The Covid-19 Pandemic Versus the Coming Climate Armageddon Ben Iheagwara, Ph.D.
The world is in disarray. Our social institutions have been hijacked by the irruption of the coronavirus (Covid-19). Covid-19 is a monstrous disruptor, an instant game changer and an insidious force majeure. It has unleashed ripples of fear, uncertainty, and panic across the globe. It is infecting people, crippling economies, and dislocating social life as we know it. It has made our thriving communities look like deserted ghost towns, pushed our economies into survivalist mode, and heightened our anxieties.
To mitigate its impact, governments all over the world have been forced to fight it with unprecedented aggression. Across the world, governments are enforcing reduced mobility, urging social distancing, and recommending commonsensical habits of personal hygiene in exchange for containing the spread of Covid-19. Apart from a handful of clowns peddling false hope, conspiracy theories, and confusing messages to their citizens, most leaders are listening to scientists and public health officials.
Without extraordinary governmental measures designed to mitigate the impact of the pandemic by providing assistance to families and businesses, many families and businesses will be dragged into the dungeon of economic hardship and mental health crisis.
National and municipal authorities are declaring states of emergency to impose restrictions they would not normally be permitted to do. Understandably, the extraordinary challenges occasioned by this pandemic require extraordinary measures. Production of goods and services have been extraordinarily pared down to the bare essentials. In short, the widespread declaration of states of emergency will beget behavioural changes, some of which are benefitting the planet.
At the height of the Covid-19 lockdown in China, NASA satellite observations of lower parts of the atmosphere showed that the volume of nitrogen oxide (NO2) – a greenhouse gas – had dropped by about 30% compared to pre-Covid-19 levels. Climate observers have also noticed that vehicular emission of carbon monoxide (CO2) has plummeted by 50% in New York. Data from the observations of the Royal Netherlands meteorological Institute shows that the air quality across European cities has significantly improved because of the sharp drop in greenhouse gas emissions.
The sharp drop in the volume of greenhouse gases is due to the significant drop in vehicular use and manufacturing activities. Because of this short-lived drop, it was observed that the skies in China were bluer and the air quality better. By way of extrapolation, the same would obtain in New York, Europe and the world over.
The expected short-term improvement in global atmospheric conditions should vindicate the case for a meaningful coordinated global declaration of climate emergency. Last November, about 11,000 climate scientists from all over the world, signed a declaration to warn policy makers, nonstate actors, and world leaders that “urgent and necessary” action is needed to prevent a climate catastrophe. They collectively declared that we are living in a state of climate emergency.
Chosen as the 2019 word of the year by the Oxford Dictionary, the concept of climate emergency is yet to move mountains the way the Covid-19 emergency has. At the moment, the rhetorical force of the concept of climate emergency has not spurred nations to enact extraordinary measures analogous to the ones being enacted to contain and vanquish this treacherous virus. The proclamation of climate emergency has only garnered symbolic climate emergency declarations from about 28 countries and 1,482 municipalities.
These declarations are surely steps in the right direction, but the rationale for declaring climate emergency is to alarm the world to the fact that the status quo is unacceptable. The climate change policies being unveiled are not robust enough to undo the damage inflicted on the planet by human animals. What is needed is a massive global mobilization that will include extraordinary measures by state and nonstate actors to reverse or mitigate the impending catastrophic assault of climate change.
If we construe the state of emergency occasioned by Covid-19 as a disruptive stormy wind, we should expect a fully activated climate state of emergency to be a cataclysmic whirlwind capable of smothering human animals, annihilating nonhuman animals, withering plants, and obliterating the entire biosphere. In short, just as the states of emergency imposed across the world because of the Covid-19 are producing global behavioural changes, the climate state of emergency requires urgent substantive behavioural transformation to avert the approaching onslaught of climate change.
Sadly, the declaration of a climate change emergency is seemingly regarded as a cliché. Why have world leaders not given climate emergency the extraordinary attention they are giving to Covid-19?
