Lauren R. Stevens: Climate change lessons should be learned

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Coronavirus isn't good for people, the economy or the environment, but how people respond to it might point to ways of mitigating climate change.

People are not flying because they are frightened of being exposed to the virus and because governments are forbidding flight. Travel, especially by airplane, is one of the most significant causes of the increase in CO2 that is heating the climate. The current decrease in airline travel helps contain the climate crisis.

But the picture, as always, is more complicated. The United States has become the world's largest producer of oil. A dispute between the Saudis and the Russians over oil production has ended international efforts to stabilize the price of oil, with the Saudis especially increasing production. The result is decreasing oil prices, which will have the negative effect of increasing travel, if not by airplane at least by automobile, but perhaps a positive effect, in this country at least, of reducing opening new oil fields and building new pipelines. A lower oil price would be a good time to introduce a carbon tax.

From local businesses to the stock market, the way governments and individuals are responding to the virus affects the economy in profound and complicated manner. The images in the news of the air over China before and after the lockdown show the degree to which an economy's loss can be the climate's gain but, as with travel, there are many moving pieces.

After so many warnings, ranging from weather extremes and animal extinctions to those of prophets like Greta Thunberg, we have failed to act effectively to the most serious threat to life upon the earth. Yet, after some initial stumbles, the world seems to be learning how to deal with the novel coronavirus. Why?

The battle against coronavirus appears to be overcoming economic considerations. Ingrained resistance to injuring the economy, which of course means jobs and quality of life, has defeated serious efforts to combat climate change worldwide. Once again, what's different?

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People might work through such matters rationally; instead, the world has acted out of a combination of immediacy and fear. The somewhat distant time frame people suppose true of climate change simply doesn't scare us as much as the obvious immediacy of COVID-19.

Most likely, post virus will be a time of intense economic recovery and environmental degradation. Could the world's leaders and citizens be motivated to capitalize on the COVID-19-inspired reduction of CO2? Could patterns of life established in both authoritarian regimes and democracies during this period of extreme duress be redirected, when the virus declines, in spite of the pain, toward combating carbon emissions?

As we have seen, it can be done. That seems to me the most positive lesson from the story of coronavirus and climate change. It shouldn't be surprising, but it is at least reassuring that the health of the economy does not trump human survival.

If that means the economy itself must be radically transformed in order that it too can survive, this economic downturn would be optimum to contemplate our lives in a different economic plane. From flying less frequently, carrying on our business remotely more often, to more fundamental changes such as those outlined in the Green New Deal.

The health of the economy as we know it should not trump human survival. At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

Lauren R. Stevens is a writer and environmentalist, and a regular Eagle contributor.


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