One cannot help but look back nostalgically to a time when we thought the biggest crisis facing humanity would evolve over many years. How quickly concerns have changed. In a matter of months, the nation has been forced to commit to several trillion dollars in stimulus packages to keep the American economy on life support while many struggle to survive. But even under all of this stress, we cannot afford to forget the peril posed by an overheated planet. And we might ask what the pandemic portends for the longer-term threat of climate change. It is useful to start by reviewing some common misperceptions, and lessons not to be drawn from current events.
The first is the expectation that the value of science is now clear to all. Some people may assume it will play a more central role in future public health and environmental policy. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests otherwise. The Trump administration continues to demonstrate a shocking disdain for the advice of experts. Wishful thinking is often preferred over the advice of the world’s leading epidemiologists, health researchers and clinicians.
A second optimistic view is that COVID-19 will heighten awareness of other risks the nation faces, and of the value of precautionary action. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that nature’s current message will moderate the administration’s reluctance to even recognize the climate threat, much less support development of a response. Even in the face of the impending death of thousands from the virus, federal management of the pandemic has been dominated by the divisive politics of the day and the pressures of the election cycle. The damage of climate change is simply not immediate enough to change the dismissive view of this issue, well-curated by the president and his party.
Also worrying is a third misperception — that the reduction in emissions as we shelter in place is good news for the climate. Not so, unless throwing the economy under the bus is considered a viable emissions reduction strategy. The current blip in the long-term trend is but a transitory reduction and will not make a meaningful contribution to meeting the long-term challenge of cutting emissions and stabilizing our climate.
Finally, the administration touts the view that the pandemic hit when the economy was in terrific condition, evidenced by record low employment and a soaring stock market. That’s nonsense. The present crisis shines an unflattering spotlight on a nation living well beyond its means, yet with a tattered safety net. Dealing effectively with future global challenges, including the looming climate threat, will demand more responsible fiscal leadership from the administration and Congress.
In the midst of this darkness, we should not fail to recognize that COVID-19 is forcing behavioral changes that could better position us to tackle climate change. For example, telecommuting is a no-brainer for reducing greenhouse emission. A new normal may also apply to business travel. Rather than having their employees fly off to distant destinations, companies are likely to reconsider the relative efficiency of virtual meetings. Consumer behavior is also likely to change. The ongoing online shopping trend may get a boost from the experience during the lockdown, lowering emissions from repeated short trips to stores.
And there may be other opportunities amid the economic devastation of the necessary state closures. The oncoming recession likely will prompt longer-term federal jobs legislation. A likely vehicle for this is the long-awaited infrastructure program. It surely will include improvements in the nation’s roads and mass transit systems, which could and should be designed with emissions reduction in mind.
Examples of other “targets of opportunity” include upgrading the nation’s building stock and modernizing the electric power system. Bringing the aging power grid into the 21st century would improve customer cost and service while facilitating inputs from solar and wind sources. And perhaps one jobs program, the administration’s decision on the Keystone pipeline, needs reconsidering. We need to design the infrastructure of the future — not of the past.
The bottom line? The pandemic will not miraculously invigorate climate action. To be clear, we do not propose adding climate change to the daunting list of concerns motivating the current stimulus packages. The first order of business is surviving the coronavirus, and that leaves few resources and policy attention for anything else. But we must be mindful that other significant challenges require our attention. They must inform the new normal that we are already in the process of creating.
Henry D. Jacoby is the William F. Pounds Professor of Management, Emeritus in the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management and former co-director of the M.I.T. Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.
Richard Richels directed climate change research at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). He also served on the National Assessment Synthesis Team for the first U.S. National Climate Assessment.
Gary Yohe is the Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, Emeritus, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He was vice-chair of the Third U.S. National Climate Assessment.
Ben Santer is an atmospheric scientist and member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.