Fighting the Virus First and Climate Change Second

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(Bloomberg) --

Those of us long concerned with the fate of our planet are, by nature, worriers. We fear for the future of the Earth and its inhabitants. We fear waking up in a world forever changed. Each of our actions is considered: Should we take mass transit? Walk? Do we really need a car at all?

Over the last few months, we have been joined in this state of perpetual, existential angst by much of the rest of the world—but for a different, more immediate reason. The novel coronavirus has disrupted social structures and global markets. Dread marks daily life, and panic is simmering just below the surface. Some though, like hedge funder Bill Ackman, see the pandemic as offering “bargains of a lifetime.” But with about 10,000 people already dead, others just want to make it through alive.

The pandemic has shifted the conversation around climate change as well, in ways big and small, good and bad. 

Activists are changing tactics to match the times, filing lawsuits and coordinating online gatherings as “shelter in place” directives rule out the usual protests. Environmental regulators are in a bind as well, since social distancing could soon limit field inspections by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers. The EPA issues and oversees permits for releases of pollution into air, water and land. It also reviews the permits the Corps issues to allow dredging of wetlands and streams to build homes, roads, and mines. (Still, during the Trump administration, the EPA has led the way in loosening rules meant to protect the health of Americans, so any virus-induced changes may not be that apparent.)

Globally, there is fear that efforts to rein in pollution are taking aback seat to the more immediate threat of Covid-19. If a global recession or depression takes hold, governments may abandon the renewable energy revolution and revert back to the familiar and dirty: fossil fuel.

In China, where the worst effects of the virus appear to have passed (for now), Beijing is debating whether to ease emissions standards in an effort to restart its economy. It could be the beginning of a dangerous trend. And as oil prices plunge, ethanol and other renewables are facing increasing pressure. (Prices rebounded a bit Thursday after the U.S. intimated it may prop up prices in the face of the Russia-Saudi Arabia oil war.)

Indeed, while the pandemic is far from over, attention is already shifting to a post-virus world. There’s no reason, however, that it can’t be a green one.

Fighting the Virus First and Climate Change Second

U.S. President Donald Trump promised to “back the airlines 100%” just hours after a trade group asked for $58 billion to make up for lost business. But airlines aren’t the only transportation sector that’s hurting. Mass transit ridership has plummeted, straining systems across the country that rely heavily on fares. New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, the nation’s largest, reports that ridership fell 60% on subways and as much as 90% on commuter trains. 

Protecting mass transit is important in the short run to keep essential industries running, such as health care. But it also makes sense for the long term safety of the planet. Thus far, however, conversations around economic stimulus have focused on immediate human needs: Everyone needs cash

Finally this week, the U.K. is assessing whether the new coronavirus could threaten its plans to convene the United Nations climate meeting scheduled to take place in Glasgow this November.

Organizers of the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP26, have been trying to build momentum after last year’s summit in Madrid ended in failure. The annual convention is where countries submit long-term pollution goals aimed at zeroing out greenhouse gases. 

Perhaps COP26 could be held via Zoom?

Josh Petri writes the Week in Green newsletter recapping the best reads and key news in climate change and green solutions. 

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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