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Climate Change

How COVID Is Showing Us Our Terrible Climate Future

To stop the worst effects of climate change, rich countries have to move heaven and earth to help poor countries. COVID shows how unlikely that is.

A screenshot of wildfires in Greece. Our response to COVID shows that our future is grim when it comes to climate change.
Wildfires in Greece.
Sky News

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tell us what we already know: that the planet is very screwed.

From the New York Times story about the report (emphasis mine):

Nations have delayed curbing their fossil-fuel emissions for so long that they can no longer stop global warming from intensifying over the next 30 years, though there is still a short window to prevent the most harrowing future, a major new United Nations scientific report has concluded.

[…] Even if nations started sharply cutting emissions today, total global warming is likely to rise around 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next two decades, a hotter future that is now essentially locked in.

At 1.5 degrees of warming, scientists have found, the dangers grow considerably. Nearly 1 billion people worldwide could swelter in more frequent life-threatening heat waves. Hundreds of millions more would struggle for water because of severe droughts. Some animal and plant species alive today will be gone. Coral reefs, which sustain fisheries for large swaths of the globe, will suffer more frequent mass die-offs.

It’s not…great. Future generations, if a world that can support them is still around, will marvel at the gap between the depth of our collective knowledge about the harm we were causing and our desire to act on that knowledge.

The question then becomes what, if anything, we are going to do about this. This can be an abstract thought, but when it comes down to it, we are essentially talking about how much suffering we are willing to endure before we decide to change our ways. We have already gotten used to increasingly schizophrenic weather patterns, wildfires, droughts, and on and on—and that is before you even get to the seemingly endless amount of suffering we appear willing to inflict on the natural world. We have already signed the world up to a great deal more pain. How much more can we take? I guess we’ll find out.

One thing that we know for sure, though, is that the people who pay the highest price for this folly won’t be the people in rich countries who are driving the planet into hell. It will be people in poorer countries who are made to suffer most. Any reputable effort to deal with the climate crisis must also be a just one—one in which the gaping inequities of capitalism are snuffed out, and poorer countries stop being treated as endless resource factories for rich countries to exploit.

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Unfortunately, we have a very grim template for how the global effort against climate change might play out, and it’s happening as we speak: the fight to vaccinate the world against COVID-19.

Right now, the inequity between the richest countries and the rest of the world is as stark as it could be. In late July, a Kaiser Family Foundation study found that “only 1% of those in low-income countries have received at least one vaccine dose compared to 51% in high-income countries.” The study also found that (emphasis mine):

At the current pace of vaccinations, low-income countries are unlikely to meet the global vaccine targets set by the World Health Organization, World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank of 40% coverage by the end of 2021, and 60% by mid-2022. Low-income countries would need to increase their daily vaccination rate by nearly 19 times to reach 40% coverage by the end of 2021. And while the Western Pacific, Europe, the Americas, and South-East Asia are ahead of schedule for reaching these vaccination goals, Africa would need to increase its rate of first dose administration by 8 times to reach 40% by the end of 2021.

The efforts to deal with this problem are similarly sluggish. The proposal to waive the patents on COVID vaccines so that production could be ramped up in poorer countries has run into a wall of resistance from rich countries. Wealthy countries, including the United States, are steering the bulk of their donated doses to COVAX, the main international vaccine distribution program. But COVAX has been plagued by delays and has handed out just a fraction of its promised supply. What’s more, rich countries have spent so much time trashing the vaccines that were supposed to form the core of the distribution program that many people in poorer countries are, quite understandably, both reluctant to get them and indignant that they are seemingly expected to get a B-list jab while rich people hoard the gold standard stuff. Predictably, COVID is spreading like mad throughout the global south, and there are not nearly enough vaccines to handle the crisis.

Meanwhile, there is such a glut of vaccines in rich countries that people are now getting possibly unnecessary third doses before hundreds of millions of others have even gotten a first one.

This is not, to put it mildly, the behavior of a world gripped with urgency. It is also not the behavior of a world that cares about preventing tragedy on a global scale, or of a rich part of the world that is particularly concerned with racing to help the poorer part of the world avert catastrophe. Rather, it is the behavior of a rich section of the world mostly content to look inward while the rest of the globe drowns. And those of us in the rich part of the world seem mostly OK with that. Getting vaccines delivered to poor countries is hardly a top priority. The suffering of our fellow human beings is something happening someplace else, and therefore it doesn’t matter too much.

There is no particular reason to think that the way the world handles climate change will be that different, and there are lots of reasons to think that it will be worse. Capitalism has been unwilling even to disrupt the profit supply of a few pharmaceutical companies in order to help hasten the end of the worst pandemic in modern history. What are the chances that our political and economic system will be actually willing to carry out the much deeper change needed to mitigate the climate meltdown? According to the Times, the report says that, just to stay in the horrible place we currently are, there would need to be “a coordinated effort among countries to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by around 2050, which would entail a rapid shift away from fossil fuels starting immediately, as well as potentially removing vast amounts of carbon from the air.”

Every sign we get suggests that such a thing won’t happen. Right now, Democrats are currently tinkering around the edges, and their refusal to reform the Senate or the court system is as likely to prevent mass climate action as it is to prevent fundamental change on every other issue plaguing the world. The UK is hosting the next round of global climate talks in November, but won’t halt the funding of new fossil fuel projects. China won’t stop burning coal. Joe Biden is indulging the fossil fuel industry. So much for immediately shifting towards alternative energy sources.

When the rubber truly hits the road—and, as bad as things are now, we’re still able to live our lives quite comfortably—all the evidence suggests that the climate response will play out just like the vaccine program is playing out. Rich countries will move to protect their own people as best they can—while allowing a great deal of internal pain to carry on, naturally—and the rest of the world will be overwhelmed. Rich countries will shut their doors and focus on themselves, while the chaos and violence that will inevitably accompany climate breakdown spreads across the globe. Ecofascists will have a bigger and bigger platform.  

I hope I’m wrong, and that a Green New Deal will triumph, and that the world will do what is right. But we have had decades to come to terms with what needs to happen to avert catastrophe, and we’ve already failed miserably, so hopefully you will forgive my pessimism.