Climate’s on back burner, but advocates see COVID-19 parallels

Climate advocates see familiar themes in initial denial and delayed response to coronavirus pandemic

Climate change protesters blocked morning traffic near the U.S. Capitol in September.  Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo (CQ Roll Call)
Climate change protesters blocked morning traffic near the U.S. Capitol in September. Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo (CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 6, 2020 at 6:30am

The coronavirus pandemic has for now knocked the climate change debate onto a back burner. But advocates are drawing parallels between the health crisis and the problems associated with climate change: wrongheaded public policy, vulnerable populations, inadequate health care system and rejection of science.

They’re warning that COVID-19 provides a grim glimpse into the consequences of waiting to mitigate and prepare for a climate change crisis.

“This is a challenge that came up on us, but we do have the ongoing challenge with climate change,” said Heather Reams, executive director of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, a conservative group that advocates for market-based clean energy and climate solutions. “You think you’re prepared, and you put your preparation to the test and you realize you’re ill-prepared.”

[In coronavirus aid debate, GOP sees a favorite target: Green New Deal]

While they acknowledge immediate help should go to the sick, health care workers and people losing jobs, climate advocates want lawmakers and policymakers to learn from this crisis and plan ahead for the troubles that climate change is expected to unleash.

Although five COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in the U.S. by Jan. 26, and the World Health Organization had declared a global emergency just days later, government officials downplayed the problem. President Donald Trump initially said it was a “very little problem” that would go away quickly. He called it a hoax by Democrats to damage him politically. 

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Conservatives in Congress and in state governments accused the media of creating hysteria by exaggerating the problem.

As with climate change, scientists were mocked and early warning signs were dismissed as hoaxes, said Pete Maysmith, senior vice president of campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters.

“The pandemic shows what happens when the science and experts are ignored and when the institutions that are designed to protect us are undermined,” Maysmith said. “We refused to actually think about what we need to do to protect ourselves.”

It took until March 13 for Trump to heed the call of lawmakers and some governors to declare a national emergency and unlock funding to help combat the spread of the disease. But, experts say, the U.S. was already two months behind and the crisis would be harder to stem.

By that time, large gatherings that would have otherwise been canceled around the country had already occurred, such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans during the last week of February, which is being blamed for the large number of infections there. 

“In many ways, it’s a preview of what will happen if we don’t act on the climate crisis, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” said Nicole Ghio, senior fossil fuels program manager at Friends of the Earth.  

Polarizing

Climate change remains a polarizing issue, especially in conservative circles, where the science is questioned or rejected and activists are labeled extremists. Trump himself has at times described global warming as a hoax created by China, and he has appointed cabinet members from the ranks of fossil fuel lobbyists who reject or downplay the scientific consensus.

Meanwhile, the drumbeat has remained steady: Global temperatures are rising faster than ever before and are already impacting lives. It’s catalyzing extreme weather events such as hurricanes and floods, rising sea levels, melting polar ice caps, and longer, more unpredictable wildfires.

The most vulnerable people to climate change also suffer the most from global pandemics: front-line communities that already suffer higher rates of respiratory problems from pollution, low-income and minority communities, children, the elderly and low-wage workers with poor access to health care.

As Congress struggled to find consensus on how to rescue the country, lawmakers debated along the usual partisan lines. Democrats said Republicans were prioritizing big corporations over suffering workers, while the GOP said Democrats were trying to protect tax credits for wind and solar energy and force airlines to cut their emissions. Ultimately, the climate provisions were stripped from the $2.3 trillion bill.

“Decision-making in a crisis is never great decision-making,” Reams said. “When cooler heads prevail what do we want to do to prepare?”

As Congress takes on the next phase of trying to save the economy, Reams said, it should include the prescriptions in bipartisan bills such as Sen. John Barrasso’s infrastructure bill and the broad energy package by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, which recently stumbled in the Senate.

Barrasso, who is chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has been pushing for his legislation to be included in a subsequent stimulus package. That bill includes a section that would boost spending to make states and cities more resilient to climate impacts.

However, Nicolas Loris, an economist who focuses on energy, environmental and regulatory issues at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says that while there are some similarities, the conversation about climate change can wait until the country has overcome the coronavirus pandemic.

“The obvious economic and public health impacts of coronavirus are very real and present right now,” Loris said. “Any measure from Congress right now should be temporary and targeted to the immediate effects that coronavirus has caused.”

He said that because climate change is happening over time, “that gives us a little more time” to be equipped to address the issue. When the country is past the coronavirus pandemic, Loris said, “then we can have important conversations” about rebuilding an economy that is resilient to climate change.

Preparation

Climate advocates argue that if more taxpayer money is going to be injected into propping up the economy from coronavirus, it should include long-term planning for a country that can withstand the problems associated with climate change.

“As we look at spending taxpayer money for the improvement of the American people, we should be looking at how we can have cleaner air, cleaner water, improve the workforce, increase our energy independence,” Reams said. “These are all things Americans want to invest in and want the government to invest in.”

More progressive environmental groups have been for years demanding “a just transition” to a cleaner economy that takes into consideration communities that have borne the brunt of industrial pollution — mainly communities of color, low-income families and the elderly.

They want a transition to green jobs and strong labor protections, as well as homes, roads, schools, hospitals and other structures built to withstand climate impacts.

“This crisis has really made it clear that the policies that we’ve been asking for are not out there. … These are commonsense policies,” Ghio said.