Coronavirus & The Climate: The Comfort of Pessimism

Neither Pangloss nor Private Frazer: an obsession with trends will not save our planet.

There are two common responses to the interaction between COVID-19 and our climate. They are the responses of decent people. I will not waste words on climate change deniers. Neither response is unsupported by evidence, but neither will help save the planet. However, both share one of the worst traits that any idea can hold: they absolve the believer of responsibility.

What are these responses, exactly?

Private Frazer’s Response

Why bother? As a mere one seven-billionth of the people able to challenge climate change, what hope have I of protecting people who haven’t been born from the ravages of greenhouse gases? As Private Frazer of Dad’s Army would put it, ‘We’re doomed!’

Private Frazer is not alone. Half of all adults embrace climate fatalism: they know global warming is bad, they just don’t think they can do anything about it.

Private Frazer is no Tory. He’s more likely to be an ultra-left. He’ll point out that we live in a world governed by capital. The main vehicle for capital is the corporation and, as Joel Bakman told us, The Corporation is a psychopath. Low oil prices and a need to horde capital in preparation for future lockdowns will intensify the malign incentives of corporations. That transformation has the potential to send carbon emissions soaring.

Nor is Private Frazer any kind of bat soup video-sharing, 5G mast-burning, eejit. He’ll point out that governments are bailing out the polluter industries, such as the airlines, with next to no climate conditions attached. He’ll understand market forces well enough to point out that low prices drives greater demand for oil and less investment in renewables – the ‘recovery’ from the previous crisis of capitalism made emissions go up even faster. He may even point out that we have reached the oil price at which climate analysts believe renewables cease to be competitive.

A Zoom chat with Private Frazer is a draining experience. The previous afternoon’s trip to the Zero Waste shop feels rather stupid after you have spoken to him. After all, he’s not wrong. But it’s convenient for him. If the planet is fucked, why even try to fix it?

The Panglossian View

On the other hand, you have the climate optimists. Those who share maps of the air pollution over Wuhan or pictures of fish returning to the waters of Venice as if to say: ‘we’ve solved it!’. Decent people share these images but we should be aware that, for many people, they seem like Voltaire’s Pangloss. Their subtext is that the virus happened for a reason and that we live in the best of all possible worlds, whether the person sharing the content means it to be or not.

Pangloss will point out the sight of deer at the University of Edinburgh’s King’s Buildings, a rare comfort between the doses of death on the daily news. They’ll add that they are not the only animals reclaiming urban space – cities are finally prioritising human-beings over cars. Pangloss will point out that the number of Scots cycling has grown exponentially since the lockdown with commuter towns – those bastions of the car – witnessing the greatest increases. The airline industry is in collapse and the space to store oil is running out faster than oil itself. The International Energy Agency predicts that CO2 emissions will fall by 8% this year.

If Pangloss is well-read, they’ll point out that some analysts believe that the volatility in the oil price will force the sector to diversify into renewables as the latter is not as vulnerable to the fluctuations of the market. They’ll add that renewable is still the only energy sector forecast to grow this year. They’ll point out that Volkswagen does not plan to cut its production of electric cars and Air France has been forced to cancel all domestic flights that have a rail alternative.

On a local level, there is unlikely to be a better opportunity to clear the air. While studies are in their early stages, evidence from Harvard and Cambridge suggests that there is a link between COVID-19 and pollution. Coronavirus has been found on pollutant particles in Italy. If these facts become widely known, the potential for the environmental movement to advance its cause is obvious. Furthermore, public panic about a respiratory illness will lend future campaigns against road building, and for cycle lanes, a popularity that they lacked in the past. Having relinquished urban space, the car may never reclaim it.

An evening with Pangloss will leave you feeling better. After all, everything is fine. You can relax. You don’t have to do anything.

Until your critical faculties kick in.

Towards a Better View

The need to analyse climate trends comes from contradictory feelings: a simultaneous sense of power and powerlessness. The power comes from being inhabitants of a Western democracy – relative to 6 billion or so humans who exist in a state of tyranny or penury, we are actually quite influential. On the other hand, when you can’t win an argument about what to watch on Netflix, it is hard to believe you might be able to win one in order to save the planet.

