It does appear as though we have learned a few things from this modern-day plague. Although it is not yet known whether this deadly virus will be the catalyst that helps us to alter our perilous trajectory, there is reason to believe that we will see lasting change. This virus has killed more than 400,000 people, but it has also augured a range of positive environmental benefits.
Many are cautiously optimistic that at least some of the benefits will outlast the pandemic. As explained in a Yale360 article, those changes that are likely to stick are those that were already underway before the outbreak. This is the view of Amy Myers Jaffe, director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Telecommuting is one of the trends that was beginning to gain momentum prior to COVID-19. As many as two thirds of Americans worked from home during the pandemic. We are almost certain to see at least some of these workers keep working from home as employees want it and companies see it as a way of reducing costs and increasing productivity.
Decarbonization through electrification was another trend that was already well underway before the outbreak. Many reports suggest that the oil crash of 2020 will be a decisive factor contributing to the demise of the fossil fuel industry. One report describes this as a “terminal decline” and predicts the ultimate collapse of fossil fuel profits. Although energy jobs have taken a major hit the prognosis for some sectors is better than others as we transition away from fossil fuels towards renewables.
The pandemic is wreaking havoc on the economy, and while this comes with a wide range of hardships, it also forces us to take notice. American political scientist Ian Bremmer described it this way, “I am considerably more pessimistic about the economic future of the country and the world than where the markets are right now. But I also think there is a real chance this could be a Goldilocks crisis. A crisis that is finally big enough to get us to reform some of the institutions we have that are broken.”
This crisis is exposing the fractures in our economic system and shining a light on a wide range of social injustices. From health care to wealth inequality COVID-19 has brought to light the weaknesses of capitalism. Although growth is the bedrock of capitalism, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this growth is both unsustainable and dysfunctional. The only way that growth in tenable in the long term is if it is decoupled from both greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and resource extraction. The fact that Wall Street has become so fundamentally disconnected from Main Street is yet another symptom of a broken economy.
The pandemic has helped to galvanize a diverse movement of Americans and others around the world who are calling for social and environmental justice including an end to systemic racism. There is growing awareness that this systemic racism is amplified by the eradication of environmental protections which disproportionately impact people of color.
The pandemic has drawn attention to weaknesses in the food chain while making the case for supply chain resilience. On June 9th, the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, sounded the alarm about food shortages due to COVID-19.
When asked about the pandemic by The Guardian, Dr. Jane Goodall explained that she thought we had brought this on ourselves, “because of our absolute disrespect for animals and the environment”. If we connect the dots it becomes apparent that our preoccupation with endless growth is decimating the natural world upon which we all depend. This pandemic has forced us to acknowledge our abusive relationship with nature and the brokenness of our economic system.
This virus has done more than just increase our awareness, it has caused us to do things differently. It has changed the way we work, transformed our relationship to energy, and buoyed support for social and environmental justice.
Elizabeth Sawin, co-director of the think tank Climate Interactive, said one of the most important things that the pandemic has taught us is that we have the capacity to quickly respond to a crisis. The virus has already resulted in a significant reduction in GHGs. Shorter supply chains are one way that we have reduced oil demand and emissions. Working from home is another example of behavior changes that are cutting CO2 (less commuting, air travel, and office space).
Perhaps most importantly, by illustrating that emissions reduction is possible, it has energized the climate movement. People are less dismissive of the facts this includes climate economics. They are also more receptive to reports that show the benefits of action It is not unreasonable to assume that we may be on the cusp of a tipping point that augurs a paradigm change.
We are faced with a stark choice, we can either return to the road we were on before the outbreak or we can avert a looming disaster and change course. While some think that growing support for green stimulus spending will accelerate change, others predict that we will learn nothing from the shutdown and return to business as usual. Although there is evidence to suggest that this is precisely what is happening in China, there are many who still hold out hope that this viral warning will help us to create a better world.
If we miss this golden opportunity for reform then all the suffering and death will have been in vain. As Dr. Goodall said, “If we do not do things differently, we are finished”