The vast majority of climate stories these days are various takes on how to view the issue through the lens of the coronavirus and vice versa. Of course, anyone who knows anything about climate change knows that it is just as fundamental a worldwide threat over the next several decades as COVID-19 is right now (and will continue to be in the coming weeks and months).
As state after state and, more haltingly, the Trump administration commit billions of dollars to measures against the coronavirus at a speed and scope comparable to how the U.S. mobilized during World War II, the comparisons drawn between the pandemic and climate change make sense.
World leaders and fossil fuel titans have been saying for decades that it would be impossible to mobilize at such a scale against climate change. Now, we don’t even have to look back to the 1940s for proof that it’s not. When lawmakers are convinced a crisis is a real and a mortal threat, most of them can find the will to put everything into stopping it.
Some stories have marveled at the emissions reductions the virus has brought. “There’s an unlikely beneficiary of coronavirus: The planet,” a CNN headline proclaimed. The Guardian went with the more cautious: “Coronavirus could cause fall in global CO2 emissions.”
Others, in The Conversation, CNBC, and Fortune, for example, pointed to the coronavirus response as proof that action on climate could be swift and effective. A handful of reporters have argued, as Kate Aronoff did in The New Republic, that green jobs could and should be part of the recovery plan in the wake of COVID-19.
There are less rosy views, too. The New York Times warns that the drop in oil prices could spell disaster for climate action in the months and years ahead. Time magazine cautions that coronavirus gives us a window into pandemics that catastrophic climate change will bring, except they’ll likely come alongside extreme weather events, too. I’ll see your quarantine and raise you a hurricane.
None of these stories is untrue or off base. But, like the corona-climate conversation in general, they do ignore a critical difference between the coronavirus pandemic and climate change: who benefits from addressing the problem, and who suffers.
The U.S. fossil fuel industry made a profit of $28 billion in 2018, the most since 2013. That was in spite of the fact that oil prices actually dipped in 2018, but were balanced out by an increase in production. According to the International Monetary Fund, the fossil fuel industry is also the recipient of more than $5 trillion in subsidies, if you count all of the problems it creates but doesn’t have to pay for — such as the $81 billion the U.S. government spends annually protecting oil supplies, or the cost of untaxed greenhouse gas emissions (many of which would not be touched by a carbon tax).
Comparing coronavirus to climate change is like comparing apples to the whole idea of fruit.
In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic ― when epidemiologists like Eric Feigl-Ding were warning about it and being called alarmists, while Fox News was calling it a hoax cooked up by Democrats to smear President Donald Trump ― the pandemic response bore some resemblance to how the powers that be have dealt, or not, with climate change. Especially the part where, as we’re now learning in reporting by ProPublica and The Daily Beast, a powerful few used classified information not to protect the public, but to profit personally.
But that delay was fleeting. At this point, the coronavirus is directly benefiting almost no one. Vaccine manufacturers may see some profit eventually. Digital service providers like Zoom are seeing their value rocket, and the growth in demand for products and deliveries from Amazon looks set to further widen the gap between Jeff Bezos and the next-richest person on earth.
But in general, mobilizing to flatten the curve of this pandemic benefits every citizen and business ― literally everyone.
The billions that federal and state governments are committing to measures ranging from direct payments to citizens to grants and interest-free loans for small businesses to even the bailouts for major industries (whatever you think of them), should eventually help get money flowing through the economy again, and stabilize cratering financial markets. At least that’s the idea.
Mobilizing on climate change also benefits the general public and provides stability to the economy in the long run. But in the short term, it hurts the bottom lines of some big and very powerful industries. And therein lies the rub. How exactly do you get a coronavirus-style mobilization when it threatens the profits of a historically powerful minority?
Comparing coronavirus to climate change is like comparing apples to the whole idea of fruit. Climate change is not one single issue or threat. It’s the hill we’re all dying on, made steeper by each wrong step, each failure to move. It persists because it is the result of a system that benefits the powerful, and those in power have mostly proven desperate not to give up that system.
Imagine if, for some bizarre reason, all of our transportation options ran on the coronavirus, and those who had figured out that a virus makes a great fuel had spent decades and millions convincing the world that societies and economies could not function without it. Imagine they had undermined research into the negative impacts of the virus, suppressed the fact that it makes a lot of people sick, even kills some. So much so that a lot of people didn’t even really notice the impact.
Now imagine these virus barons had also developed a vaccine for the virus, then told everyone it was too expensive, didn’t work very well, and wasn’t something we really needed anyway. Imagine that with all of their vast wealth locked up in the ability to continue pumping the virus through our economy, they had decided the occasional infection and death was an acceptable risk. To keep the virus flowing, they had greased the political system, cozied up to the media, inundated the public with ads about how no one knows disease better than them and we should all trust that they are ON IT.
At its root, climate change is the result of too much political and economic power being placed in the hands of too few people.
That’s the situation we’re in with climate change. The inability to address it has not been a failing of humanity, the result of our collective inability to mobilize or care about each other. It hasn’t come down solely to our notorious lack of foresight, either (although yes, evolutionarily we are better wired to react to an immediate threat like a pandemic than a long term one like climate change).
At its root, climate change is the result of too much political and economic power being placed in the hands of too few people. Absent those power dynamics, a rational society would act when a majority of global scientists warned of certain catastrophe.
But when a small group of people are allowed to dictate terms for the world, things get real bad, real fast.
This is one of the many reasons why it’s impossible, dangerous even, to try to separate climate change from other social ills. Climate change is not just a matter of energy sources. It’s the fruit of the poisonous tree of inequality, the natural result of prizing individual success over the common good.
The specific individuals and groups that dedicated their time and resources to stopping action on climate were enabled by a system that gave them the power to do such a thing. What futurist Alex Steffen calls “predatory delay” — the blocking or slowing of needed change in order to make money off unsustainable, unjust systems ― could only happen in such a context. But it’s no more a human inevitability than any other social trend, although it has stuck around longer than most.
Trump is being rightly criticized for downplaying the coronavirus crisis and failing to rally the vast federal resources soon enough to prevent the disease from endangering millions of Americans. That delay was predatory. Growing evidence suggests it was driven by political and financial concerns.
The fossil fuel industry has done the same on climate, aided and abetted by political elites, as well as utilities and the financial, automotive, and manufacturing industries.
But here’s another big difference between the coronavirus and climate change: The delay on COVID-19 was weeks or months, and was met with swift condemnation. On climate, the delay has gone on for decades and citizens’ outrage about it continues to be waved away as alarmism.
Even many who think we need to act on climate quickly are so invested in maintaining the status quo that they urge so-called pragmatic solutions that are so incremental that they won’t do enough in time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
That’s the reason it seems incredibly unlikely that lawmakers will incorporate a clean energy transition, complete with thousands of new clean energy jobs, into any stimulus package, despite the fact that, as many have argued, that would make enormous sense.
The Oxford dictionary defines a virus as “an infective agent that ... is able to multiply only within the living cells of a host.” In this case, predatory delay is the virus, climate change is the symptom. Predatory delay has been the decades-long “infective agent” that multiplies and thrives to the benefit of a powerful few, enabling and encouraging them not only to ignore the plight of the rest of us, but to profit from it.
Until we’re testing and vaccinating for that, we won’t see a “corona-like mobilization” on climate.
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