The unholy alliance of covid-19, nationalism, and climate change
On the early afternoon of December 15, the gavel fell at the UN COP25 conference in Madrid. The weeks of negotiations over crucial pieces of the Paris climate agreement reached four years earlier had ended in failure. Despite spending nearly two days longer than scheduled, thousands of delegates departed the convention halls deadlocked on the basic rules required to move forward.
There’s plenty of blame to go around. But by most accounts, Australia, Brazil, and the US—each now run by nationalist leaders who rose to power in part on promises to defy global demands for greater climate action—took special pains to thwart progress.
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Brazil immediately backed out of hosting the convention after the election of Jair Bolsonaro, and its delegates spent their time in Madrid arguing for the need to open up the Amazon for farming and mining. The US, on track to exit the accords altogether under President Donald Trump, stonewalled efforts to establish a process for providing funding and support to poor nations hit by climate disasters.
In the end, nearly every major decision at COP25 was punted to the next conference, originally scheduled for this November in Glasgow. “The can-do spirit that birthed the Paris agreement feels like a distant memory today,” Helen Mountford, vice president for climate and economics at the World Resources Institute, said at the close of the talks.
Two weeks later, researchers in China identified a deadly new coronavirus strain that had infected dozens of people, marking the start of the global pandemic. Borders slammed shut. Global trade stalled and markets crashed. Countries traded accusations and insults. In a matter of weeks, any lingering momentum behind efforts to jointly confront climate change essentially vanished.
As the worldwide death toll accelerated, countries locked down cities, banned international travel, and all but shut down their economies in a desperate effort to slow the outbreak. Under the demands of social distancing, the teenage activist Greta Thunberg shifted her swelling climate movement online—where it effectively dropped out of public sight. The UN ultimately canceled this year’s COP, killing any last hopes that nations would, as originally intended, adopt more ambitious emissions targets on the fifth anniversary of the deal.
The Paris accords had lifted hopes that after decades of dithering, the world might finally pull together to confront climate change. Nearly every nation signed on, each agreeing to take specific steps to rein in emissions. But what if, in retrospect, Paris was not the start of an era of cooperation, but its high point?
The nationalist narrative
As the covid-19 outbreak rages across the world, it’s easy to forget about the climate crisis. The priorities right now are, and should be, slowing the pandemic, saving lives, and then restarting economies left in shambles. But by that point few countries are likely to be able or especially eager to sacrifice near-term growth to help slow global warming.
In the short term, global emissions are falling, as they did during steep economic declines in the past. But carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for centuries, meaning the total concentration will continue to rise even if we’re producing less of it. And emissions will bounce back as soon as economies do. They’re already nearly within normal ranges in China again.
So the threat of rapidly accelerating climate change will remain. And we’ll be living in a much poorer world, with fewer job opportunities, less money to invest in cleaner systems, and deeper fears about our health, our financial futures, and other lurking dangers.
These are ripe conditions to further inflame nationalist instincts, making our global challenges even harder to solve. Indeed, the breakdowns in international (and even intra-national) cooperation as countries race to understand and tackle the covid-19 outbreak offer a stark warning for our climate future.
By its very nature, climate change is a global problem: every country needs to nearly eliminate emissions. But they don’t all have the same incentive to do so. Regions like Europe that pumped out huge shares of historic emissions have less to lose by curbing them than nations like India that need faster economic growth to reduce poverty. Those rich countries also aren’t likely to face nearly the same level of climate disasters as poor ones. Colder nations, like Russia and Canada, could even benefit economically from warming.
“It’s not surprising that the most ardent nationalist populists—in Brazil, the US, EU skeptics in Britain—are also the most skeptical of Paris,” says David Victor, co-director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California, San Diego. “But that whole agenda is deeply problematic for climate because ultimately what you need is a set of institutions and some measure of cooperation that helps diffuse good ideas and products around the global economy.”
Donald Trump, a self-described nationalist who denounces “globalism,” inflicted the single biggest wound to the Paris agreement by declaring, on the very first day he could, that the US would withdraw from it. During his Rose Garden speech on June 1, 2017, he laid out a case against the deal that had little to do with the actual terms—which were self-determined and nonbinding—and everything to do with stoking simmering resentment of foreign nations, international institutions, and distant elites who would dare tell the US what to do.
He’s lambasted international treaties and trade deals along similarly zero-sum, narrowly nationalist lines, launching a bitter, costly, and divisive trade war with China.
“The Paris agreement handicaps the United States economy in order to win praise from the very foreign capitals and global activists that have long sought to gain wealth at our country’s expense,” Trump said that day. “They don’t put America first. I do, and I always will.”
For Trump, the pandemic is one more opportunity to fan fears of outsiders and push his nativist policies. He’s repeatedly referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” in a transparent attempt to pin blame overseas and deflect criticisms of his own failures in handling the public health crisis.
