For a moment, a nation that had plunged itself into a recession, putting much economic activity on hold to arrest the spread of Coronavirus, was threatened with even deeper economic malaise and despair if its lawmakers did not meet the demands of climate-change activists.
A procedural vote in the U.S. Senate over a massive relief bill failed on Sunday night amid Democratic opposition to the package many of its members helped negotiate. Democrats balked at what they described as a “slush fund” for large corporations, which would be administered by the White House, and the lack of restrictions on how firms could use these emergency funds. But according to Sen. Mitch McConnell, Democratic objections also involved environmental concerns. There would have to be new fuel-emissions standards for airlines and expanded wind and solar tax credits before Americans forced out of work could enjoy some relief.
Democrats may view these asks as bargaining chips to be discarded amid future negotiations, but climate activists don’t appear to agree that their demands are so dispensable—particularly right now. Among those for whom the climate is in a “crisis”—language that sympathetic media institutions adopted to convey the urgency of the matter and contrast with, in the words of the Guardian’s editor-in-chief, the “passive and gentle” nature of the phrase “climate change”—these are tough times. The silver linings around this paralyzing pandemic are bleak and misanthropic, and the downsides are devastating.
On the plus side of the ledger for climate-change activists, the cessation of economic life around the world has put downward pressure on emissions levels. Without boats, the canals of Venice are clear. The smog over Beijing has lifted. A CNN analysis using commercial and governmental satellite data found a dramatic reduction in carbon and nitrogen dioxide emissions since the onset of the crisis. Sure, these are the results of unprecedented orders from local governments that have shut down industry and travel, resulting in what some think will be millions of newly unemployed when the final tally is taken. But it’s not all bad. According to one assistant professor at Stanford University, “the better air quality could have saved between 50,000 and 75,000 people from dying prematurely.”
Some who greeted this profound economic and public health crisis with mixed emotions wonder aloud whether the real tragedy of it all would be to restore the status quo ante after the pandemic has passed. “As we move to restart these economies, we need to use this moment to think about what we value,” pondered Jacqueline Klopp, the co-director of Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development. “Do we want to go back to the status quo, or do we want to tackle these big structural problems and restructure our economy and reduce emissions and pollution?” Some congressional Democrats agree that it would be derelict to let such a monumental crisis go to waste. As House Majority Whip James Clyburn reportedly told his colleagues, “This is a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.”
For many other climate change activists, the good news, such as it is, is outweighed by the costs of this crisis. Not in human life, economic hardship, or the psychological devastation wrought by indefinite stasis and isolation, mind you. No, the costs are counted in how governments have failed to use this period of instability and dislocation to reorder the entire global economy.
“Why are we so frantic about COVID-19 but not about climate change?” asked Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick, presumably in earnest. Her answer: “Dealing with the coronavirus is easier than dealing with climate change.” In Mallick’s view, the disease has shown just how expendable the economy really is in a severe crisis—a conclusion that should inform her assumptions about just how acute the challenges posed by climate change truly are. If this conclusion eludes this columnist, she can take solace in the fact that she’s not alone.
“This is the perfect time for a Green New Deal,” wrote U.S. Climate Action Network executive director Keya Chatterjee. She and other experts who mourned the lack of focus on climate change amid this disaster see, as German economist Claudia Kemfert put it, “future-proof, climate-friendly and sustainable investments” being subordinated amid efforts to save the existing economy from imploding.
It is an act of unspeakable hubris amid the conditions that prevail today to declare anything “future-proof,” but the pride evident in these comments isn’t half as offensive as the callousness. Almost from the moment that lawmakers began to contemplate a multi-trillion-dollar relief package to supplement the salaries of Americans who have been told not to work, climate activists have insisted that such a staggeringly high price tag was a half measure. “We can, of course, afford a Green New Deal,” said MSNBC host Chris Hayes. “That’s been true all along.” There is a big difference between a one-time emergency relief package and a perennial commitment to spend, on average, between $50 and $90 trillion every ten years.
What’s more, the world the Green New Deal envisions does not include the millions of American men and women who have been economically displaced amid this outbreak. What’s coming is not a white-collar recession a la 2009. What’s coming in the near term will hit blue-collar and hourly labor hardest. A Green New Deal envisages a world in which many of these workers will need to be reeducated, retrained, and supported for some time. Only then can these workers be reintroduced into a conjectural workforce that supports a hypothetical economy.
At a time when the prohibitive priority of any responsible steward of American public life is to preserve as much of the status quo ante as possible, those who would discard the way in which most Americans lived in favor of an idealized and unrealizable future are engaged in the most frivolous theorizing. At worst, they are capitalizing on hardship and suffering.
“This is a ‘yes, we can’ moment for the climate crisis,” chirped one hopeful director of yet another university’s climate-studies department. “This is the first time I have seen governments choosing humanity over economics in such a significant way—ever.” It’s true. The pandemic is an obviously grave affair to which lawmakers and administrators have responded with unprecedented measures. Climate change activists might do well to consider the implication that their preoccupations lack those qualities. Don’t hold your breath.