Coronavirus makes climate change more urgent, not less

The climate crisis threatened millions of lives before COVID-19. Now, it threatens millions more.

A student wears a mask during the Global Climate Strike demonstration in Los Angeles, California on September 20, 2019. Photo by Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto via Getty Images.


The coronavirus crisis may be the immediate focus of our day-to-day lives right now. But the climate crisis will soon demand our full attention, whether we’re prepared to give it or not. 

ProPublica made that clear in a piece published yesterday, titled “Climate Change Won’t Stop for the Coronavirus Pandemic.” In it, reporter Abrahm Lustgarten reminds us of the impending and inevitable change of seasons. Summer doesn’t just mean warmer weather, he writes; it means more weather extremes. Hurricanes, fires, droughts, floods. All longer, more intense, and more likely to occur because of climate change. 

We don’t deal with these events very well under normal circumstances. How will we deal with them during a pandemic?

Lustgarten’s analysis is sobering. “Storms, floods and fires will greet a crippled nation, its people sequestered inside homes, its workforce locked down, unable to procure even basic emergency and building supplies,” he writes. “The authorities tasked with responding to it will already be consumed by other emergencies, their capacity to provide even the most fundamental aid limited, their budgets gutted.”

Forecasters are already predicting an active hurricane season, with a 69 percent chance that a major storm makes landfall in the United States this summer or fall, Lustgarten writes.

If that happens again, how will people maintain physical distancing? Will states still send evacuees into shelters? Will National Guard troops permit them to cross state boundaries? It’s easy to see how flight from the threat of nature could lead to a resurgence of contagion, starting a whole new wave of infections spreading across the country. “To say that we are not prepared for these concurrent disasters is putting it mildly,” said Irwin Redlener, a clinical professor of health policy at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and a leading expert in public health ramifications of catastrophic events. “I’m extremely worried.”

Coronavirus is worsening the climate crisis

Before the virus entered our lives, the climate crisis already threatened millions of lives.

Now, because of the virus, it threatens millions more.

Extreme weather preparedness isn’t the only climate protection that will suffer because of coronavirus. Our ability to research the climate crisis, protect poor and vulnerable nations, enact climate domestic and international policy, and engage in activism are all suffering due to COVID-19. All of this makes the climate crisis more of a threat than it was before the virus.

The pandemic has stalled numerous U.S. research projects intended to help us understand and prepare for the climate crisis, the Guardian reports. It has caused the United Nations to postpone this year’s international climate summit, held specifically to “help developing countries brace for coming climate impacts.” Coronavirus has also sapped public coffers of resources for adaptation projects, like saving communities plagued by encroaching ocean waters. And it has made policy experts pessimistic that world leaders will do anything to address climate change for the next six to twelve months, the Financial Times reports—a harrowing prediction, given the dwindling timeline for effective action.

Take together, these examples carry long-term consequences that will almost certainly outweigh the benefits of a short-term dip in emissions we may see due to coronavirus halting the global economy.

The fossil fuel industry is aiding the problem

When you add the fossil fuel industry’s actions during COVID-19, it becomes even clearer that coronavirus is increasing the likelihood that more people will die from climate change in the future. We’ve touched on some of the fossil fuel industry’s success pushing through anti-climate policy during the pandemic in previous editions of this newsletter.

The Trump administration drastically reduced enforcement of environmental health regulations and rolled back climate regulations on cars. Three states signed laws restricting the ability of climate activists to protest fossil fuel projects. The plastics industry (which is part of the fossil fuel industry) launched an unscientific but largely successful policy campaign against reusable grocery bags.

But these don’t even make up the half, or the quarter of the fossil fuel industry’s actions. Literally dozens more pro-fossil fuel, anti-climate policy actions have been taken by local and state governments during the COVID-19 crisis.

Drilled News editor-in-chief Amy Westervelt is tracking those actions at her Climate & COVID-19 Policy Tracker, and I asked her if she could choose some more examples for us. Here’s some of what she sent over:

  • California: Multiple groups using COVID-19 to stall or rollback air pollution regulations. The ports, truckers, a Democratic assembleyman (?!) are just some of the folks asking the California Air Resources Board to hold off on developing or implementing air pollution regulations because of … a respiratory virus. Cool, guys. 

  • Pennsylvania: Special Exemption for Mariner East Pipeline - Texas-based Energy LP asked the Penn. Department of Community and Economic Development for a waiver from Gov. Tom Wolf's emergency coronavirus shutdown, which would enable the company to continue construction on the controversial Mariner East pipeline, across 17 locations in Pennsylvania. 

  • Massachusetts: Weymouth Compressor Deemed “Essential Construction” - Gov. Charlie Baker has extended the definition of "essential construction" under the state's COVID-19 stay-at-home order to encompass various oil and gas projects, including the Weymouth natural gas compressor, which has no clear customers.

The construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure, as cited in two of the three examples above, is one of the main drivers of rising emissions.

Combined with the other climate-related impacts of the pandemic, it’s clear more Americans will suffer from the climate crisis because of COVID-19 than they would have in a COVID-19-free world. The climate crisis is therefore even more urgent and newsworthy than it was before COVID-19 hit the United States.

Republicans deny connections; broadcast news ignores them

Political leaders on the right have been pushing a different message. As we’ve noted before, Republicans have claimed that anyone who introduces climate policy into the COVID relief conversation is taking advantage of tragedy.

Trump called it “ridiculous” and “nonsense” to address climate change in a COVID relief package. Benny Johnson from Turning Point USA said Democrats were “bastards” for using “a national crisis” to push for “Green New Deal goodies.” Former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders accused Democrats of “leveraging Americans’ suffering during this crisis to win concessions on their Green New Deal.”

