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Infectious Optimism

Notes on COVID-19 and Climate Change

May 27, 2020

Over the past months, COVID-19 has dramatically upended daily life and dominated the news cycle. But while many other issues have been crowded out of the frame by the horrors of the pandemic, articles and analyses have proliferated linking the SARS-CoV-2 virus with climate change—that other monster at the door. Some have attempted to draw causal lines from climate change to diseases like COVID-19, arguing that climate-exacerbated habitat loss leads to greater incidence of wildlife-to-human transmission and pointing out that global heating has long been expected to multiply existing vectors and unearth new pathogens. Others have made various sorts of straightforward analogies between the two crises, pointing to how right-wing denialism in defense of economic growth (and paralleled astroturf protests funded and organized by the same groups) have hampered an effective response, or emphasizing the need to “flatten the curve” of climate change. Others still have found silver linings in the crisis, noting that it has precipitated a substantial drop in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution (a drop that could save as many lives as COVID-19 takes) and celebrating the return of sea life to the canals of Venice or the long-lost sky of Los Angeles.

One could multiply such linkages indefinitely; for example, we could point out that climate change is driving up the demand for air conditioning, which both accelerates warming and helps to spread coronavirus, etc. However, while some of these connections may be illuminating, the two disasters are in fact largely distinct; climate change is a secondary contributor to the conditions for COVID-19’s emergence, and many of the analogical arguments could be similarly applied to numerous other problems. Given the somewhat tenuous character of their actual correlation, it is thus somewhat odd that COVID-19 should stir up so much discussion of climate change; why the need to tie them together? One plausible answer is that for many, the outbreak of COVID-19 has brought repressed anxieties closer to the surface; traumatic as our present experience is, it feels like the prelude to something even worse. Strangely, the pandemic appears to have done what rapidly disappearing reefs, biblical plagues of locusts, and unprecedented megadroughts could not, making the imminent threat of catastrophic warming finally feel real to many people whose lives it has so far touched only tangentially and intermittently. We seem to be realizing that nothing is actually going back to “normal” again (no matter what Joe Biden’s nostalgic supporters may still hope). 

COVID-climate think pieces—whether consciously or not—tap into and reflect this increasingly widespread anxiety. Simply put, we want to know: How fucked are we? Is a decent future now beyond reach? Will we be able to deal with what’s coming? We may perhaps derive some insight into such questions from the various responses to COVID-19—but the appropriate lessons can be drawn only from a messier mix of analogy and disanalogy, one that resists the click-friendly format of simple simile.

One of the most widely noted aspects of the pandemic saga has been the striking disparities in how competently various national and local governments have handled the pandemic. Due to the Trump Administration’s criminal negligence and ineptitude, “the US was beset by denial and dysfunction as the coronavirus raged.” This coalesced with an obscene for-profit healthcare system and deep systemic racism to produce predictably deadly results, especially for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. Meanwhile, Scandinavian countries (except for Sweden) have kept their infection and mortality rates extremely low, and New Zealand has eliminated COVID-19 within the country. 

Although it has been less widely commented upon, we have also seen dramatic divergences in how political forces have used the crisis. In the US, a sclerotic Democratic Party has failed to capitalize upon Trump’s ineptitude, leaving the right to pursue a shock-therapy program of further upward redistribution, brutal austerity, and institutionalized xenophobia and transphobia. Elsewhere, the far right has been even bolder, dismantling political and press freedoms indefinitely. At the same time, a handful of countries with center-left governments have charted a different course; Spain, for example, has moved toward implementing a permanent universal basic income, while South Korea’s governing party has used the crisis to push for a Green New Deal

One obvious takeaway from such contrasts might be that, although global capitalism helped to unearth and spread COVID-19, and although the coronavirus crisis has highlighted the dangers and absurdities of for-profit provisioning, the existing political order is nonetheless capable of a wide range of responses. Some governments have effectively contained the crisis while mobilizing for progressive rather than regressive change; one might reason that, similarly, competent progressive governments could be quite capable of mitigating and adapting to climate change, and will be able to reduce harm enough to arrest the march toward fascism and climate apartheid. Indeed, a number of recent editorials have argued that a Green New Deal is the solution to both the COVID-19 recession and the climate crisis, asserting that “this is a moment when we can implement measures to help boost the economy, create jobs, and build climate resilience.”

Simply put, we want to know: How fucked are we? Is a decent future now beyond reach? Will we be able to deal with what’s coming?

