Today, I want to talk about how the Coronavirus crisis intersects with the climate crisis. Specifically, I’m here to offer a rebuttal to the prevalent narrative that “Coronavirus is good for the climate” because of the reduction in pollution while economies are in lockdown.
You must have seen what I’m talking about. The headlines, think pieces and memes saying that “Emissions have gone down thanks to the Coronavirus”, and “Coronavirus is good for the climate”, fast leading to things like “The Earth is healing”, “Earth is sending us to our rooms to think about what we did to the planet” and the more sinister “Humans are the virus”.
Coming from a climate justice perspective, I totally disagree with the framing of these statements and I think focusing on the short-term dip in emissions and pollution is a dangerous red herring. Not to mention the bit about humans being ‘the virus’ has eco-fascist undertones.
I totally get the desire to look for a silver lining amidst all this overwhelming bad news. But I have five reasons why I think the ‘Coronavirus is good for the climate’ message is wrongheaded. In terms of possible silver linings, I will then share what I think we should be focusing on instead.
Okay, grab a cup of tea and let’s get into it.
5 reasons why the ‘Coronavirus is good for the climate’ story is a dangerous red herring
1. The dip in emissions is just a blip
While it is factual that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have dipped down, there’s no evidence that this is going to be a sustained trend. Judging from previous events, when emissions go down “by accident”, they’re likely to bounce back up again very soon, and could even rebound to a higher level than before. Unless the actual policies, infrastructure and business models are shifted towards low-carbon, then the emissions dip will be just that, a dip.
There’s some evidence that China’s emissions are already going back up now they are getting out of lock-down.
The only way this dip would be sustained is if conscious policy action is taken to direct the economic stimulus to transition the economy off fossil fuels, otherwise the emissions will kick right back up again, maybe higher than before.
2. It’s not Corona that’s doing it
This may come across as pedantic but it’s bothering me so I’ll say it: it’s really not Coronavirus itself that is causing the dip in emissions and pollution, but its knock-on effect on reducing economic activity. The virus is not killing such a large number of people as to put a dent in the global emissions that way, thankfully, as that would be a tragedy of unthinkable proportions.
My point is, we could theoretically reduce economic activity any time we liked and it would reduce emissions, so let’s not give a deadly virus the credit. The virus is a horrible crisis that is causing untold suffering and ruining millions of lives around the world, shaking communities to their core, so let’s not credit it with a positive accidental side effect that it is not the unique cause of.
3. It’s a distraction with its own problems
Thirdly, the Corona crisis is having untold ripple effects, and many of them are bad for the climate. These could easily outweigh the temporary dip in emissions. For a start, it’s a massive distraction of attention, energy and funds away from tackling the climate crisis. Specific impacts that spring to mind include:
- The climate strikers can no longer march in the streets, reducing accountability – who knows how long it will take to get that momentum going again
- The huge UN climate summit, COP26, has been postponed into next year, delaying crucial international cooperation on the climate crisis. (The conference venue is being turned into a field hospital for Coronavirus).
- The Bank of England may push back the new climate stress tests for the financial sector, due to the pressure banks are under from this crisis
- Investments in green energy and green bonds are down or projected to be down, due to the economic shockwaves from the virus
This is just the tip of the iceberg.
4. It’s food for fascists
I know that most people saying this would never ever intend this, but I also think the message of “Coronavirus is good for the planet” and “humanity is the virus” has eco-fascist undertones and can be easily twisted and used by far-right extremists.
The suggestion that a pandemic is a good thing for the planet has the sinister implication that killing off a lot of people would be good for the planet. Especially when you consider that pandemics don’t kill people on a totally random basis – they kill vulnerable people, especially the old, sick, people with disabilities and chronic illnesses and the poor – kind of like eugenicists and fascists would want.
Combine this with the growth of the Alt Right on one hand and the darker aspects of the overpopulation crowd, and things start to look quite scary. I’ve recently written about the spectre of climate fascism and how we defeat it. But basically, please don’t propagate the message that pandemics are good.
5. It’s a bad look for environmentalists
And finally: I think claiming this as a win for the planet is seriously bad optics for the environmental movement.
