intelligencer chats

Could the Pandemic Be a Climate Turning Point?

Climate change is always in the background. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has caused untold misery around the world. But might it also be a transformative moment in the fight against climate change? I spoke with New York deputy editor and climate columnist David Wallace-Wells about the possibility.

Ben: As everything ground to a halt this spring, carbon emissions fell drastically, to the point that they are currently projected to drop an unheard-of 7% compared to last year. But with movement, travel, and business picking back up in China and Europe, and in fits and starts here (thanks to our terrific leadership), is there any reason to believe this trend will be anything other than the kind of temporary blip we’ve seen before during other economic downturns — after which emissions go back up even higher again?

David: Well, it is bigger than we’ve seen in those other downturns, but since carbon hangs in the atmosphere for many decades, a one-year blip doesn’t make all that much difference for future warming (it can make a difference in air pollution, with places like Delhi breathing clean air this spring for the first time in decades). And it’s a reminder of just how big a challenge it is going to be to really avoid catastrophic warming of two degrees Celsius, since the U.N. suggests we need to be cutting emissions by about that much every single year between now and 2030 to give ourselves a decent shot.

As for the future? Different countries with different politics and different needs are going to respond in different ways. In general, European countries have been fairly aggressive about building in climate-friendly regulations and investments as part of their stimulus spending, but China’s already back to where they would have been without a pandemic downturn. The U.S. is an open question, but it does seem like Joe Biden is taking this stuff much more seriously than he seemed to be just a few months ago (and is much less likely to spend the winter boosting the gas and oil business).

There is some thinking among energy analysts that, at the global level, the pandemic might have been just the nudge to get emissions to actually peak — we’ve been basically at a plateau for half a decade but haven’t yet begun to decline. That’s possible, but given the intransigence of fossil fuels generally, I suspect if we are about to begin a decline it’s not going to be a very fast one, so I doubt next year is going to bring another 7–10% reduction. (Though we can hope, I suppose …)

Ben: On the topic of Biden — you interviewed Washington Governor Jay Inslee today, who said Biden had been radicalized on climate by the pandemic. The accompanying downturn has helped boost his polling numbers, as well as those of many Democratic senators. If Democrats have a majority next year and the opportunity to actually pass far-reaching climate legislation (if they can get rid of that pesky filibuster), I take it that would be a much bigger deal than any temporary slowdown — and might be viewed as the actual climate legacy of this dismal period.

David: In the American context, at least. But Americans often overstate this country’s role in driving the planet’s climate future — and in particular the role of Republican denial and Trump disinterest in pushing the world towards catastrophe. China produces almost twice as much carbon as the U.S. does, and those emissions are still growing. The U.S. has a kind of moral responsibility to lead on climate issues, having produced the biggest bulk of historical emissions (which are still hanging around to heat things up). But even more important than what we do within our own borders is what we do through innovation and geopolitics to move the rest of the world. That’s one reason the heavy R&D spending in Biden’s plan is encouraging — that stuff can be exported much more easily than particular regulatory policies can. But on the other side of things, it also points to a real problem coming out of the pandemic, which is that the country may have so undermined its own international standing that even a president eager to lead the world on climate change might have a much harder time organizing a coalition of countries than would have been the case before the humiliation of our becoming the world’s chief incubator of the worst pandemic in a century.

Ben: Right, and on top of that, China-U.S. relations are at a real nadir and only getting chillier. To what extent does it matter for the fight against climate change that the two countries seem to be stumbling into, as the New York Times called it, a cold war against each other?

David: It’s a strange kind of cold war, though, when the two countries are this entangled with each other economically. The trade war has undone some of that strange bedfellows-ing but not anything close to all of it, and I don’t really know how to make sense of, or make predictions about, an increasingly hostile superpower rivalry in that context. But two years ago, I would’ve said the best hope for real global progress on climate was a U.S.-China alliance — the two countries genuinely leading the world in parallel, built somewhat on the model of the nuclear nonproliferation agreements between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 1980s. It’s getting harder and harder to imagine that in the near term. It was always going to require a new American president and a new perspective from Xi Jinping in Beijing. Those two things now seem less and less sufficient on their own.

Ben: On a more local level, some cities, like Milan, have used the pandemic as an opportunity to speed up progressive urban-planning initiatives — hugely expanding bike lanes, making sidewalks wider for pedestrians, and more. New York hasn’t been the leader in this category by any means, but it has closed a lot of streets to car traffic, at least. As nice as it is for the people who live in these cities, how important is this sort of stuff on a global level?

David: Reorienting life in the rich West away from cars is pretty important, though probably less important than getting the car fleet in those places all the way to electric. And ultimately, all transportation is just one slice of the whole problem, with automobiles just a slice of that. So in the big picture, it alone is pretty small potatoes. But the problem with climate change is, you can’t solve it with just one change, in just one sector, or just one country or city. You’ve got to change basically everything! Which makes this a good step, especially because it also manages to advertise climate policy as having enormous quality of life and health benefits. Which it does!

Could the Pandemic Be a Climate Turning Point?