This would be a relatively reassuring conclusion, even for those in the US; although the electoral-political situation here is bleak, Bernie still came pretty close to winning, right? Prominent proponents of the Green New Deal are now arguing that even Biden (who thus far has shown open disdain and gross condescension toward climate activists) could be pressured into supporting meaningful climate action, suggesting that “[t]here’s a world where Biden becomes president and we get a very good [coronavirus] stimulus that moves us towards a Green New Deal.” 

However, in the long run, optimism about the viability of social-democratic reforms in confronting the climate crisis may be the wrong lesson to take from the coronavirus response. This is because despite various relevant similarities and linkages, COVID-19 and climate change are not really the same. Capitalism indirectly promulgates and accelerates pandemics like COVID-19, but capitalist production directly produces climate change and depends unavoidably upon unsustainable exploitation and despoliation of the human and non-human world. Likewise, existing political structures are, to varying degrees, capable of managing a pandemic; however, we simply do not have large-scale political structures anywhere on Earth capable of adequately managing severe climate change and broader ecological collapse (of which climate change is only an especially pressing part). Optimism about ‘pragmatic’ policy solutions within the existing order is therefore generally unwarranted, and complacency in this respect presents its own significant perils. 

To see why, we should first be clear about the realities of the climate crisis. Although the economic contraction triggered by this submicroscopic saboteur may give us a few extra weeks until we hit various additional irreversible tipping points, it is now almost certainly too late to prevent very substantial and disruptive climate breakdown. Carbon emissions could perhaps drop by 5 to 7% this year—the largest decrease in annual emissions since the end of World War II—as a result of the pandemic’s massive disruption of the global economy. But to have even a remote chance of limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees C, worldwide emissions would have to fall at least 7.6% every year over the next decade (probably considerably more, given the persistently and structurally conservative character of IPCC estimates) and rapidly reach net negative thereafter. 

That is not going to happen. Trump, having already mounted the most brazen assault on environmental protections in American history, has used the pretext of the coronavirus crisis to indefinitely suspend EPA enforcement, further gut vehicle efficiency standards, and bail out US fossil fuel companies as mass climate action has become impossible. Notwithstanding the performative optimism of some Green New Deal advocates, the prospect of a radical shift in US climate policy through electoral means—already politically difficult even under a Sanders presidency—appears to have been taken off the table for another four years at least, with the remaining presidential candidates essentially offering two different brands of climate denialism. Meanwhile, right-wing and neo-fascist governments in India, Brazil, and Russia continue to delay or roll back climate policies and environmental protections, and China seems to have turned away from its already insufficient efforts to decarbonize. Nor is the problem confined to reactionary governments; very few countries are currently on track to meet their Paris commitments, and even if every nation on Earth did rapidly retool in order to achieve their pledges, we would still be headed for a devastating three degrees of warming or more. 

Of course, this does not mean we can afford to give up on mitigation; just as the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees of warming will be measured in the loss of hundreds of millions of human lives, entire nations and cultures, and whole branches of the tree of life, the difference between a world warmed by 2 degrees and 4 is the difference between historically unprecedented suffering and full-on apocalypse. Franzenesque fatalism is therefore not an option we can entertain. But the reality is that even in the best-case scenarios, we are now going to have to learn to live on a deeply damaged and increasingly inhospitable planet, large swaths of which are quickly becoming uninhabitable.

Liberal and social-democratic governments are not up to that task, for a number of deep-structural reasons involving the central systemic logic of capitalism and the most basic tenets of liberal democracy. Even the most progressive social democracies are inherently biased toward the interests of currently-existing human citizens, meaning that the interests of nonhumans, future generations, and noncitizens cannot be adequately represented. It’s nice that Norway is transitioning so rapidly to electric vehicles, but indigenous critics like Leanne Betasamosake Simpson are correct to argue that technological fixes and the promise of green growth do little to address the fundamental dynamics generating the problem—indeed, social-democratic reforms of capitalism may help to reproduce it for longer than would otherwise be possible. As Simpson puts it, “real solutions require a rethinking of our global relationship to the land, water, and to each other. They require critical thinking about our economic and political systems. They require radical systemic change.” 

The more perceptive proponents of a Green New Deal, like the authors of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal, seem to agree, acknowledging that ultimately “capitalism is incompatible with environmental sustainability.” However, they argue that as a “non-reformist reform,” a Green New Deal could buy us a bit of much-needed time while making deeper changes possible. They point out that “we have just over a decade to cut global carbon emissions in half,” and it is difficult to “imagine ending capitalism quite that quickly.” 

