A Green Future or a Lifetime of Lockdowns?

By Iona Volynets

A view of the planet created using data from multiple satellites
Image Credit: NASA/DVIDS

Even as the world grapples with the consequences of coronavirus, it must look towards climate change policy to help prevent the next great pandemic. The Biden administration has taken some action, but vagaries must turn into concrete plans and promised funding must be delivered. 

With world leaders gearing up for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) this November in Glasgow, an opportunity could arise for America to assess its role in the global climate response. 

The Biden administration’s climate plan includes several impactful measures. The plan aims to cut US carbon output by more than 50% of its 2005 levels in the next decade and eliminate the nation’s carbon output by 2050. The plan also hopes to achieve 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035. The “Build Back Better” plan allocates 2% of the government’s recovery spending towards clean energy.  

The plan involves investing in clean industry, promoting clean air and water, and manufacturing goods domestically. It emphasized creating new jobs, particularly “good-paying, union” ones. By supporting efficiency upgrades and electrification in buildings, it aims to aid the environment while lowering costs for families.  

Biden’s National Climate Task Force is mobilizing to meet these carbon targets, attempting to tackle climate change from multiple angles. The group has considered standards, incentives, programs, and support for innovation. This newly formed taskforce also brings together a wide variety of groups from the private and public sector.

Among the issues Biden’s plan wishes to tackle are decreasing carbon pollution from the transportation sector via boosting efficiency of vehicles, providing funding for charging infrastructure, funding research and development, and investing in public transit. It addresses reducing emission from forest and agriculture, enhancing carbon sinks, addressing carbon pollution from industrial processes, and reducing non-CO2 greenhouse gases. Biden also announced a commitment to give $11 billion in annual aid to help “developing” countries tackle climate change.  

Some, like U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, see this as the US’s ticket to admission to COP 26. The move is part of a larger global commitment to sending $100 billion annually to developing nations to help them pay for climate initiatives beginning in 2020. While signed during the 2009 climate conference, the details were vague and funding was not given until 2020. He offered a $20 billion dollar payment to protect the Amazon rainforest, though it does not appear this money has been provided yet.  

The public reaction has been mixed, ranging from those who think it is too revolutionary to those who feel it is underwhelming. Vox has praised the plan, saying that while it is ambitious and will be difficult to implement, it is an encouraging start.  

Supporters point to the potential of renewable energy sources, and praise his whole-of-government approach, which incorporates the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Agriculture.  

Others are not so hopeful. Forbes has called the plan “more revolution than transition,” pointing to the fact that Biden’s plan requires tackling the transportation sector, which means radically decreasing consumption of gasoline and diesel. The article expressed concerns about oil prices, which have risen dramatically under the Biden administration. It claims this dramatic reduction in oil consumption would constitute a “revolution,” one that many conservatives, moderates, and localities will not follow.  

While some claim the plan is too revolutionary, others claim it is not revolutionary enough. The World Resources Institute noted that the most recent bipartisan infrastructure plan cut as much as a trillion dollars in environmental, climate, and clean energy spending and tax incentives from the American Jobs Plan. These cuts make it “impossible” for the US to meet its commitments on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.  

The New York Times also criticized the fact that it left out a domestic tax on carbon. Greta Thunberg claimed that world leaders including Biden were being “blah, blah, blah” on climate change.  

Each voice on the political stage makes a fair point: The climate plan is a good first step in action, and potentially one more dramatic than the world has ever seen. Hiking oil prices, with their damaging impact on the working and middle class, should be taken seriously. 

The climate legislation, as it stands, will make it impossible for the US to meet its target goals. Climate policy is, and always has been, a complex weighing of many interlocking factors. However, considering recent events, it is important for another factor to rise to prominence in public consciousness: pandemics.  

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted lives across the world in countless ways. Millions died of the coronavirus globally, deaths of despair increased, the nation saw staggering unemployment, and school closures mean children are not getting the cognitive and social stimulation necessary for development. The impacts are myriad and immeasurable. One thing is for sure, though: nobody wants anything like it to happen again.  

Pandemics have occurred throughout human history, and are not exclusively caused by climate change. An extreme loss in biodiversity, destruction of wildland and forests, and warming temperatures have all caused an explosion in diseases. Over the past couple of decades, the number of infectious diseases that spread to people has skyrocketed. A new emerging disease surfaces five times every year.  

For years, scientists had been studying the coronaviruses of South China and warning that the swift environmental change there was going to help new viruses jump to people. 60% of new pathogens come from animals, and about a third of those can be linked to changes in human land use. This includes farming, deforestation, resource extraction, or development.  

Global warming shifts climate patterns, forcing species to change habitats and forcing them into new regions. As forests, wetlands, and grasslands are destroyed, the UN warns that more than a million animal and plant species now face extinction.  

When loss in biodiversity couples with reckless land usage by humans, it leads to an uptick in human and climate interaction, increasing the risks of disease transmission. One recent study found that as many as 70% of a tracked 4,000 species had moved, all of them looking for cooler climates.  

There are multiple examples from history, one being the 1999 Nipah outbreak in Malaysia, where rapid clearcutting of forests drove bats to farms. Their droppings and partially eaten food was eaten by a cow, who itself was eaten, introducing the disease into the local population, and killing more than 100 people. Closer to home, the Zika virus was transmitted locally in southern Texas and Florida in recent years due to changes in mosquito migration patterns.  

On top of this, the change in climate is thawing previously frozen contagions, like the anthrax released from a frozen reindeer in 2016. Some viruses, like the Vibrio bacteria that causes cholera, thrive in warmer waters. As temperatures rise, additional bodies of water become breeding grounds for disease.  

Even when increased animal-to-human disease transmission is put aside, climate change can still lead to increased illness. Research published in the Environmental Research Letters journal linked the especially difficult 2017-2018 cold season, which killed 79,000 people, to erratic temperature swings and extreme weather events caused by climate change. The authors of the study wrote that if the climate crisis continues its current trajectory, there will be a sharp increase in respiratory infections like the flu.  

Climate change increases the number of diseases transmitted to humans, revives old diseases, and increases the scope and damage of existing illnesses. As the world continues to live through the coronavirus pandemic and its impacts, it is important for politicians to consider how to prevent the next pandemics.  

One significant part of this effort is reducing climate change and its many impacts, including deforestation, habitat destruction, rising temperatures, shifting migration patterns, and increasing extreme weather events.  

Given the dramatic consequences for unmitigated climate change, it is important to have a targeted response. This makes Biden’s climate change plan promising, but also makes the weaknesses in the plan unacceptable.  

With the upcoming COP 26 conference, Biden has an opportunity to reassert his dedication to stopping climate change. He can make good on his financial promises to the Global South and Amazon rainforest, introduce policy to act on deforestation like mandatory due diligence requirements, and lay down policy specifics for many of his vague policies. 

As the United States continues to be a prominent figure on the global stage, specific policy combating climate change can help mobilize and lead a global response. Otherwise, every nation may have to get used to a lifetime of masks, lockdowns, and Zoom calls.  

Iona Volynets is a writer for the Review. She studies International Relations and History at Syracuse University.

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