COVID and the Climate Crisis

We (everyone) are failing to effectively deal with the world’s two biggest crises: COVID-19 and the climate crisis. Both are global problems. The U.S. should be leading on both, but it is bungling them. The U.S. has way too many COVID cases — 50% more than in all of Europe, though its population is smaller. And its per-capita greenhouse-gas emissions are around three times the global average. The U.S. abdicated its leadership on climate when President Trump set in motion the process of withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change. The U.S. abdicated leadership on COVID as well, by failing to provide leadership, and even taking steps to worsen the crisis, such as withdrawing from the World Health Organization.

It’s well established that wearing simple cloth face masks when out in public reduces the likelihood of transmitting the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the COVID-19 corona virus disease. It’s a relatively simple, verifiable fact, attested to by countless medical and public-health authorities. Anyone who is interested and has access to the Internet can easily determine that all credible health authorities support the wearing of face masks when out in public. It’s amazing how so many people avoid this truth, or invent bizarre theories to rationalize this truth away.

The workings of the global climate system are vastly more complicated than the science of COVID infection, but there is a very strong scientific consensus that global heating will wreak havoc, and the impacts will continue escalating until we stop putting more greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere. Yet there are those who do not accept the scientific consensus.

As of this writing, COVID has sickened around 18 million people, and killed around 700,000; it has devastated most economies; millions are unemployed as a result; it’s terrible for our lifestyle: we can’t visit with our friends; we can’t dine out; it’s difficult and dangerous to travel. The experts tell us we need to reduce transmission by isolation, distancing, and wearing masks, until we develop a vaccine or other treatment that changes the game. There’s no serious dispute about what steps we need to take. This is, first and foremost, a practical problem we need to deal with. If we do the right things, fewer people will die from COVID, and we will get our economy ramped back up sooner.

The climate crisis is also a practical problem. We need to get to net zero GHG emissions as soon as we can, so the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere, and the resulting equilibrium global average temperature, are as low as possible when stop emitting GHGs. The longer this process takes, the hotter the world will be when we stop emitting, the more climate-related impacts we will feel, and the more it will cost us to adapt to the new, hotter, world.

Both crises are international in scope, and both highlight the current insufficient level of global cooperation. The U.S., which formerly provided some leadership on global issues like these, has moved in the opposite direction. The U.S. gave notice to the UN in July of its withdrawal from the World Health Organization. The departure will, unless the next administration reverses course, take effect in 2021. The U.S. has also given the UN notice of its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change, another withdrawal that will be finalized in 2021, and which could be reversed by a new President. The Trump administration has shown over and over its hostility to any type of international cooperation, at a time when such cooperation has become vitally important.

For both crises, individual actions are important, but are not sufficient to solve the problem. If everyone reduced their individual “carbon footprint” it would make a difference, but it wouldn’t come close to reducing emissions enough. For that, we need governments to ensure emissions reductions through regulation and market mechanisms like cap-and-trade or carbon taxes.

On the COVID side, individual actions like wearing face masks, self-isolating and social distancing, are important, but government leadership is essential for dealing effectively with the crisis. Governments should, above, all, be gathering the information necessary to manage the crisis. COVID tests provide the most important information, and governments should be ensuring that tests are available to everyone seeking them, with results coming back within a day. Governments should also be doing randomized COVID testing — for both current and past infections. The risk of contact with others is proportional to the percentage of the population that is currently infected and infectious. The knowledge of that percentage can come only from local randomized testing. It’s the most important number for me, personally, when deciding how much contact with others outside my home I should risk. But that information is not available because our local government, like most governments around the world, is not doing any randomized COVID testing.

We’re not used to dealing with global problems, and don’t have the right institutions set up to deal with them. Both COVID and the climate crisis affect every human being on this planet. This is very unusual, based on past experience — crises usually have been localized. Even the two world wars in the twentieth century affected a significantly smaller percentage of humans than our two current crises. But, as the globe has shrunk with cheap air travel and instant electronic communications, we should expect to see more problems requiring global solutions.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are agencies of the United Nations charged with coordinating global responses to health crises and the climate crisis, respectively. The U.S., which, if it were leading on the COVID and climate crises, would support both organizations politically and financially, but has indicated its intent to withdraw from them. There seems to be a worldwide trend toward nationalism and away from international cooperation, just the opposite of what’s becoming more necessary as the globe shrinks.

Even though the climate and COVID crises present primarily practical problems with relatively clear expert consensuses about the optimal course of action, there are many who rationalize these crises away, for political, ideological, or emotional reasons.

Even if we ignore fringe conspiracy-theory weirdos like QAnon, a lot of people take political positions at odds with science. Polls show that around 3/4 of the world population has a high or medium level of trust in scientists. The figure is higher in developed countries: 88% in Western Europe, 82% in the U.S. and Canada. But, in spite of a clear scientific consensus that wearing face masks reduces SARS-CoV-2 transmission, more than one-third of Republicans in the U.S. rarely or never wear face masks when they venture outside their homes. The tendency is worst with non-college-educated males in the Midwest, the demographic categories of climate deniers and Trump supporters. Most of the COVID-deniers are likely to be climate deniers.

Studies have shown that political or religious affiliations can influence opinion more than science. People want to maintain allegiance to their social groups, and will adopt those groups’ positions, even when they’re contrary to science.

Certain organized religions, especially the evangelicals, are anti-science, as evidenced by their opposition to the teaching of evolution in schools. Some of them see the COVID and climate crises as evidence of the “end times,” described in the Book of Revelation. This is how God ends life on earth, before the second coming of Jesus Christ. Others teach that problems this big must be willed by God, so they’re best left in God’s hands. Needless to say, these are not valid reasons for making public policy.

And there is also plain cognitive dissonance. People don’t readily accept facts that disturb their beliefs and hopes, like COVID and global heating, especially when they mean that things must be changed in a way that inconveniences them or costs the money.

Finally, especially in the U.S., there is opposition to any sort of cooperative or governmental solution to problems. There’s a strong libertarian bent, which decries the “nanny state’s” attempts to protect us from ourselves. “Let everyone take responsibility for their own actions,” the libertarians say. “We should be free!” They object to requirements to wear seat belts when driving. “If folks want to risk their safety when driving, they should have the right to do so.” But they fail to take into account that COVID masks protect other people, not just the wearer. Even libertarians don’t generally hold that we all should be free to harm others.

We could simply ignore COVID and the climate crisis. But, if we did that, each of them would kill millions of people and and cost trillions of dollars. What we’re doing now is better than completely ignoring the crises, but our actions are woefully inadequate. A proper solution to each problem would be interational in scope and based on science. It would require the balancing of costs vs. lives lost, and should be equitable in sharing the burden. We’re nowhere close to doing that.

(This story is part of a continuing series on Climate Ethics, an excerpt from my upcoming book, Earthling.)

Dean Wallraff is a climate litigator, the founder and Executive Director of Advocates for the Environment, an environmental law firm and advocacy organization

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