Can Economic Collapse Be Avoided as We Battle COVID-19 and Climate Change?
As COVID-19 continues to spread, life as we know it has been upended.
One benefit of our fight against the pandemic is that emissions have gone way down, which, on the face of it, may seem like a small glimmer of hope for people concerned about climate change. Some environmentalists have even suggested that there are key lessons in all this about how to reduce the world’s carbon footprint. While that may be true on some level, we have yet to prove that we can we tackle either the pandemic or climate change without destroying the economy.
Global greenhouse gas emissions have plummeted because governments have shut down non-essential businesses and enforced widespread lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Freeways are empty, and many people are now working at home or not working at all. Since air pollution kills an estimated seven million people per year, it’s obviously a good thing that the air is cleaner now. But the repercussions of such an abrupt and unplanned shutdown are grave, and the toll it will take on human health might be worse than the virus itself — possibly even cataclysmic.
Dealing with a pandemic is extremely fraught and punishing. Climate change is infinitely more difficult. While there is debate among health professionals about the advisability of some of the extreme measures being used now to fight COVID-19, scientists have made it abundantly clear that extreme changes are definitely required to mitigate the looming climate catastrophe. Anything less than a major restructuring of society will not suffice.
Are Extreme Measures Necessary In The COVID-19 Fight?
Some health professionals would like to see the virus fought in more targeted ways, with a strong emphasis on more extensive testing and tracking, protecting the most vulnerable, and social distancing directed at the infected, their contacts and those deemed most susceptible to the disease. Others have suggested that countries with younger populations should allow the disease to spread in order to achieve herd immunity. John P.A. Ioannidis, a disease prevention expert at Stanford, points out that it’s hard to know if lockdowns are needed or if a more relaxed approach would suffice because we lack reliable data. Dr. Joshua Leichtberg, a Southern California medical doctor, has expressed similar doubts about shelter-in-place orders and lockdowns. He believes that Sweden’s resistance to imposing a lockdown is not necessarily wrong. “COVID-19 cannot be contained,” says Dr. Leichtberg. “At this point, we need to allow herd immunity to develop, either naturally or by means of a vaccine, otherwise the virus will come back in future waves of infection. We need balance in this fight.”
Lockdowns cannot be sustained forever anyway, so we will eventually be forced to find a viable alternative to avoid a total economic meltdown. Fortunately, the coronavirus ordeal is just a temporary setback that we will overcome in time. This is not at all obvious with climate change.
How Far Do We Need To Go To Combat Climate Change?
Will draconianism be necessary to keep emissions down in the long term? And what will happen to the economy? The truth is: we need to embark on a massive economic overhaul because under a business-as-usual scenario, climate change is guaranteed to inflict severe and permanent damage from which we may never recover.
Millions of people have already been affected by catastrophic climate change. The urgency of the situation cannot be overstated: the polar ice caps are melting six times faster than expected, sea levels could rise more than two meters by 2100, and extreme weather events could easily disrupt supply chains. The coronavirus crisis has provided a glimpse into just how hellish life will be once a rapidly changing climate disrupts the shipments of essential goods into grocery stores. When valuable crops and the world’s transportation infrastructure are all but wiped out, what will we do? Modern civilization is extremely fragile and, as we’ve seen during this pandemic, the supply chain is easily overwhelmed. Unfortunately, none of this has motivated heads of state to adopt more climate-friendly policies, apparently because climate breakdown is perceived as a distant threat, whereas the pandemic presents an immediate menace. But when supply chains begin to break all over the world, the death toll and chaos will be far worse than anything we’ve witnessed in our history.
It’s easy to see why environmentalists would view the near-total halt in normal life caused by the virus as a positive thing: at least we’ve shown that it’s technically possible to reduce emissions over a short time frame.
But we haven’t shown that it’s possible to sustain such a dramatic change over the long term. Economies are collapsing and human suffering is growing. Over half of all workers in America live paycheck to paycheck. Small businesses employ roughly 48 percent of the American workforce, and only half of small businesses survive after five years in normal times. Nobody knows how long most businesses will be shut down now due to the pandemic, but the longer they are, the more will disappear. Unemployment rates have skyrocketed, the housing market is predicted to fall to 29-year lows, and many families will be left with no money with which to survive.
What does it benefit humanity to have a temporary respite from pollution and greenhouse gas production if millions of people are thrown into abject poverty at the same time? Real solutions are much harder to come by.
What We Can Do Now To Prepare
What changes can we make to help alleviate the economic shock many of us are going to feel from the pandemic and from the climatic changes that are just over the horizon? The good news is that the USA’s coronavirus relief act is expanding unemployment benefits, a step in the right direction (as of this writing, unemployment claims in the U.S. have reached 6.6 million, the highest number ever recorded). Additionally, the social safety net needs to be strengthened. Raising the minimum wage, enacting healthcare reform, and canceling student loan debt are good steps in that direction.
Other ideas include a guaranteed basic income, which could give people something to fall back on and has the potential to help workers transition out of environment-damaging industries. This has been tested on a small scale in various countries and the results have been generally positive, but it’s unclear whether this concept could ever become economically viable. Alternative ways to help keep emissions down could include a shorter work week and reducing drive times by allowing employees to work at home when feasible.
The future of life on Earth hangs in the balance, and large-scale social and economic changes are the only way we can make a meaningful difference. For the sake of the planet and every human being on it, we must prove that we can transition from harmful industries without creating an economic crisis that leaves millions of people destitute. Industries cannot be abruptly shut down; if they’re damaging the environment, they must be gradually changed or phased out, with a strong social safety net ready to support workers should the need arise.
What’s unfolding worldwide today is certainly no victory for the environmental movement. If anything, we should all mourn the fact that this temporary transition away from oil, gas and endless consumerism is leading to so much human suffering. The challenge is proving that we can forgo those things without such a high human cost.