As the world grapples with the coronavirus, economies have slowed to the point that the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere has plummeted. Some environmentalists see this as proof that humans are in fact capable of burning less fossil fuels, which, they believe, will enable us to escape the deadly heat waves, powerful storms, lengthy droughts, rapid sea level rise, food shortages and mass displacement predicted in current climate change forecasts.
Stewart Patrick, the James H. Binger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, isn’t so sure. In a column published today in World Politics Review, Patrick writes that nobody “welcomes a pandemic that threatens to kill millions” but that the the pandemic has “captured many environmentalists’ imaginations, by showing what a less polluted planet might look like and suggesting how the world might mobilize to fight climate change.”
In Patrick’s view, the environmentalists’ vision is a mirage. He writes: “Unfortunately, the response to COVID-19 is more likely to frustrate than inspire strong global action on climate change. Governments will prioritize short-term economic goals over long-term sustainability, while loosening environmental regulations and their enforcement.”
Unfortunately, for the planet and those of us living on it now and in the not-so-distant future, Patrick’s opinion that governments will use the the pandemic as an excuse to loosen environmental regulations to bolster the economy is already happening. The Trump administration recently gutted Obama-era rules that would have reduced auto emissions. The Trump Environmental Protection Agency also issued a rule that absolves industry of reporting pollution violations if they were committed due to the pandemic. The U.S. isn’t the only country to take such steps, either. China, too, is relaxing its environmental regulations to fire-up its wounded economy.
Patrick said public demand for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will also likely wane as people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic become more interested in making a living than protecting the planet.
If Patrick’s right, the coronavirus pandemic will actually serve not as a lesson on how we can escape the coming climate change disaster, it will amplify it.