Politics of Poverty

The COVID-19 response shows we can decisively confront climate change

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Image by Miroslava Chrienova. Pixabay.

Rich countries are moving fast to protect their citizens from harm. The consequences of a warmer and vastly more unstable climate are no less devastating.

It’s a deeply unsettling time as the world struggles to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The world’s governments are conducting a massive, real-time experiment as to how best protect their citizens—with wildly varying results.

But these efforts have demonstrated something remarkable: governments in richer countries have substantial capacity to quickly ramp up emergency actions in the face of a crisis—if they choose to. As we mark the 50th anniversary of #EarthDay this week, and as youth activists once again seek to mobilize and engage people in collective action to protect our communities and climate, we should take note: bold, consequential action is indeed possible.

When climate change fighters argue for decisive action to confront this existential threat, we usually hear two objections: Either the scale of the changes needed will outstrip the financial capacity of most countries and more immediate concerns (like job growth or healthcare) will always win out, or the elusive “political will” to enact sweeping climate policies isn’t (yet) substantial enough. The last few weeks are proving them wrong.

Governments are taking decisive action to stop COVID-19

When presented with sufficiently alarming stakes, governments and central banks have proven more than willing to enact vast and sweeping emergency responses packages to respond to COVID-19. To name a few:

  • Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an aid package totaling more than 12 percent of Canada’s GDP to replace lost wages, surge medical capacity, and support businesses.
  • Australia’s government announced a surge in emergency COVID-19 spending, totaling some 9.7 percent of the country’s GDP.
  • The United Kingdom announced plans to subsidize up to 80 percent of wages lost by furloughed employees. This is notable given the modern UK conservative party is defined by its skepticism of direct intervention in markets and a long-running fealty to fiscal austerity.
  • Senegal, one of the poorest nations in the world, is working with donors to mobilize up to 7 percent of its GDP to provide emergency spending on COVID-19 response.

This is even more striking because none of these aid packages represent the final action taken by governments. Greater and more generous fiscal responses are almost certain to lie ahead (including here in the US). And none of the measures listed above reflect the massive fiscal responses being enacted by central banks in an effort to supply liquidity.

Taken together, one is left with unmistakable evidence that national governments have real flexibility and fiscal wherewithal to counter truly existential threats. Nowhere will that need be felt more acutely than in the battle against global climate change.

We have the resources to respond to climate change

Few forces threaten human health, economic well-being, and ecological vitality on the same scale as that of a warmer and vastly more unstable climate. From here on out, we should not accept the notion that we lack the resources to respond to climate change. Indeed, the world’s poorest and most vulnerable—those on the front lines of a changing climate—should not accept such excuses any more than those living in richer countries.

The predicate laid down by COVID-19 does not map neatly onto climate change: a viral pandemic is far more visceral and fast-moving than a diffuse and ephemeral enemy (like climate change). But when it comes to the question of mustering political will to confront climate change, we have also learned that the public supports aggressive government action to protect their well-being.

Some of course still argue that we are not ready to face the reality of such a threat, and it’s true that skeptics and doubters have yet to be convinced. But it is also worth noting that systemic denial and ignorance of science—a problem that hampered the US coronavirus response—has crippled our ability to have a frank dialogue about climate change.

We must build our resilience to change

In a less stable and more volatile world, COVID-19 won’t be the last such global shock to rattle our societies. The pandemic makes a strong case for addressing our deep and collective deficit of resilience—our ability to weather crises with limited hardship. Far from being a shocking “black swan” event, a global pandemic was arguably a “white swan”—predictable and somewhat foreseeable.

We have a long road ahead of us before the world can successfully contain COVID-19, with the worst impacts yet to come as the virus afflicts poorer regions. However, the ongoing coronavirus response suggests we should be skeptical when told our governments can’t muster the action needed to confront a challenge like climate—a predictable and monumental threat that grows with every passing day.

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