We ask again: Is this really the moment? And once again someone thinks so: Ex-Environment Minister Catherine McKenna enthusiastically retweets a New York Times piece about how “Lockdowns and distancing won’t save the world from warming. But amid this crisis, we have a chance to build a better future.” The piece hastens to assure us “the coronavirus pandemic is a tragedy.” But high fives anyway, because “there may be a sort of Freudian transference from coronavirus to climate — that the fear and sense of urgency will be lifted from the faster-moving crisis and settle on the slower one, becoming a catalyst for much-needed action… as you hunker down with cabinets full of essentials, your sense of what consumer goods you need will shrink.” Just like Lent, except instead of ending with a feast it will go on forever.
Meehan Crist, author of that Times piece, sees it all. “Maybe, even after the acute phase of the coronavirus crisis has passed, you will be more likely to telecommute. Lifestyles that include, for example, frequent long-distance travel already seem ethically questionable in light of the climate crisis, and, in an age irrevocably scarred by pandemic, these lifestyles may come to be seen as grossly irresponsible. Maybe among the relatively wealthy, jumping on a plane for a weekend away or for a destination wedding will come to seem unthinkable.”
Sadly, our mass repentance and conversion into post-modern hermits won’t help because, Crist drones on, “in order to be meaningful for global emissions, changes in consumption habits as a result of the virus would need to extend beyond individuals to the larger structures that shape our lives. In China, it wasn’t telecommuting or grounded planes that led to the 25 percent drop in emissions. It was the abrupt halt of industrial manufacturing. (The concept of the ‘personal carbon footprint’ was popularized by BP in a 2005 media campaign costing over $100 million — a campaign that, research has indicated, deflected responsibility for climate change away from the corporation and onto the individual consumer.)” What? Personal responsibility a corporate plot? Say it ain’t so.
Not entirely. “This is not to say that personal consumption is meaningless… But aviation accounts for only about 2.5 percent of global emissions, an amount that looks downright puny in the shadow cast by heavy industry…. changing personal consumption habits will mean very little going forward if we also fail to decarbonize the global economy.”
The piece concedes that all those consumption-mad sheep out there might react to the end of the lockdown not by finding a quiet cave somewhere and living off honey and podcasts but by going back to work and getting stuff: “after the acute phase passes, industrial production and carbon emissions are likely to ramp back up. A global recession as a result of coronavirus shutdowns could also slow or stall the shift to clean energy. If capital markets lock up, it will become difficult for companies to secure financing for planned solar, wind and electric grid projects, and it could tank proposals for new projects… If oil prices stay low, that could be bad news for the climate, too.” Worse, “Lockdowns and social distancing have slowed climate research around the world or ground it to a halt.” They’ve even canceled or delayed the usual flight-intensive gabfests. But fear not.
OK, fear. “The $2 trillion stimulus bill passed by Congress this week, the largest fiscal stimulus package in modern American history, includes direct payments to individuals, expanded and extended unemployment benefits, and $500 billion in loans to bail out affected industries. It does not include relief for renewables, such as crucial tax credit extensions for solar and wind.” And it gets worse. “This week has seen a chilling shift in conservative rhetoric around the virus that echoes all-too-familiar patterns of climate denialism, suggesting that a more dangerous sort of transference is taking place.” Boo! Denialism. (Yes, it is the new neologism; mere denial is utterly passé. We look forward to denialisticism in the near future.)
Now here’s the good news. “There is another world in which policymakers and politicians planning for economic recovery decide to make building a carbon-neutral society a priority…. In this world, governments would create meaningful jobs in areas such as education, medical care, housing and clean energy, with an emphasis on ‘shovel-ready’ projects that put people to work immediately.” Funny how the new austerity never seems to hit the state, only its sorry inhabitants.
Crist continues “As Kate Aronoff writes in The New Republic, ‘One possible benefit to such a program is that it could provide an alternative to low-paid work bound up in carbon-intensive supply chains like those at McDonald’s and Walmart — currently the only employment on offer in many communities around the country.’… Rather than seeing the clean energy transition stall, such an approach could jump-start it, while also stimulating the economy. Governments drive more than 70 percent of global energy investments, and recovery plans could shift those investments as well as include new large-scale investments to turbocharge the development, deployment and integration of clean energy technologies.”
Scared yet? Don’t worry. She’s just warming up. “There are, of course, more radical policy interventions that could improve the health of the planet, our communities and our lives. Adopting a 32-hour workweek in the United States could lower emissions and vastly improve the quality of American life…. Maybe the rupture caused by ‘shelter in place’ orders provides a glimpse of what work is ‘essential’ to society — care work, education and food distribution. Maybe it offers a glimpse, distorted though it may be, of what life might be like if we all went to work a little less. A best-case outcome might include a rethinking of the social contract that helps protect and provide for the most vulnerable members of society at a time of increasing risk.”
So earn less, spend more, achieve true human fulfilment. It’s 1968 out there.