Important announcement: COVID-19 is a deadly and extremely contagious disease, which will kill hundreds of millions of people unless we manage suppress it. Please cooperate with the authorities, follow the instructions from health professionals, and avoid unnecessary contacts with other people. Social distancing is important!
The actions currently being taken worldwide to stop the spread of the coronavirus can best be compared to pulling the emergency brake on the world economy. Interestingly, the same governments that refused to sacrifice even the tiniest amount of economic growth to save the environment, are suddenly prepared to implement a complete lockdown of public life, costing trillions of dollars and causing a global recession. It is important to understand why.
The argument for implementing drastic measures against the coronavirus is compelling: If we fail to stop the spread of the virus early, we will lose control of the situation and there will be nothing left to decide. Even if stepping on the brake now will not necessarily solve the problem, it might at least buy us some time to think about what to do next. Currently, it is not clear whether the spread of the virus can be contained.
The same argument can be made for stopping global warming and environmental destruction. If we wait until the polar caps have melted and a large amount of species have gone extinct, there will be very little left to decide. At that point, we will run out of sensible options and will simply be struggling to survive by reacting to disasters as best as we can. It would make a lot more sense to act now.
One important difference between the coronavirus and global warming is the time scale. People are dying from the virus today and the full extent of the disaster will become obvious within a couple of months. This makes the problem politically relevant. With climate change, most people have the feeling that the problem is not urgent and that we still have plenty of time to act.
Unfortunately, I believe that there is a more fundamental reason for our different reactions to climate change and the coronavirus: a primeval fear of death. Most people are concerned about the future of their children, but they are simply terrified by the idea of contracting a deadly virus. It is difficult to think rationally in the face of death.
The global pandemic caused by the coronavirus will be over in 1-2 years. Despite the current drop in greenhouse gas emissions, the struggle to stop climate change and to decarbonize society will have to continue. Whether we like it or not, society’s response to Covid-19 offers some important lessons for the future:
- People a mainly motivated by fear.
- Drastic political measures are possible in the case of an emergency.
- If scientific models give you early warning of an impending disaster, it makes sense to act quickly and decisively.
- Never listen to economists when they talk about global challenges.
Less than two weeks ago, some economists were still warning against spending too much money on fighting Covid-19. Apart from the fact that no economist has ever understood exponential growth, they always seem to overestimate their ability to predict the economic consequences of disruptive developments. It simply does not make sense to extrapolate if the entire society sinks into chaos and anarchy.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon is all too familiar in climate politics. When William Nordhaus claims to be able to predict the economic consequences of 4°C of global warming, he is either mad or almost criminally ignorant. We all know that the uncertainties in such a prediction are large enough to render it meaningless. Nonetheless, it serves as a convenient excuse for inaction.
The economy emerging from the coronavirus pandemic will have to be much more sustainable and resilient than the one we have today. This will not be possible if we only focus on maximizing GDP.
PS: If you really want to understand exponential growth, here is an excellent cartoon.