Broadcast media as a whole is also ignoring the Trump administration and fossil fuel industry’s push for deregulation amid the pandemic, according to a recent analysis from Media Matters. (Although, in a recent interview for the HEATED podcast, MSNBC host Ali Velshi took issue with Media Matters’ analysis, and noted that he and Chris Hayes have been covering the connection—which is true! See here, here, and here. We’ll publish that interview later this week.)

The good news

News coverage of the climate crisis hasn’t stopped completely during the pandemic, and you’ve helped make that happen.

Last week, three NPR podcasts featured HEATED’s work on the intersections between COVID-19 and climate change: New Hampshire Public Radio’s Outside/In; PRI’s Living on Earth; and The Allegheny Front’s Trump on Earth.

Our podcast on the COVID-19/climate connection also got some cool shout-outs from Politico, Columbia Journalism Review, and Kotaku. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Crooked Media Editor-in-Chief Brian Beutler gave us some Twitter love as well.

Print and digital climate journalists have also been covering the climate/COVID-19 connection doggedly. In addition to Drilled News’s climate policy rollback tracker, Drilled News has also launched a newsletter with a weekly roundup of climate accountability news, which you can check out here.

It’s never been more important to support independent news that matters to you. It doesn’t have to be HEATED, of course—but if it is, consider supporting either the podcast or the newsletter. They’re separate projects. For the podcast, more than 70 people have stepped up to help support the team.

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ONE MORE THING: Remember fossil fuel ads? They’re continuing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

My research assistant Chris May is still tracking fossil fuel company advertisements through our Instagram page, @fossilfuelads, as those companies use the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to build “societal license to operate.”

And folks, Chris is getting sassier than ever.

Nurses and doctors are rightly being honored for their courage and sacrifices during these trying times, but it's also important to take a moment to recognize other unsung heroes, like celebrity chefs who shill for "the voice of the Australian oil and gas industry." If you're worried about the future of BBQs as a global pandemic cuts into the 50 billion dollar annual earnings of the world's largest exporter of natural gas, take heart--industry lobbying groups like the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association are making sure a current review of environmental regulations leaves Australia with "a more robust, transparent and accountable regulatory system." There will be plenty of fuel for Australians to cook up their favorite comfort foods once the oil and gas industry can tap billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic square feet of gas currently inaccessible due to "arbitrary bans" on fracking and drilling on public lands. The South Australian government has stepped up to help keep companies drilling by deferring petroleum licensing fees--maybe APPEA could defer its association dues to help companies like Woodside Petroleum chip in a few bucks to the laid-off workers who have accused it of "a brutal act of industrial bastardry on its workforce." (h/t Dan Gocher)

#fossilfuelads #facebookads #appeaads
April 6, 2020

I particularly loved his post from April 6, linked above, where he tore into celebrity chefs in Australia who are taking money to advertise for the fossil fuel industry. The full caption is pasted below:

Nurses and doctors are rightly being honored for their courage and sacrifices during these trying times, but it's also important to take a moment to recognize other unsung heroes, like celebrity chefs who shill for "the voice of the Australian oil and gas industry."

If you're worried about the future of BBQs as a global pandemic cuts into the 50 billion dollar annual earnings of the world's largest exporter of natural gas, take heart—industry lobbying groups like the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association are making sure a current review of environmental regulations leaves Australia with "a more robust, transparent and accountable regulatory system."

There will be plenty of fuel for Australians to cook up their favorite comfort foods once the oil and gas industry can tap billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic square feet of gas currently inaccessible due to "arbitrary bans" on fracking and drilling on public lands.

The South Australian government has stepped up to help keep companies drilling by deferring petroleum licensing fees—maybe APPEA could defer its association dues to help companies like Woodside Petroleum chip in a few bucks to the laid-off workers who have accused it of "a brutal act of industrial bastardry on its workforce."

If you need a refresher of why we’re tracking fossil fuel ads, check out the post where we announced the Fossil Fuel Ad Anthology.

And make sure to follow Chris while he continues to absolutely destroy it over at @fossilfuelads. His latest post was a scorcher, too:

Let's count our blessings with a round-up of generosity from some more Wildlife Habitat Council members:

A $7,500 donation from a utility company worth $43 billion may not seem like much, but when your organization is recovering from FBI raids, grand jury investigations, and top executive resignations related to lobbying and corruption scandals--not to mention a nearly $1.5 billion settlement for tax evasion in 2016--pitching in even a little is truly heroic act. Thanks @exelongen!

Sure, @toyota , @fiatchrysler_na and @generalmotors recently sided with the Trump administration to roll back U.S. fuel emissions standards and pump billions of tons of extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but thanks to the masks, ventilators and components these companies will be supplying at fair and reasonable prices, at least some of us will be able to breathe any air at all.

Detroit utility @dte_energy_official may have improperly shut off gas and power to a few thousand people in the past, and may be currently attempting to expand fossil fuel infrastructure by proposing utility bill increases Michigan's attorney general called "excessive and unreasonable," but its charitable arm is stepping up with some matching donations and no doubt moving on from scandals like paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to prominent community leaders who publicly push corporate talking points against solar panels and energy efficiency.

Top 10 U.S. air polluter and EU tax-dodging extraordinaire @basf_global is using its resources as the second largest chemical company in the world to make some free hand sanitizer for New York and New Jersey. This is a great time for the company to shift gears and produce something it hasn't made before, like weed-killers that destroy and contaminate non-gmo crops and lead to $265 million awards for Missouri peach farmers who convince a jury BASF and Monsanto lied about the harm its products caused to protect their profits.

#fossilfuelads #whcads #twitterads
April 10, 2020

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