Being home alone in self-isolation since mid-March, several of you have turned to me asking what I think about the relationship between the global COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. Watching a transformation of global proportions enfold in front of my eyes is interesting, frightening, and sometimes inspiring at the same time. No longer neglecting my itching fingers, I am taking place behind my computer and starting a small series of articles about the current events and their relation to the climate.
Before getting into the complicated matters of politics and economics, I want to address the links and articles that some of you have been sharing with me over the last few weeks. Hopeful articles, often, about the signs of nature recovering in Chinese and Italian cities as a positive side-effect of the lockdowns enforced to keep the Corona virus at bay. I must admit these articles have slightly irritated me at best and rendered me hopeless at worst (no offense to everyone who sent them, I appreciate you are thinking about me ?). Let me explain.
For starters, and as you probably know by now, many of such reports were misleading, if not outright false. From the Dolphins in the Venice channels which were filmed in Sardinia to the swans on a Venitian island which have always been there.
There is only one thing worse than bad news: delusional good news.
Not all news has been fake, though. Chinese skies cleared up after industry came to a grinding to a halt in January. Air pollution as a result of burning fossil fuels, measured by the levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the lower atmosphere, has been reported to be down by 30%. This is great news for the longs of the people of China. While NO2 is not a greenhouse gas and is at only indirectly related to climate change, the potent greenhouse gas CO2 is also in a dip due to lower industrial activity.
Either way, I find the euphoria accompanying such news – fake or true – not only misplaced but straight out delusional. Why? Because we are still in the middle of the sixth mass extinction in the planet’s history. Because glaciers are melting at an ever-faster rate. Because the coral reefs, or what is left of them, are going through another wave of devastating bleaching. Some swans in Venitian canals and a couple of weeks with clear skies in China are not changing anything about that.
Short term effects will barely make a dent in our emissions trajectory, which is still very much shooting us in the direction of warming by 3 to 6 degrees compared to pre-industrial levels by the end of this century. The question hence is: what will happen once the lockdowns start loosening up?
Let’s say people and businesses pick up things where they left them before the Corona mayhem started and get on with their lives. The engine of the world economy would roar once again, and quite possibly play ‘catch-up’ with the lost production during the Corona days. This rebound effect might undo quite some of the short-term drop in emissions we are witnessing right now. The economic recovery is probably a result of packages of economic stimuli unleashed by (desperate) politicians. What if these packages include subsidies to polluting sectors, such as the airlines’ industry and the oil and gas drillers? Be assured: their lobby work has already started.
There is going to be a lot of pain and a lot suffering for a lot of people. This can never be the way to win the fight against climate change.
Now let’s say that this pandemic is more difficult to get under control. The lockdowns are prolonged, people are scared for the future, are temporarily or permanently unemployed, spending is at an all-time low. The world economy gets into a recession, if not a depression. That’s going to bring a lot of pain and a lot of suffering for a lot of people. Yes, emissions might be down for a much longer period and there might be a structural effect on the climate, but this can never be the way to win the fight against climate change. The uncertainty and struggles of an economic downturn, might well paralyse the climate movement, and break her momentum. Even if not, the political appetite for environmental policymaking and global collaboration will be at an all-time low. You don’t have to believe me: just look at what happened during the global financial crisis of 2008. The much-anticipated climate conference COP15 in Copenhagen ended with a sizzle.
Are we not allowed to cheer about good news, then? Are you such a party killer, Elias? Of course not! In my own city, Brussels, the number of initiatives supporting the more vulnerable like the old and the poor is phenomenal. Small businesses are joining forces to keep doing during the forced closures. Creativity is at an all-time high. We should celebrate these kinds of wins. We should also grab the opportunity created by the mandatory isolation to experiment with new forms of work, collaboration, and activism – as many already are. It might be the moment to finally read that book you always wanted to read, start that hobby, follow that online course.
There is nothing better than genuine optimism to get through this pandemic. And there is only one thing worse than bad news: delusional fake good news. Just stay critical and use your common sense folks, that’s all I want to say. Take care in these rough times!
PS: in my next article, I will be writing about the parallels and differences between the Corona and Climate Crisis and our repsonse to it. Stay stunded!