Using powers granted to the surgeon general, the White House said it would immediately send back asylum seekers and others who illegally cross the borders, in defiance of earlier court orders to grant them due process. Later, the administration sought to compel manufacturer 3M to stop sending respirator masks to its customers in Canada and Latin America, in a move the company warned would prompt retaliatory restrictions on critical medical supplies flowing into the US.
None of this portends well for the future of international cooperation on climate change.
The collapse of trust
Before the outbreak, the world’s largest carbon emitter, China, had made major strides to increase its solar, wind, and nuclear generation, meet the rising demand for automobiles with more electric vehicles, and build up huge domestic industries to pump out solar panels, batteries, and EVs. It still appears to be on track to achieve its central (if not particularly ambitious) Paris pledge: achieving peak emissions no later than 2030.
But there have been worrying signs more recently of a slowdown in its efforts. China’s investments in renewables fell 8% last year to the lowest level since 2013, according to BloombergNEF, even as the world total slightly increased. Moreover, it’s kicked off a new building boom in coal plants: nearly 150 gigawatts’ worth are under construction or likely to be revived, roughly the capacity of the EU’s entire fleet, according to a report late last year by Global Energy Monitor.
China may pump money into some clean energy sectors through economic stimulus efforts in the coming months, but there are few reasons to suspect it will back off its reliance on cheap coal or accelerate its timetable for cutting climate pollution in the foreseeable future.
Indeed, even before the pandemic, there were signs China was souring on climate cooperation. During COP25, it and other emerging economies made clear they have no intention of tightening their emissions targets at the next conference, whenever that now happens, asserting that rich countries first need to make good on their commitments to provide funding and support to developing nations.
A major factor in these shifts is that rising nationalist sentiments elsewhere, and related trade hostilities, were already changing how China sees its choices, says Jonas Nahm, who studies China’s energy policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Increasingly unable to rely on predictable supplies and prices for imported fuels and parts, it seems to be turning to the energy source it can rely on—abundant domestic coal.
“I think the rise of nationalism, in the US and elsewhere, has created a degree of economic uncertainty that has strengthened the hardliners and forced them to rethink the degree to which they can rely on green energy to power their future,” Nahm says.
One other casualty of the pandemic has been our faith in a global supply chain. As countries shut down production and distribution, first in China and then around the world, essential goods are in short supply. It has become evident how vulnerable we are to trade relationships and concentrated manufacturing centers.
That too presents a challenge for climate change. China produces about a third of the world’s wind turbines, two-thirds of its solar panels, and roughly 70% of its lithium-ion batteries, as Nahm highlighted in an article in Science late last year. Even with massive government support, it took decades of growth at “a breakneck pace” for Chinese businesses to create the technologies, supply chains, and manufacturing capacity to achieve that.
“It is unrealistic to expect that another nation will be able to rival China’s capabilities ... in the time frame needed to limit climate change to below 2 ˚C,” Nahm and coauthor John Helveston of George Washington University wrote. That means countries, businesses, and researchers around the world need to figure out how to forge closer relationships and collaborate more productively with China—“the United States in particular,” they said.
As the historian Nils Gilman argued in February in a persuasive essay, “The Coming Avocado Politics,” there are good reasons to worry that rising anxieties over environmental emergencies will justify a more hard-line set of solutions on the right, an “ecologically justified neo-fascism” that includes militarizing borders, hoarding resources, and bolstering national protections against climate change.
It could lead us into far darker places as well, potentially justifying “neo-imperialist” responses “where we actively seek to repress the development and ambitions of the rest of the world,” Gilman says. Specifically, the US or other nations could turn to extreme methods, from eliminating development financing to deploying military force, to prevent the carbon bombs that would go off if billions of poor people start consuming goods, services, and energy at the same levels as Americans.
The tragic trial run of the coronavirus outbreak certainly bolsters fears that sentiments could rapidly turn in this direction. In addition to Trump’s efforts to inflame foreign resentments, there have been widespread reports in recent weeks of hate crimes and harassment against those of Asian descent around the world, including brutal beatings on public streets, verbal attacks on public transit, and racist memes online.
As the virus spreads and the economic downturn deepens, people will, rightfully, focus primarily on the immediate dangers: their health and that of friends and family; the likelihood of losing work; and the plunge in their retirement savings and home values. Enhancing global cooperation and combating distant climate dangers just aren’t going to take priority for some time.
The question, of course, is what happens as the pandemic recedes. In theory, this presents a new opportunity to get climate progress back on track. Stimulus packages designed to kick-start economic growth could include funding and policies to accelerate clean energy and climate adaptation projects, for example. The world will certainly be better equipped to face both pandemics and climate catastrophes if nations choose to more readily share resources, expertise, and information.
“That interconnectedness is quite apparent when it comes to getting masks and medicine,” says Jane Flegal, program officer with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Environment Program. “And it’s also apparent when you talk about the importance of making clean energy cheap and the role of technology transfer in the climate context.”
But in the end, whether people are left feeling that we need to tighten international ties or erect higher walls may depend a lot on how ugly things get in the coming weeks and months, and the political narratives that take hold as we try to make sense of how it all happened.
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