Silver lining of coronavirus
Something strange is happening which I mostly saw in fiction movies. Not only is disease and death sweeping the planet. Not just the closing of borders and restaurants and universities, the hoarding of wipes and disinfectant, the orders, unimaginable for earth weeks ago, to “take refuge there.” Something else is happening. The air in America and Italy after hitting China is now surprisingly clean. The Grand Canal in Venice, normally soiled by boat traffic, is clear. In Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta, the smog of pollution has risen. Even global carbon emissions have declined.
The coronavirus has caused a surprising shutdown of economic activity and a drastic reduction in the use of fossil fuels. In China, measures to contain the virus in February alone have reduced carbon emissions by about 25%. The Energy and Clean Air Research Center estimates that this equates to 200 million tons of carbon dioxide, more than half of Britain’s annual emissions. In the short term, the response to the pandemic appears to have a positive effect on emissions. But in the long term, will the virus help or harm the climate?
To be clear, the coronavirus pandemic is a tragedy: a human nightmare unfolding in overcrowded hospitals and unemployment offices, rushing towards a horizon obscured by an economic catastrophe and full of omens of suffering to come. But this global crisis is also a turning point for the other global crisis, the slowest with even higher challenges, which remains the backdrop against which modernity is developing. As the Secretary-General of the United Nations recently noted, the threat of coronavirus is temporary, while the threat of heat waves, floods and extreme storms causing loss of life will remain with us for years to come.
Our response to this health crisis will shape the climate crisis of the coming decades. Efforts to revive economic activity (stimulus packages, rescue packages and return to work programs under development) will help to shape our economies and our lives for the foreseeable future, and will have an impact on carbon emissions that have a worldwide impact on the planet for thousands of years.
Last week (which looks like a hundred years ago while sitting under quarantine), there could be some Freudian transfer of the coronavirus to the climate, that fear and urgency will be removed from the crisis that is moving faster and settling in the slowest, becoming a catalyst for much-needed action. Until now, it seems that all transfers are working in the opposite direction: social blockages and distancing provide a litany of mature actions necessary for the transfer of nebulous fears and fears of the climate. In this context, consumerism provides perverse relief: You can finally go buy dry goods to prepare for the apocalypse.
But personal consumption and travel habits really change, leaving some people wondering if this could be the start of a significant change. Maybe when you stoop down with cabinets full of essentials, your sense of the consumer goods you need will diminish. Perhaps even after the acute phase of the coronavirus crisis has ended, you will be more likely to work remotely. Lifestyles that include, for example, frequent long-distance travel already seem ethically questionable in light of the climate crisis and, in an era irrevocably marked by the pandemic, these lifestyles can be considered as extremely irresponsible perhaps among the relatively rich, it seems inconceivable to get on a plane during a weekend or destination wedding.
Radical changes in individual habits, especially in rich countries with high per capita consumption, could lead to lower emissions, which would be an unequivocal good. But personal habits may be less important because of direct reductions in carbon emissions and more because of “behavioral contagion,” a social science term that refers to how ideas and behaviors spread through a population and it can, in terms of climate
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