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.