Multiple factors could help explain this reluctance:
1. The unwavering dependence on fossil fuels: The belief that it is difficult to shake off dependence on fossil fuels because too many industries and people are profiting from the insatiable demand for services and products powered and manufactured by fossil fuels. Obviously, inaction is not a sustainable option. Dependence on fossil oil is a function of consumer behavior. In broad strokes, a moral shift from conspicuous consumption to conscientious consumption would help initiate a move away from an economy dependent on fossil energy. If a sizable number of consumers, enlightened by the destructive impact of fossil fuels, are mobilized by the power of the social media to ditch spending on fossils fuel-powered products and services, divest their fossil fuel holdings and invest in renewable energy industries, the fossil fuel industry would adapt to the change in consumer behavior. As a matter of interest, leading financiers of fossil fuel companies are starting to walk away from offering loans to oil companies. JP Morgan, the world’s foremost financier of oil and coal industries, has pledged to terminate its loan initiatives for fossil fuel and offer $200bn to support renewable energy and sustainable development projects.
2. The assumption that renewable energy sources are too expensive and unprofitable: Recent trends in the energy industry suggest that this assumption is unfounded. Several reports are forecasting that in less than five years, the cost of using renewable energy (solar and wind) will be equivalent to fossil energy (coal) and even cheaper. Given the volatility of oil prices, investing in renewable energy will mitigate the risk of price volatility while driving the transition towards a climate-driven economy.
3. The fact that immediately observable risks are perceived as more hazardous than speculative risks: Hesitating to deprive ourselves of the illusory convenience obtained from consuming fossil energy imperils the wellbeing of future generations and the biodiversity of the earth. By failing to decrease our dependence on fossil energy we are unavoidably building a treacherous climate for a people who, because they are yet unborn, have no voice and no means to appeal to us to bequeath them and other creatures a habitable planet. As polluters of the planet, we have a moral obligation to cultivate intergenerational consciousness to rid ourselves of our imaginative shortsightedness.
4. The fact that the climate change problem is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons: The tragedy of the commons is a problem inherent in common ownership of resources. It is challenging to coordinate and manage shared resources effectively. The challenge arises from the disharmony between self-interest and common interest. How does one balance the pursuit of self-interest with the protection of common interest? The key insight of the idea of the tragedy of the commons is that prioritizing rational self-interest over shared goods such as the environment, paradoxically brings about bad outcomes for all stakeholders. It is reminiscent of the proverbial case of four rationally self-interested individuals: Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. These four individuals were faced with the challenge of fixing their shared property. Everybody was asked to fix it. Everybody was sure Somebody would fix it. Anybody could have fixed it, but Nobody fixed it. Somebody became angry because it was Everybody's job. Everybody thought Anybody could fix it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn't fix it. In the end, Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.
Everyday examples of the tragedy of the commons include polluting of rivers and the air, overfishing from rivers and oceans, etc. Since the atmosphere is a common global space, emissions in one part of the world can affect people in Canada, Grenada or Nigeria as emissions move globally with the trade winds. The self-defeating trap that disincentivizes individual countries from committing to reduce their greenhouse gases emissions leaves every country worse off because of the cumulative impact of all emissions. For instance, while it might seem wise, in the short-term, for the United States to walk away from the Paris Agreement, it would be bad for the United States and the entire planet in the long-term.
The peculiarity of climate change emergency is that it is like a malignant environmental cancer whose impact could irreversibly eradicate the vitality of the biosphere. Most of us expect that, if well-managed, the Covid-19 pandemic could end in a matter of weeks or months. So, there is light at the end of the disorienting tunnel of the Covid-19 pandemic. On the contrary, there might be no light at the end of the sweltering tunnel of a fully unleashed state of climate emergency. It could be a state of irreversible apocalyptic nihilism, an Armageddon that gradually incinerates the biosphere into a lifeless abyss. The longer we wait to turn away from this planetary suicidal mission, the dimmer our chances of succeeding. This is why climate scientists have warned that only urgent extraordinary measures are needed to mitigate the impact of climate state. The climate emergency requires a moral and economic paradigm shift: conscientious consumption and the development of a climate-oriented economy.
The unsettling uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is a wake-up call to the world to heed the warning of scientist that we urgently transition from a fossil energy-driven economy to a climate-driven economy. If governments are willing to spend billions and trillions of dollars to support families and shore up businesses in the short-term because of the Covid-19 pandemic, then it is possible to enact the measures urged by scientists for saving the planet.