This one is a bleak portent. On Thursday, the same day Donald Trump signed into law a $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus more than twice as big as the historic 2009 Great Recession package (and rushed through Congress much more quickly), the EPA announced its own kind of stimulus: a pollution stimulus, a stimulus to global warming, a stimulus for toxins in your air and in your water.
The announcement was, nominally, a response to the economic crisis produced by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was broadly in line with the agency’s deregulatory, indeed self-defanging, program under Trump: “a sweeping relaxation of environmental rules,” as the Times put it, “allowing power plants, factories and other facilities to determine for themselves if they are able to meet legal requirements on reporting air and water pollution.” The agency won’t issue fines or monitor pollution itself, but simply invite all those companies whose supervision and regulation is the agency’s mission to do what they can and report what they like. In other words, the EPA effectively put itself out of commission, and all efforts to regulate environmental contamination, climate-related emissions, and air and water pollution on hold.
As policy, this is bad enough, which is to say practically criminal, even putting aside the research suggesting that the air pollution is a contributor to COVID lethality. But it is perhaps more distressing as a rebuttal to a wave of measured, uncomfortable “silver lining” optimism emerging recently among climate advocates and activists about the possibility that the pandemic crisis might open up new opportunities for rapid decarbonization — or at least that it could give us some hope that change of the scale required by the climate crisis is not beyond the capacity of contemporary society to enact.
Almost since the disease appeared, in China around the beginning of the New Year, climate writers have been tea-leaf-reading it as a guide to the future of their own cause. There have been pieces celebrating the (likely temporary) decline in emissions and air pollution and the (mostly “fake news”) “return of nature” to places like Venice, and there have been pieces chastising those writers for “celebrating” something as bleak as the current pandemic. There have been pieces pointing out the similarities between the two crises — the disregard for scientific warnings, collapse of faith in technocratic management, the disinterest in threats faced only by others elsewhere on the planet, the collective-action problem of global coordinated response. There have been pieces exploring what we can intuit about possible climate futures from the experience (in this category, I’d recommend Meehan Crist’s long New York Times reflection). And there have been pieces suggesting that, at the very least, the pandemic response, though woefully inadequate to the crisis itself, nevertheless shows that dramatic changes to unchangeable-seeming systems are possible, and indeed can come rapidly when the threat looms close enough. This has been the central theme of comments published over the last week by climate striker Greta Thunberg (“If one virus can wipe out the entire economy in a matter of weeks and shut down societies, then that is a proof that our societies are not very resilient,” she told New Scientist. “It also shows that once we are in an emergency, we can act and we can change our behaviour quickly”) and Zero Hour’s Jamie Margolin (“This pandemic has brought business as usual to an official halt,” she wrote in the Washington Post. “When the worst of the illness has passed, instead of rushing to return to ‘normal’ — the old, comfortable pattern of destroying the planet — we can take this opportunity to restructure our economy and society in a way that will ensure today’s children can live”).
These arguments are not perfectly aligned — in fact some of them run directly against one another. But many of them, especially those of the last category, draw on the same hopeful, even naïve, thread in environmental activism, one which has formed a part of my climate worldview as well: the common, though not universal, assumption that communication and public understanding are the keys to climate action, and that if everyone appreciates the scale and urgency of the crisis as it is described by impartial scientists, the political possibilities would open up as well (if not all the way to something like a Green New Deal). In this view, denial and disinformation are the key obstacles to meaningful progress, and overcoming them, while not necessarily easy, would ultimately move us, however haltingly, forward.
For all its humanitarian horrors, the coronavirus story has nevertheless offered some encouragement for those who felt this way: The world ignored or downplayed the problem, first by failing to prepare for possible outbreaks and then moving too slowly to respond to this one; but when it took action it very much took action, locking down whole nations, building hospitals in a week’s time, ramping up industrial production of protective gear and testing kits at a scale unseen outside of wartime. Maybe climate would be the same. It was, at least, an intoxicating vision: activists who’d spent decades lamenting how difficult it was to fundamentally change anything seeing so much change, so quickly, and imagining it could be the same for them and their cause.
But it’s not just climate activists seeing those opportunities. Enemies of climate action are moving, too, in much the way Naomi Klein outlined in The Shock Doctrine, arguing that the forces of capital will seize any crisis as an opportunity to expand and entrench their dominion over the rest of society. In this case, not just “capital” but what Andreas Malm calls “fossil capital.” In China, where the initial shutdown dramatically reduced carbon emissions earlier this winter, environmental regulations are also being rolled back, in an effort to promote a faster recovery from the COVID recession. Here, in the U.S., in addition to the EPA policy change and a stimulus bill with as many handouts to fossil-fuel companies as renewable investments, three states last week took the opportunity of the pandemic crisis to pass laws making it illegal to protest fossil-fuel production by disrupting the construction of new pipelines.
Any reader of Klein’s should not have been surprised by these campaigns, and indeed a right-wing response to global warming has become a growing concern among climate observers from Kate Aronoff to Jedediah Britton-Purdy to Katrina Forrester and Alyssa Battistoni (among many others) over the last few years. In a recent essay, Nils Gilman gave the phenomenon, often referred to as “ecofascism” or “econationalism,” a memorable new name: “avocado politics,” in the sense of being “green on the outside but brown(shirt) at the core.”
This is not just a phenomenon of right-wing populism, of course. Inevitably, in a time of economic crisis felt particularly hard by fossil-fuel companies — terrified of long-term threats from climate-conscious consumption, medium-term threats from the unprofitability of coal and perhaps soon other fuels, and short-term threats from the collapsing oil market — it is also a strategy of big business. So while it may sound obvious, perhaps juvenile, it bears repeating: The fight for climate action is very much, still, a fight, no matter how obvious it may seem, to the casual observer, which forces are on the “right side of history,” and which the wrong. That perspective probably isn’t even incorrect, since in the long run it is probably a safe bet that renewable energy and progressive climate policy will win out. But just as important as who will eventually prevail is when and at what speed. And unfortunately, while there are some legitimate coronavirus-related signs of hope (Europe’s seeming commitment to “stick to the plan” for its “European Green Deal,” for one), there are also plenty of reasons to think the pandemic will make progress harder. Maybe considerably so.
On Monday, the Trump administration announced plans to roll back its fuel-economy standards even further, effectively “undoing” all the progress made by the Obama administration. As Matt Yglesias put it on Twitter, “There is no force in politics more powerful than the Trump administration’s desire to increase air pollution.”