Human population is certainly overburdening our planet, but the solution is not necessarily about reducing population (that may or may not happen anyway). As soon as you get into that discussion you've entered the Malthusian trap and that has no good outcomes.

          The way through this paradox is to think about taking our modes of production to a whole new level. We are sitting on the cusp of plentiful energy, new generations of materials, and unlimited human capacity to reshape our human world so that it is decoupled from the natural world to a far greater extent.

          If you encounter a roadblock, ask yourself, is this a science problem? Technology? Political? Ethical? Then assume the problem can be resolved if we really want to.

    • How we'll feed ourselves when mother nature will refuse to feed us?

  8. Sanctuary 8

    Walking up Mt Albert-Owairaka the last few night has been a salutary lesson of the impact of human pollution. The view from the mountain is crystal clear, you can see the city and the North Shore is brilliant clarity.

    Auckland is a small city in a country with a small population. Imagining the impact of the pollution of billions on the climate is just the little easier today.

    • Anne 8.1

      I grew up on the western slopes of Mt Albert. It is a small mountain with a little bit of everything. As a kid there were nikau palms whose wide solid ‘leaves’ were perfect for sliding down the hills. I can remember the crystal clear views. So much so, it felt sometimes you could reach out and touch the Waitakeres.

      It would be lovely to see that happen again on a permanent basis.

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