There are several parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, but perhaps the most disturbing is the intentional disregard of the value of human life in favor of money. This is hardly the first time since the end of WWII that money vs. lives has defined our daily lives. From the institutionalized denial of the damage from smoking tobacco, to the utter failure of the war on drugs, to the brutal promotion of addictive opiates by Big Pharma, financial gain by big corporations and wealthy individuals has defined the market based reality of modern existence. Nature does not matter unless it can be extracted, owned, and monetized.
The tradeoff between money and lives has always been a false narrative. It has never been a zero-sum game in which the one who dies with the most stuff wins. Most people know this, but they have been powerless to be different within a system that penalizes even modest attempts at transformation. Witness the anemic and largely failed Transition Movement in which communities tried to find a better way, only to fail within a global economy that will not support progressive change and new ways of producing goods and services.
The damage to the Earth System and our planet’s climate from fossil fuels is something that we have come to accept. Because we rely so completely on the benefits of the fossil fuel economy, we are inured to the damages that it inflicts on ourselves, on nature, and on the Earth System at the basis of all life on our little spaceship. Many economists fervently believe (hope?) that through technology the flow of energy and materials can be decoupled from natural processes.
The social costs of carbon include numerous forms of disease and disability, the poisoning of our waters and air, the breathtaking destruction of life in the oceans, the ongoing transformation of the world’s rainforests, and the social injustices that come with pollution and wars for oil. If you add it all up, millions have died already and many millions more will die because of climate change and the fossil fuel industry.
But, wait…what about all the lives that are improved by access to power and light and transportation? To be sure, these improvements are real, but we now know the irreparable damage being done to our climate and public health by the burning of fossil fuels. We also have a better way. There is no tradeoff between lives and prosperity.
Despite the concerted war on science and the backlash from corporate interests and conservative politicians, clean energy is the future because it is the most cost effective form of energy to deliver in the near term. The transition will happen regardless of the efforts of the fossil barons. The reality of grid parity of renewables with fossil fuels has arrived for many energy markets.
Unfortunately without government intervention to outlaw the burning of fossil fuels the transition will not happen fast enough. Vested interests have maligned science and stood in the way of implementing the necessary changes for over 40 years. Although their days are numbered, they remain wealthy and powerful.
More importantly, the consequences of unchecked climate change will bring civilization to its knees. There is no technology or economic strategy that can obviate this incontrovertible truth. No amount of economic growth will make the damages from climate change acceptable. We are out of time and the consequences of further delay are clear.
Warming in excess of 2˚C will transform the Earth System to a state that is not consistent with supporting 9–11 billion people. The mortality from climate change and the burning of fossil fuels is already immense and by the second half of this century it will cost additional millions of lives. At 3˚C and higher there will be mass migrations of millions, multiple simultaneous crop failures and famine, expanded ranges of organisms that vector diseases and pandemics, and increasingly unlivable conditions for billions living in the warmest parts of our planet.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a whirlwind of pain, suffering, and death. Yet here too, science is being dismissed and maligned. The data and projections from all authoritative sources show without doubt that without careful controls opening the US economy will result in tens of thousands of new cases and thousands more deaths. Yet there is widespread well-funded disinformation and political manipulation of the science in a poorly managed attempt to energize a sputtering economy. There has been stonewalling of information from the CDC, WHO, and state and local authorities. We who have fought the climate wars are sadly familiar with these tactics.
For both COVID-19 and climate change the root driver of denial and delay is financial gain by wealthy individuals and corporations at the expense of public health. It is clear that people may suffer economically if we take strong measures to mitigate COVID-19 and climate change, but addressing this is the role of good government. Liberal democracies exist in part to provide for the greater good during times of transition and crisis. The current hardship from unemployment reflects a failure of government as much as it reflects the consequence of the pandemic.
Let no one tell you that we lack the resources to address this suffering. There is no shortage of money or ability to support our citizens through extreme changes. Even with the massive government spending already committed, current indebtedness results in far less than the debt-to-GDP ratio that existed shortly after WWII. We have met such crises in the past, and we can do it again.
We are a nation without a safety net and COVID-19 demonstrates the consequences of this. If you have no job, no health insurance, no income, you will have no hope. As those you love suffer and die, you will believe whatever narrative that promises to make you whole. Totalitarian governments and dictators know very well that disenfranchised people are vulnerable to political manipulation and propaganda. Throughout the pandemic, science has been portrayed by the White House and the GOP as the enemy of the people. We are losing the war on the truth.
The important difference between COVID-19 and climate change is that the former is happening fast, while climate change has unfolded over decades. The deaths from climate change are spatially and temporally dispersed, while deaths from COVID-19 are here now, and fill ERs, ICUs, refrigerated trailers, and morgues.
Some of the people carrying assault rifles and protesting in state capitals will soon be dead from COVID-19. It is unclear if the near term impact of these deaths will change any minds. I doubt it. The right wing media has done an excellent job of inoculating millions of Americans against infection by science, data, facts, and reality. The delusion of the godless socialist liberal enemy will be carried to the grave by many of these poor souls.
The extractive neoliberal capitalist juggernaut is destroying our planet and our future. The saddest part is that we can see it happening and we seem powerless to stop it. We are shocked into inaction. We are terrified of the complete restructuring of our lives that is necessary to save ourselves and countless other living things on Earth. Without visionary leadership and a government that can function effectively, such change is unlikely to occur in time to save the lives yet to be lost from COVID-19 and to stop the ongoing dismantling of civilization as climate change accelerates.
Like many, I believe that our best hope is the young people who demand change and look at us with accusing eyes filled with the tears of betrayal. Theirs is not a future full of hope and the joy of anticipation, but a future filled with hard work and terrifying consequences if we fail to change. Those of you who doubt that the generation in college feels betrayed do not see the faces that I see daily in the classroom. This generation is woke and corrupt politicians should expect to be held accountable.
We must do everything we can to help them shoulder the burden placed on them by our generation. We must stand with them in the classroom, in the boardroom, while protesting in the legislature, in line while they vote, and as they raise their voices in outrage while marching in the street. We must help them find courage to face down men with badges and guns. We must do all that we can to prepare them for lives that will be profoundly different from the ones that we have enjoyed. As we pass from the scene, we must leave them all possible resources to remake civilization and restore liberal democracy.