Fhe start of the Covid-19 pandemic, a common refrain was: “At least maybe now we’ll take tackling climate change seriously. We can certainly see the logic behind this thought. The terrible toll of the pandemic should remind us of the importance of three things that are also necessary to fight against global warming: science, public policies and international cooperation.
We must therefore listen to the scientists who have warned for decades that uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions would have serious environmental consequences. The fact that some of these consequences, including forest fires, cyclones and even a Plague of grasshoppers in Africa – emerged in spectacular fashion the same year Covid-19 would appear to reinforce the message.
But while the parallels between Covid-19 and climate change are logically strong, I fear the inferred political link is a non-sequitur. While some leaders and their supporters in countries like the United States, Brazil, Mexico, and even the once-sensitive UK can downplay the importance of the pandemic and override scientists’ recommendations, they can do the same with climate change.
The pandemic should remind everyone that the facts of nature cannot be dismissed and that progress follows a scientific path. Conspiracy theories claiming that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China is no more valid than those claiming that Covid-19 is a Chinese conspiracy.
Moreover, contagious diseases and environmental damage are two classic examples of what economists call negative externalities: problems that markets cannot handle on their own, because people who sneeze without a mask or pollute the air cannot stand. not all the consequences of their actions. The growing recognition of the essential role of public policy could lead the pendulum to move away from the ideology of small government. But government intervention must be smartly designed and targeted to achieve its goals effectively.
Even the action of national governments will not be enough, as the pandemic and climate change are global externalities. They call for some degree of international cooperation, whether through the World Health Organization and the Paris climate agreement, or other avenues.
There are many other more direct links between global health and the global environment. Some of them give hope that progress in one of the two areas could imply progress in the other.
For example, deforestation simultaneously adds to atmospheric carbon dioxide and forces bats and other animals that can carry diseases to come into contact with humans, which is likely the source of this coronavirus. In the longer term, global warming is likely to lead to tropical mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile virus, Zika, and malaria northern latitudes.
Forest fires in Western United States (and parts of Australia, Siberia and Europe) are largely a consequence of global warming. But they also contribute by sending many tons of CO2 in the air. And the smoke particles can immediately damage the lungs of people already vulnerable to Covid-19.
In addition, the pandemic-induced recession has lowered demand for oil, bringing its price back to where it was five years ago, at about $ 40 per barrel. For developing countries (and especially oil exporters) that use subsidies to keep domestic energy prices artificially low, now would be the right time to reform this policy and leave markets determine the price. These subsidies harm the environment, undermine economic efficiency and the budget. Eliminating them is a win-win reform, albeit still politically heavy.
In addition to the positive correlations between Covid-19 and climate change, some direct links go in the other direction: certain aspects of the pandemic are helping to slow global warming. As the 2007-09 recession already demonstrated, reduced economic activity means reduced CO emissions2 emissions. This is particularly the case of air transport, hard hit by the Covid-19.
The recession is likely temporary, but the impact on air travel could persist. Tourism will rebound. But for many of us, flying somewhere to watch PowerPoint presentations has lost some of its charm, compared to watching the same presentations at home. Rather than bailing out the entire airline industry to avoid bankruptcy, consolidation or long-term contraction, government policies should be aimed at reducing emissions from airplanes to an extent comparable to that of automobiles.
It is difficult to predict whether the pandemic will galvanize support for more aggressive efforts to tackle climate change. Some will argue that governments cannot afford to spend money on global warming in an era of high unemployment and skyrocketing debt.
Perhaps the most immediate positive side of the Covid-19 tragedy is the effect that U.S. President Donald Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic has had on his re-election prospects. If Democrats take over the White House and Senate in November, respect for scientific expertise, well-designed public policies, and international cooperation will likely return. This is expected to have many benefits, ranging from enhanced environmental protection and serious attempts to tackle inequality to the potential US re-accession to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, not to mention better leadership in public health.
What does healthy public policy on climate change look like under today’s circumstances? Go green today, green tax in the future, I wrote in the depths of the 2009 recession. The same prescription applies today. In the short term, we need renewed fiscal stimulus. Thus, policymakers should take the opportunity to “build back better”, as US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden puts it, in order to Help the environment while helping the economy.
But beyond the recession, there must be some notion of budget limits. This recognition distinguishes what a Biden administration would do on climate change from the New Green Deal presented by Democrat MP Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, at least if her bill is taken at face value. A gradual implementation Carbon tax would be a win-win solution, because Democratic and Republican economists agree.
The next US election will be held against the backdrop of a terrible pandemic and growing climate threats. Either way, American voters must choose to bring back respect for science and sound public policy, and the awareness that we live in an interconnected world.
Jeffrey Frankel is a professor at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He was a member of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers