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Michael Howard is a professor of philosophy at the University of Maine. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network.
Global carbon dioxide emissions declined globally in 2020 by about 7 percent, the largest decline ever in global emissions (by comparison, the Great Recession of 2009 saw a drop of 1.3 percent). This is mainly because of lockdowns in response to the pandemic, and consequent reduction in transportation and other economic activity. Coincidentally, that’s just about the same as the necessary annual emissions reductions (7.6 percent) that need to happen over the next decade if the world is to keep global temperature rise from exceeding 1.5 degrees C, and give the world a fighting chance to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
The experience of the pandemic is thus a rough indicator of the scale of change needed to reduce our carbon emissions. While transition away from fossil fuels will require major changes, it need not bring austerity and pain, and, in fact, holds many opportunities. Phasing out fossil fuels will bring an end to jobs in those industries but create many more jobs in renewable energy. We can alter many of our wasteful practices without losing quality of life.
Affluent people can live better while consuming less energy and material, and make room for the poor to rise to a level of consumption sufficient for a good life. Alleviation of poverty, when combined with family planning and education for women, can also slow population growth, another factor in global emissions. A world with less poverty and conflict will be a better world for all.
A second lesson of the pandemic is that ignoring the problem because of the economic cost is even more costly in the long run. The U.S., with 4 percent of the world’s population, has had 20 percent of COVID deaths, disproportionately among Black, Indigenous and people of color.
This public health failure is complex, but it included insufficient investment in pandemic preparedness, including testing capacity and PPE, premature reopening without adequate contact tracing, and denial and inaction from an administration afraid of the economic consequences of social distancing.
This fear was misplaced. According to one analysis, “countries that have contained the virus also tend to have had less severe economic impacts than those that haven’t,” whether measured by GDP growth, trade or consumer spending.
The only way for the economy fully to recover, we have learned, is by ending the pandemic.
Similarly, insufficient action on climate change now, because of the cost of carbon fees, efficiency standards and public investments in alternatives, will only result in huge costs associated with climate change down the road. The record-breaking U.S. wildfires and Atlantic storms in 2020 had a combined cost of $71 billion. The recent storm in Texas, the kind of event likely to occur more frequently with climate change, may be “the costliest winter weather event” in the state’s history.
One recent report concludes that the total cost of global warming in a business-as-usual scenario could be as high as 3.6 percent of GDP, and “four global warming impacts alone — hurricane damage, real estate losses, energy costs and water costs — will come with a price tag of 1.8 percent of U.S. GDP, or almost $1.9 trillion annually (in today’s dollars) by 2100.” These estimates ignore losses not easily measurable in dollars but no less important, like species extinction and the tragedy of wars sparked by climate migrations or conflict over scarce water.
The true choice is thus not between the economy and the environment, it is between reducing our carbon emissions “by design,” or by “disaster” as Peter Victor put it. If we don’t reduce our emissions now, disaster will force us later and more painfully. Many climate policies have multiple other benefits such as less illness and death from air pollution, energy savings from home insulation and other efficiency measures, and cash benefits distributed to everyone from carbon pricing.
If recovery from the pandemic and recession can be combined with aggressive action on climate, the world still has a chance of averting climate catastrophe.