To a population in lockdown, trends are a fascinating thing. They offer illusionary knowledge of the future after lockdown. However, like all bad ideas, they are based on weak assumptions.

Pangloss assumes that positive trends will continue and negative trends will not. Scottish society already knows that air pollution causes 15,000 premature deaths per year and yet we still choose to spend almost three times as much on motorways as we do on active travel and low carbon transport. The appearance of a fact does not equate to anyone’s ability to understand it, let alone act on it. And where do we even begin with feel-good stories about major corporations? Naomi Klein is fond of saying that our house is on fire: I see no reason to celebrate the arsonist putting the matches back in their pocket.

Not that Private Frazer avoids assumptions. He assumes that politics is wholly downstream of economics. It isn’t. If public pressure forces bailout conditions, they will happen. If constituents overwhelm councillors with demands to transform urban spaces in favour of active travel, they will. If regulations force major corporations to change their behaviour, they will, to a large extent, do so. Anyone whose job allowed them to ‘enjoy’ the GDPR panic of a few years ago knows that all too well.

The climate justice movement has been presented with a great opportunity. Big moments tend to lead to big changes. Notions about climate justice that were entrenched in mainstream political discourse – tackling climate change is more expensive than the alternative, people won’t tolerate wholescale changes to their lifestyles – have been dismantled in the eyes of everybody, including the powerful. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they will choose to do anything. It’s our job to make that happen.

All the facts shared in the article are, well, facts. However, it is our interpretation of them that matters. Bella Caledonia has already emphasised the need to be humble in our response to the virus, for there is a lot that we just don’t know. The reason we don’t know how COVID-19 will affect the climate is because we have yet to determine it.


Comments (4)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    People can also cycle between extremes of optimism and pessimism in bipolar fashion. However, and it is the same for a lot of ethical questions, if you think you are an unexceptional person (neither a psychopath nor saint), and you decide to do something positive about climate change, why would you think that other unexceptional people would be any different? Sure, we have to get better at collective decision-making, but if the unexceptional people have access to the right information and can reason their way to a behavioural change, then we already have the capability of making the required changes on a global scale. And there are many historical precedents of meeting great challenges (even if those of us playing the game of life on easy setting might have forgotten for a moment what it takes to succeed against the odds).

  2. Daniel Raphael says:

    The key idea implicit in this fine article is the one stressed long ago: the point is not to understand (or interpret) reality, but to change it. The only optimism that matters is–a bow here to Gramsci–the optimism of the will. We act, we have a chance; we don’t, it doesn’t matter whether Frazier, Pangloss, Denier, or anything else. And the actions will, to the extent that they hone in on the true target and are vigorous, insistent, and hopefully effective, going to meet with as much resistance as the Established greed psychosis of rulers across the globe can muster.

  3. The Over Extended Phenotype says:

    ‘A reduction this year in emissions because of covid 19 does not mean much. If you’ve been throwing a brick on a pile every day for a hundred years and then you pause for a month, you do not make much difference to the pile.’
    Robbie Andrew CICERO.
    (this isn’t pessimism it’s realism)

  4. Mach1 says:

    There is clearly a need for a balanced, rational and measured response to the ‘pandemic’. It is worrying, though, that vocal critics of the World Health Organisation’s advice appear to have been exiled to the more obscure parts of cyberspace. Particularly concerning is Dr Wolfgang Wodarg, whose apparently well-reasoned criticism amounts to explaining Covid-19 as simply another, the latest, seasonal respiratory disease/syndrome. Wodarg also builds his arguments on a Glasgow University four-year study, which I have yet to read a mention of it outside Wodarg’s online outings, including this truly shattering one from Offguardian…

    What is clearly missing from current public debate in the UK is a diversity of scientific presentations and accounts of the anomalies and regularities of the COVID outbreak/panic. If, heaven help us, Wodarg is correct, very few politicians are going to be able to walk away from the lockdown unscathed, even under cover of having simply following ‘scientific advice’. In the meantime, the currently opaque scientific discussions supposedly informing current governmental policy should be made fully transparent, published and searchable, indeed testable and traceable, and placed firmly in the public domain. It’s the least we should expect.

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