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Earth Day celebrations will be quieted by COVID-19

Earth Day celebrations will be quieted by COVID-19
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Earth Day’s 50-year anniversary on April 22 is likely to take a back seat to COVID-19, but environmentalists are already seeing a way to leverage the pandemic for their causes. Climate activist Bill McKibben, for example, sees this as an opportunity to implement regulations “in ways that were unimaginable.” In other words, if the heavy-handed government can stop COVID-19, why can’t it save the earth from climate change?

Like COVID-19, climate change is global — every person contributes to it and potentially suffers from it. For these reasons, liberals and conservatives — even some libertarians — accept a larger role from the government in designing and enforcing rules necessary to conduct the war on carbon or coronavirus. In the words of a Western diplomat in Moscow, “For an authoritarian state, the coronavirus is paradise.” So is climate change. 

Author of “The Uninhabitable Earth,” David Wallace-Wells says, “the coronavirus is a preview of our climate-change future.”  He notes that diseases trapped in Arctic ice that haven’t circulated in the air since humans started walking the earth will be released when the ice melts. Alaska researchers found remnants of the 1918 Spanish flu locked in ice. Smallpox could be released from melting ice caps, or the Black Death may reappear from its 14th century tomb. Wallace-Wells believes global warming will “scramble ecosystems” that have limited the spread of viruses and “help disease trespass those limits as surely as Cortés did. 

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Climate activists point to reduced carbon emissions due to COVID-19 as proof of what can be accomplished with a heavier government hand. Or as an Irish journalist, put it, coronavirus regulations are “Doing Greta’s [Thunberg] work.”

Satellite images from Wuhan and northern Italy show massive reductions of air pollution — carbon dioxide emissions in China dropped by 25 percent since February, more than half of the carbon emissions of the United Kingdom.

Columbia University researchers estimate the economic downturn due to the coronavirus has reduced New York City’s truck and car traffic enough to lower carbon monoxide emissions by 50 percent compared to last year. They also found a 5 to 10 percent drop in carbon dioxide emissions and a significant drop in methane, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases.

Prior to COVID-19, carbon emissions from global aviation doubled between 1990 and 2019. The pandemic reduced air traffic in the last week of March 2020 by 50 percent compared to the same week in 2019This translates to a reduction of 450 million tons of carbon, the equivalent of Mexico’s annual carbon emissions.

Democrats tried to use the $2 trillion stimulus package as their Trojan Horse for climate demands. In return for CARES Act loans, they wanted the airlines industry to fully offset greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.

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These demands didn’t make it into the final legislation because the pandemic has highlighted the cost of draconian regulations. Imagine the additional impact on airlines had the reduced greenhouse gas proposal been included in the CARES Act.

Airlines receiving loans are barred from furloughing employees, despite having been hit harder than they were after 9/11. United Airlines, which saw a 97 percent reduction in passengers during the first 2 weeks of April, received $5 billion from the CARES Act, which, as required, will be used to “protect employee paychecks.” Nonetheless, a letter to employees from United Airlines executives said that reduced schedules “will have direct consequences for frontline employees in terms of total hours worked.”

Earth Day revelers who think COVID-19 will open the door for environmental regulations “unimaginable” before the pandemic, might want to talk to those “frontline employees.” 

If nothing else, the pandemic will make us all think twice before embracing environmental regulations that cost more than they are worth.

Terry Anderson is the John and Jean DeNault Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and past president of the Property and Environment Research Center, Bozeman, Mont.