Last week we noted that the impact of the novel COVID-19 coronavirus showed “how enormous policy changes will have to be, and how costly to our way of life” to reduce GHGs the hard way. But as too often nowadays, satire can’t keep up with reality. A number of voices have actually been calling this economic devastation a model for dealing with climate change. Former “Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change” and holder of umpteen honorary degrees and Foreign Policy Magazine’s “2015 Global Thinker” Christiana Figueres hailed the impact of Wuhan virus on greenhouse gases. Though ABC laments that “The question is: Is the reduction in emissions enough to mitigate climate change and the environmental dangers that come with it? According to experts, the answer is no.” Ah. Experts.
Lest she seem ghoulish, however, Figueres added that it served us right, claiming “this is certainly not the last time that we’re going to have these kinds of disease eruptions if we continue to deny, delude and delay on climate change. We will actually have a much broader range of diseases that already exist now and we will have new diseases that erupt”. Not that it’s a religion, you understand. But here comes the wrath of Goddess as we predicted.
It is as if they think we never had plagues in the past, or that they only accompany warming. Yet the Black Death, for instance, struck Europe just as colder weather caused crop failures in the 14th century. And the Plague of Justinian came during the colder Dark Ages that followed the Roman Warm Period. And the Spanish Flu hit early in the 20th century long before we set the place on fire. But now warming is the cause of disease. Heat the planet, get the punishment you deserve. Experts say.
The most interesting piece along these lines regrettably begins in the most offensive way imaginable outside the raving lunatic fringe or at any rate any conspicuously labeled portion. Ed Conway’s piece in The Sunday Times claiming “Coronavirus can trigger a new industrial revolution” starts “Don’t take this the wrong way but if you were a young, hardline environmentalist looking for the ultimate weapon against climate change, you could hardly design anything better than coronavirus. Unlike most other such diseases, it kills mostly the old who, let’s face it, are more likely to be climate sceptics. It spares the young. Most of all, it stymies the forces that have been generating greenhouse gases for decades.”
OK, Ed, we’ll make you a deal. We won’t take your enthusiasm for our premature death the wrong way if you can tell us the right way to take it. (And remind you that at 41 you’re not quite the spring chicken you may feel like inside.) And if we all live long enough to get to the end of the piece, we’ll read something worth pondering.
Conway says “Hardcore climate activists have long railed against economic growth and in the months ahead they may have their wish granted as GDP growth from China to Europe and the US is hammered by coronavirus. Yet this would be no normal economic slump. It’s not as if most companies have become insolvent. It’s not as if the plumbing of the financial system is broken…. And since this is no normal economic crisis it’s not clear that any of the normal remedies like cuts in interest rates or taxes will help.” So instead he wants some kind of massive bailout, “a natural disasters insurance fund to support those who lose their jobs or their businesses as a result of this and future crises” and “other below-the-radar schemes such as financial help for companies whose supply chains are fracturing.” Not to teach an economics editor his trade, but massive handouts in a downturn are “the normal remedies”. Remember 2008?
Never mind, because he then makes a truly interesting argument. “Most downturns are Darwinian moments for capitalism: out go old, lumbering companies that failed to move with the times; in come their disruptive rivals in a blaze of creative destruction…. The economy that emerges should be more productive than its predecessor. Yet in this crisis the opposite may be happening.” And rightly so, because it’s revealing that the otherwise genuinely highly efficient, lowest-cost, just-in-time global supply chains are also very vulnerable to disruption. So yes, things will cost more. “Yet there is also a silver lining which need not only appeal to Extinction Rebellion. What if this is the nudge we need to embrace a new model of globalisation?”
He takes a swipe at “today’s economy” as being yesterday’s: “it is actually a product of yesterday’s technologies: the foundation of just-in-time supply chains is software and internet connectivity. The ultimate energy source is fossil fuels, in ships and planes. Today’s new technologies — 3D printing, AI, robotics — could enable a very different form of globalisation. Combine them and it is possible, as the economist Richard Baldwin says, to imagine hotel rooms in London being cleaned by robots controlled by cleaners in Poland, or lawns in Texas mowed by robots steered by gardeners in Mexico.”
Arguably this lovely prospect overlooks that there will be no need for the cleaners in Poland or the gardeners in Mexico because AI will control the robots. “But coronavirus is one of those shocks that could force business to take the leaps they were hitherto too nervous to make. When supply chains are down and households are quarantined, suddenly the fourth industrial revolution, or whatever you want to call it, looks a lot more attractive. When physical cash is spreading the virus, using electronic money seems far smarter. When travelling and mingling is a risk, working remotely could become the norm rather than an aberration. That this will all help to diminish carbon emissions is an added bonus. Of course, it’s quite possible life returns to normal after coronavirus. But one consequence of this disease could be that it forces us to take a long hard look at the way we run the world, and change it.”
Still, when the advent of COVID-19 fulfills your dreams, you might want to think again about those dreams.