Liberal and social-democratic governments are not up to that task, for a number of deep-structural reasons involving the central systemic logic of capitalism and the most basic tenets of liberal democracy.

Perhaps so. And, if rapidly and widely adopted, such reforms may indeed partially “flatten the curve” while also helping people to adapt to climate change and spurring a job-rich economic recovery. However, the factors that make Green New Deal legislation appear to be a comparatively pragmatic and plausible short-term strategy—support for many of its components across the ideological spectrum; attractiveness to some sectors of capital; and easy compatibility with appeals to endless “green” growth, national security, and national competitiveness—also call into question the “non-reformist” character of its reforms, and even leave it dangerously open to cooptation. 

The threat of cooptation in particular is worth examining in some detail. The authors of A Planet to Win acknowledge aspects of it, noting that “even a progressive president would face hostility from courts, corporate-backed legislators, giant corporations, and their own party apparatus” in attempting to initiate a Green New Deal, and that “bipartisanship means compromising with a resolutely xenophobic Right.” They ask us to “imagine establishment Democrats and Republicans agreeing to an infrastructure deal that trades major investments in solar panels for a border wall and sharp restrictions on migrants from Central America fleeing climate change, agricultural sector collapse, and dirty wars—all fueled by US policy.” 

Unfortunately, this scenario is not so hard to imagine, as it reflects precisely the sort of ‘pragmatic’ green nationalism already on the rise around the world. The effects of global heating are already displacing tens of millions of people annually, and over the coming decades climate change and ecological breakdown are predicted to displace hundreds of millions of people, accelerating existing internal and cross-border migration trends sparked by imperialist destabilization, political unrest, and manufactured poverty. As Todd Miller argues in Storming the Wall, we already live in an “increasingly authoritarian world in which climate change, the displacement of people, and border militarization [will] define the experiences of untold millions in the 21st century.” Such exclusionary enforcement already happily coexists with ecological reform in liberal countries, and is increasingly championed by even purportedly leftist thinkers like Slavoj Žižek and Wolfgang Streeck. Under these conditions, any “non-reformist” language about freedom of movement, open borders, or climate reparations is certain to be the first articles removed from real-world Green New Deal legislation in the name of expediency and ‘tactical’ alignment.

This “politics of the armed lifeboat,” in Christian Parenti’s nomenclature, is bad enough—but the danger is deeper. As Eric Levitz points out, “if one insists [as, for example, Elizabeth Warren does] that the U.S. government must put ‘America first,’ then taking the most dire implications of climate science for granted makes Trump’s zero-sum, nationalist worldview appear more coherent, not less.” In the end, the far right will always win at this particular game—and they are quickly learning to ‘green’ white nationalism. While eco-fascism has only recently joined the public lexicon due to the actions of anti-immigrant terrorists, the ideas of these ‘lone wolves’ largely mirror those of mainstream figures like Trump, and will increasingly reflect back up into the sphere of institutionalized right-wing politics. As it becomes untenable for figures like Trump and Bolsonaro to plausibly deny the reality of climate change any longer, we should expect the mainstream right to follow the example France’s National Rally in centering the defense of blood and soil, melding the language of environmental protection and genocidal xenophobia.

That national green stimulus programs should stem the tide of ecofascism—the basic precondition and driver of which is a deeply unequal global capitalist system—is far from certain; indeed, so long as capitalism requires cheap labor, cheap nature, and cheap sinks (that is, so long as it remains capitalist), it seems rather unlikely. This is not a blanket argument against such policies; in numerous instances they may still put us on comparatively better political and ecological footing to fight for a livable future. But we must be sharply aware of their limits and pitfalls, and of the broader context into which they necessarily fit—namely, the genuinely existential battle between socialism and climate barbarism. 

While COVID-19 has dredged up climate anxieties, it might also offer us false hope of real solutions enacted by more competent and benevolent masters. Such solutions will not be forthcoming for most of Earth’s poor, or for its rapidly dwindling nonhuman population. The only palatable path out of our increasingly dystopian present is a resolutely global and explicitly anti-capitalist politics that draws meaningfully from decolonial critiques. On a world scale, such a politics “has never yet existed; it is only a possibility.” But the only other credible possibility is barbarism; our existing political constellation as a whole, only leads to death. 



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