Simon Dalby, Balsillie School of International Affairs
The Economist magazine cartoon of the week in late April shows humanity in a boxing match with the COVID-19 virus. They seem pretty evenly matched although, presumably, humanity will win this match. But this, the cartoonist reminds us, is only a preliminary bout – a few warm up rounds for the main event – because, just about to enter the ring, is climate change. This a much bigger and altogether more formidable foe with which humanity, having triumphed over the virus, will be ill-equipped to go even a few rounds. The virus is an immediate priority but the larger antagonist is not going away. (https://twitter.com/MLiebreich/status/1254076956511014912/photo/1)
The attempts to slow the spread of the virus so that health systems can cope with the casualties, as well as simultaneously with numerous other medical issues, are beginning to work in many places as the social distancing measures, and basic hygiene, constrain the outbreak of new cases. The temptations to reopen the economy, and the political demands to do so, driven both by pent up frustrations, the urgent need on the part of many people for a pay check, and alas the all too predictable appearance of ‘astroturf’ groups quietly funded behind the scenes – both on the streets and in social media – are pushing decision makers to relax closure ordinances. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/inside-the-conservative-networks-backing-anti-quarantine-protests/2020/04/22/da75c81e-83fe-11ea-a3eb-e9fc93160703_story.html)
How governments respond to this crisis will tell us much about how well we will be equipped for the next bout, the contest with the rapidly looming threat of climate change, and all the related environmental disruptions, storms, floods, droughts and migrating species that come with it. In the short run, because of pandemic related shut downs, there have been temporary reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases. Local pollution has been reduced, as those widely circulated pictures of clear skies over Los Angeles and over Delhi show. But if the coal powered generation stations, and all those gasoline engines, get fired up again in coming months, the cuts to greenhouse gases will turn out to be but a temporary blip.
What governments choose to spend our money on in coming months to get things moving again matters in terms of how the long term future is shaped and how much ability they give us all to cope with coming climate disruptions. Assumptions that we can all get back to business in the medium term future once we have a cure – or that much talked about vaccine to deal with the virus – need to be carefully re-considered. This is an opportunity to redirect economies away from fossil fuels and towards long term sustainability, and to simultaneously deal with many of the social and economic weaknesses that the pandemic crisis has revealed.
The dreadful working conditions in slaughter houses and meat packing plants in North America, as well as the poor wages paid to folks who suffer from injuries and illnesses, and who aren’t allowed or can’t afford to call in sick when they should, have been starkly revealed. The lack of safety, the impossibility of social distancing measures, and crucially, the vulnerability of the food system to disruptions when these plants are forced to close, suggest that some fundamental reforms to both labour standards and food supplies are overdue. Likewise, in numerous states the vulnerability of health systems has been revealed by the infection and death rates among staff and inhabitants in long term care facilities. Clearly the working conditions where poorly paid staff have to work multiple jobs in these homes have made both them and the folks in their care vulnerable, and the provision of health care has failed miserably.
The vulnerability of numerous people to the loss of a job and the need to rapidly replace their income so that they can buy groceries and pay their rent – and this in supposedly wealthy developed states – supports the case for a basic guaranteed income to provide a safety net in the face of disruptions. If such an economic safety net was in place there would have been no need to scramble to find ways to get financial support to numerous people. Discussions about a basic income system are underway in Spain which is reeling from pandemic disruptions.
The volatility of oil prices due to the strange marketing arrangements for this commodity also suggest that an economy dependent on either the production or the large scale consumption of this fuel is highly vulnerable. The international disruptions to numerous economies because of the row between Russia and Saudi Arabia over production cuts to deal with the sudden huge oversupply of petroleum suggest that continuing to relying on this fuel is simply not worth it; there have been too many price fluctuations and “oil shocks” over the last few decades to make it the basis of sensible policy.
Now is clearly the time to think about how to move past fossil fuels and deal simultaneously with the economic disruptions that come with these price fluctuations and the long term climate implications of our dependence on fossil fuels. That looming climate change presence about to enter the ring with us needs to be cut down to size if we are to tackle it effectively. Spending money to keep the petroleum beast going in the long run is clearly folly; looking to what comes after oil now has to be the priority rather than using public money to build yet more petroleum infrastructure. Some industries are simply too dangerous for our long term future, and they need to be phased out as we restructure our economies to be much more efficient in their use of energy while rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
One interesting additional point in terms of how to respond to the crisis and the discussions of bailing out industries comes from Denmark. There it seems the companies working in that country but registered outside its jurisdiction in tax havens to avoid paying taxes, will not be eligible for government assistance. Runaway corporations using flags of convenience and paying little tax will have to be tackled too it seems. Once again the Economist magazine is on the mark here; one of the 2018 “economist book of the year” awards went to Oliver Bullough for his volume Moneyland explaining how tax havens, and strange property registration arrangements, allow the wealthy and many corporations to hide their wealth abroad. (https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250208705) In the process they avoid paying the taxation that most governments are now going to need to pay for their efforts to get through the pandemic crisis and then build back better to deal with the climate one that is looming.