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  • Coronavirus General

    Happy New Year – The Resolution is Climate Change and beating Covid-19

    January 2021

    Last years US election is over. And the big winners were the coronavirus and, quite possibly, catastrophic climate change. OK, democracy also finally one, at least for now. By defeating Donald Trump, Joe Biden pulled us back from the brink.

    But Trump paid less of a penalty than expected for his deadly failure to deal with Covid-19, and few down-ballot Republicans seem to have paid any penalty at all. And their approach, in case you missed it, has been denial and refusal to take even the most basic, low-cost precautions – like requiring that people were masks in public. The epidemiological consequences of this cynical irresponsibility will be ghastly. I’m not sure how many people realize just how terrible this winter is going to be.

    Deaths from Covid-19 tend to run around three weeks behind new cases; given the exponential growth in cases since the early fall, which hasn’t really slowed, this means that we most probably will be looking at a daily death toll in the thousands by this month. And remember, many of those who survive Covid-19 nonetheless suffer permanent health damage.

    To be fair, last years vaccine news has been very good, and it looks likely that we’ll finally bring the pandemic under some kind of control hopefully during this year. But we still could suffer hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world, many of them avoidable, before the vaccine is widely distributed.

    Awful as the pandemic outlook is, however, what worries me even more is what our failed response says about prospects for dealing with a much bigger issue, one that poses an existential threat to civilization: climate change.

    As many people have noted, climate change is an inherently difficult problem to tackle not economically, but far more politically.

    Right-wingers always claim that taking climate seriously would doom the economy, but the truth in my opinion is that at this point the economics of climate action look remarkably benign. Spectacular progress in renewable energy technology makes it fairly easy to see how the economy can wean itself from fossil fuels. A recent analysis by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) suggests that a “green infrastructure push” would, if anything, lead to economic growth over the next few decades.

    But climate action remains very difficult politically given first the power of special interests and second the indirect link between costs and benefits.

    During the months last year when Joe Biden and Donald Trump were campaigning against each other, vast sections of the American West caught on fire. More than 5 million acres burned, and the air in California, Oregon and Washington was sometimes more harmful to breath than in the pollution-clogged cities of India.

    In the Atlantic Ocean last year, there have been more big storms recorded than in any previous year -29-, so many that the group that names storms exhausted the English alphabet and had to switch to Greek. 9 of these storms became much more intense in the span of a single day, an event that was rare before the planet was as warm as it now is.

    Worldwide, the month of September 2020 was the hottest ever measured and it also ended as the hottest ever measured year. The arctic is warming even faster than the rest of the planet, and glaciers are losing more ice each year than can be found in all of the European Alps. Sea levels now seem to be rising at an accelerating pace. In Siberia, melting ice appears to be releasing gases that cause gigantic explosions leaving craters that are up to 100 feet deep.

    Let’s consider, for example, the problem posed by methane leaks from tracking wells. Better enforcement to limit these leaks would have huge benefits_but the benefits would be widely distributed across time and space.

    How do you get people in Texas to accept even a small rise in costs now at the current low oil price when the payoff includes, say, a reduced probability of destructive storms a decade from now and half the world away?

    This indirectness made many of us pessimistic about the prospects for climate action. Climate change by no doubt is a fantastically complex phenomenon. It does not proceed at a steady pace, and scientists are often unsure precisely what it effects are and which weather patterns are random. But the sum total of the evidence in my opinion is clear – and terrifying. The earth is continuing to warm, breaking new records as it does, and the destructive effects of climate change are picking up speed. Future damage will almost certainly be worse, maybe much worse.

    But Covid-19 suggests that we weren’t pessimistic enough.

    After all, the consequences of irresponsible behavior during a pandemic are vastly more obvious and immediate than the costs of climate inaction. Gather a bunch of unmasked people indoors – say, in the last days of Trump’s White House – and you’re likely to see a spike in infections just a few weeks later. This spike will then take place in your own neighbourhood, quite possibly affecting people you know. Furthermore it’s a lot easier to discredit Covid deniers than it is to discredit climate-change deniers: All you have to do is point out the many, many times these deniers including Trump falsely asserted that the disease was about to go away.

    So getting people to act responsibly on the coronavirus should be much easier than getting action on climate change. Yet what we see and saw instead is widespread refusal to acknowledge the risks, accusations that cheap, common-sense rules like wearing masks constitute “tyranny”, and violent threats against public officials. So what do you think will happen when the Biden administration tries to make climate a priority?

    The one mitigating factor about the politics of climate policy I can see is that unlike fighting a pandemic, which is mainly about telling people what they can’t do, it should be possible to frame at least some climate action as carrots rather than sticks: investing in green future and creating new jobs in the process, rather than simply requiring that people accept new limits and pay higher prices. This is, by the way, possibly the biggest reason to hope that Democrats win those Georgia run-offs. Climate policy in my opinion really needs to be sold around the world as part of the package that also includes broader investment in infrastructure and job creation – and that just won’t happen in the US if Mitch McConnell is still able to blockade legislation.

    Obviously we need to keep trying to head off a climate apocalypse – and no, that’s not hyperbole. But even though the 2020 US election wasn’t about climate, it was to some degree about the pandemic – and the results make it hard to be optimistic about the future.