The nation’s $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package throws a lifeline to small businesses, the unemployed, airlines, hospitals, student loan debtors and even the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
It contains almost nothing environmentalists have pushed for, and it certainly does not put the country on the sort of carbon crash diet that climate scientists and activists say is necessary to head off the worst effects of a changing climate.
For now, that’s appropriate, many climate advocates say.
The warming of the earth’s atmosphere, one of the other threats facing humanity, has been put on the back burner as societies race to save lives in the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic shutdown slashed China’s greenhouse gas emissions and will surely cut them in Minnesota and the rest of the United States, but it’s a temporary side effect of a sudden economic shutdown that has nothing to do with addressing global warming.
Eager to keep the climate crisis from being forgotten, environmentalists have put forth a flood of commentary, tweets, blogs and podcasts in recent weeks discussing parallels between the pandemic and climate change, and critical differences. “Covid 19 is climate change on warp speed,” tweeted NYU climate economist Gernot Wagner, author of “Climate Shock.”
A common theme is the desire for the health emergency to sound a wake-up call for climate action. But there’s a consensus that the time for that is after the health crisis passes, as Congress moves from emergency relief to stimulating the nation’s economic recovery.
“Americans are in emergency mode now. We’re focused on how to get groceries and how to take care of children who need nutrition,” said Michael Noble, executive director of the St. Paul-based clean energy policy group Fresh Energy. “It’s not right this minute.”
“But over the next year or 18 months, as we try to figure out how to get back on our feet … this is a hell of an opportunity to look at: ‘What does a world look like that doesn’t run on fossil fuel?’ ”
Rolf Nordstrom, who heads the Minneapolis-based Great Plains Institute, agreed.
“First things first, let’s help one another through this current crisis,” said Nordstrom. “Wouldn’t it be great if we can repurpose this global resolve to become better stewards of the one home we all share?”
For most ordinary Minnesotans with upended lives, carbon emissions are not top of mind at the moment, although many have noted their shrunken carbon footprint.
Maria Surma Manka, who lives in rural Morrison County with her husband and two sons, said she has been focused on the logistics of their new routines. Still, questions have percolated, and in a conversation with a friend she said they mused: “Will people go back to their frenzied lives after this? Will they still sign up their kids for every activity?”
“It has climate implications,” said Manka, “if you’re not driving a million times a day.”
“Maybe people will decide that a slower pace is better.”
Throttling back individual consumption is important, climate activists say. But behavior is a small piece of the huge systematic change needed in how the country’s energy is produced, distributed and used, said Dan Lashof, U.S. director of the World Resources Institute, based in Washington, D.C. Lashof and many others are pleading with lawmakers to seize this opportunity to accelerate low-carbon investments, such as building out the infrastructure for electric vehicles and long-distance, high-voltage transmission lines necessary to transport wind and solar energy to high-demand areas.
In an open letter to members of Congress sent March 22, dozens of climate scientists and activists outlined how upcoming stimulus packages could speed up decarbonization. Options range from expanding the federal Weatherization Assistance Program to cut utility costs and carbon emissions from homes, to ending fossil fuel subsidies and phasing out oil and gas drilling.
“This is an inflection point for our nation,” the letter reads. “This is a pivotal moment to put tens of millions of Americans back to work, building a healthy, clean, and just future.”
Co-author Mark Paul, who teaches economics and environmental studies at New College of Florida in Sarasota, said the crash decarbonization program is for the next wave of stimulus, when the pandemic is under control and people can safely return to work. Planning needs to start now, he said, for projects to be shovel-ready.
“I think we’re talking weeks, or at most months, in terms of passing an additional stimulus plan that will hopefully have green infrastructure,” he said.
NYU’s Wagner, who signed the letter, said he has no idea if weeks or months is realistic. There are too many unknowns in the current health crisis, he said: “Things are certainly going to get a lot worse, exponentially, before they get better.”
Low-carbon stimulus isn’t likely to find broad support in the current Republican-led Senate, where Republicans have been hostile to climate-change legislation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell lashed out at Democrats for trying to get provisions such as tax deductions for solar and wind energy and new emissions standards for airlines into the $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package, saying on the Senate floor: “Are you kidding me?”
The administration’s hallmark regulatory rollback has continued unabated. Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it was temporarily suspending enforcement of civil violations of the monitoring, testing and reporting regulated facilities must do. And on Tuesday the administration issued a final rule that significantly weakens Obama-era vehicle fuel economy standards.
A key takeaway for climate advocates from the unfolding COVID-19 response, climate advocates say, is the urgent importance of a coordinated, rapid response.
“The more we do to mitigate, the more we do to reduce risk, and the more we do to address the problem before it’s truly out of control, the less the suffering will be,” Noble said. “That’s the almost direct parallel.”
The pandemic also proves that the world can actually move quickly in the face of a global nonpolitical threat to human life. That’s a hopeful note for environmentalists accustomed to hearing that countering climate change is too expensive, too difficult or involves too much sacrifice, said Jessica Hellmann, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota.
“This pandemic response shows us that society is willing to do remarkable things when it decides to,” Hellmann said.