Praising something that is killing people, ruining lives and at the most mild, at least inconveniencing everyone, just because of the temporary dip in pollution, makes it look like you only care about environmental metrics no matter how much it hurts people.
This feeds right into the Conservative narrative that environmentalists are austere killjoys or middle-class elitists who don’t care for normal people’s lived experience. These are of course BS strawman arguments that don’t hold water, but some people really are like that unfortunately, and that’s what you sound like when you say “at least it [the deadly pandemic] has cleared up the rivers though”.
This kind of regressive environmentalism is not popular and won’t create the wide coalitions we need to build a sustainable future. Only environmental justice can do that.
Capitalism is the problem, not humanity
The idea that “humans are the virus” is also a very sad, and I think wrong, representation of humanity.
Now it’s time for me to be the optimist rather than the one shooting down other people’s silver linings, but here’s the thing.
I don’t think humans are inherently bad, destructive or greedy. I don’t think our population needs to be culled or the planet cured of our existence. I think humans have the capability to be loving and creative and nurturing, to each other and even to the rest of the biosphere.
I think we could live well together on this shared planet, and we should never stop striving for that.
I don’t think the destruction “we” have wrought on the planet is inherent to human nature, but I do think it is inherent to the economic system that we have been living under for the last couple of hundred years or so.
I also don’t think there is really a fair “we” in this scenario, as the grotesque levels of inequality mean that the global ruling class have been causing the destruction and hoarding the riches, while people like you and me have got a little scrap of the riches and most of humanity just get shafted.
What I’m saying is, it’s not humanity that is the problem, it’s capitalism – and the capitalists who run it if you want to get personal.
The Green New Deal was right about social security
The other big takeaway for me is that the people who drew up the Green New Deal were totally right about putting social security into it.
Many of us thought they were idealists and dreamers, just shoving a progressive wishlist onto an already huge climate action ask.
But this Coronavirus crisis has illuminated the cracks in our society, like neon face-paint lighting up in a dark nightclub.
It has shown us that in times of upheaval and crisis, we are only as strong as our most vulnerable neighbour. That we are all connected, and risks are social. That if people are already living on the brink, one crisis will push them straight off the edge, and what’s more they will take others off the edge with them.
The point is, the economy and society is going to undergo huge upheavals from climate change. Disasters like hurricanes, tsunamis, floods and droughts are going to get more common. And while there’s no evidence that Covid-19 is specifically related to climate change, we do know climate change makes infectious diseases and pandemics more likely. I’m afraid we have to be prepared for this to happen again.
To limit these risks and worse, we have to shift the way the whole economy works. We have to wean the economy off fossil fuels, the destruction of ecosystems and the continuous consumption of virgin resources – moving instead to a renewable-powered circular economy focused on people’s wellbeing, not endless GDP growth.
To get through all of this change as smoothly as possible, people have to be supported. People need to have a social security safety net to catch them if their job disappears, with retraining and a decent job to move to. They need healthcare and education without getting crippled with debt. They need to be protected from homelessness. They need food security, and to be able to heat and power their homes.
This Corona crisis has made it clear how brittle and fragile millions’ of people’s economic positions already are. I hope we never again scoff at the idea that the zero-carbon transition should come with assurances that people’s basic needs will be met.
We’re facing a crossroads, a new political reality
It’s much too early to say how this pandemic will impact the world in the mid to long term, after the virus itself has been beat.
While I don’t think the temporary accidental dip in pollution while our economies are ground to a halt is anything to celebrate, I do think and hope that we will take some constructive learnings from this historic experience.
I like to think people will be more acutely aware of how connected we all are. I think people will see how quickly the government can move to solve social crises when they want to, and remember that this is possible next time we are told that social policies are unrealistic.
I think this may be the start of a new political reality, where people discard old assumptions about how things have to be done, and new possibilities become politically possible.
After the first shock-wave of this crisis is over, we will face a crossroads. Will we allow a return to the precariousness and injustice of ‘business as usual’ and sleepwalk into the next crisis, or will we use the recovery to kickstart a Green New Deal, to build back better?
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*Feature image credit: thanks to cromaconceptovisual, CC0