A piece in Foreign Policy attempts to pour cold water on activists’ hopes that COVID-19 will cool our allegedly blazing hot planet. Instead, Jason Bordoff says, the pandemic shows that collective action is hard, there’s a need for “public buy-in and education” and “The third reason COVID-19 should give pause to expectations about climate change action is because of what it reveals about the strong link between carbon emissions and economic activity.” Yet even after that supposedly sobering conclusion, he maintains that the situation simply requires “decarbonizing the energy mix while supporting economic growth and energy use around the world.” And after lunch, world peace.
The article is not a silly one in many respects. Including grasping that “economic contractions are not a desirable or sustainable way to curb emissions” because emissions rise again in the subsequent recovery. If it seems a heartless assessment of the very real pain caused by hard times, possibly even an argument against recovery from recessions, it’s not. Instead, Bordoff says, “That it takes a pandemic-induced economic standstill to actually bring emissions down should be a sobering reminder of just how hard addressing climate change will be as living standards, fortunately, continue to rise in emerging markets.” (And, we would add, if you think the cost of a collapsing economy is high in North America, just wait for the long-term impact of lockdowns in far less prosperous places like India.)
In consequence, Bordoff writes, “energy from renewable sources can grow as rapidly as it has over the past decade and yet fossil fuel use can keep rising at the same time as total energy use rises around the world, especially in fast-growing economies like China and India.” It’s a tough dilemma, all right.
Or is it? Having said all the above, Bordoff reaches into his hat and pulls out a unicorn. “COVID-19 may deliver some short-term climate benefits by curbing energy use, or even longer-term benefits if economic stimulus is linked to climate goals—or if people get used to telecommuting and thus use less oil in the future.” But then he slays the poor creature: “any climate benefits from the COVID-19 crisis are likely to be fleeting and negligible. Rather, the pandemic is a reminder of just how wicked a problem climate change is because it requires collective action, public understanding and buy-in, and decarbonizing the energy mix while supporting economic growth and energy use around the world.”
If we might add a skunk of our own, natter about collective action is valueless without some serious proposal for how to coerce India and China, and talk of “education” or “public understanding” is fatuous given that the public have been barraged with Book of Revelations-style warnings for 20 years and, moreover, the missing piece in public “buy-in” is precisely broad and growing awareness of the disastrous consequences of giving up affordable reliable energy especially when we are already experiencing hardship and that “decarbonizing the energy mix” is just abracadabra unless you mean nuclear plants.