Climate change experts find hope in global action to contain coronavirus

A sign tells people to wash their hands.
The Varsity Theater, home to concerts, used the marquee to address the need for washing hands due to the coronavirus, the disease that is caused by the new coronavirus, Monday, March 16, 2020, near the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Jim Mone | AP

As the world economy rolls to a near halt with COVID-19 quarantines and ongoing uncertainty, so have greenhouse gas emissions. Energy use and emissions in China dropped 25 percent during a two week period in February, according to the climate website Carbon Brief. And the BBC reports carbon emissions from cars have been cut in half in New York.

But experts see a silver lining to the coronavirus crisis that isn’t exactly sterling. They say emissions could rise drastically when the pandemic is over; China’s savings are expected to result in a 1 percent drop overall by the end of the year. An economic downturn could limit resources that governments and companies can put toward climate solutions. And self-distancing isn’t the kind of market overhaul needed to sustain long-term progress.

“The difference between this and actually making very intentional policies and measures to reduce greenhouse gases is that the economic consequences of the coronavirus are fundamentally negative,” said Christiana Figueres, a former United Nations Climate Change Conference executive secretary. “The economic consequences of decarbonizing our economy are fundamentally positive because they will strengthen the economy. They will provide millions of new jobs.”

But Figueres, who co-authored the new book “The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis” with Tom Rivett-Carnac, said she does find hope elsewhere in this crisis.

“I think we have learned a couple of things that will be very helpful. One is that global challenges have no national boundaries. No one is geographically immune to coronavirus or to climate change,” she said. “The second is that global challenges require both systemic changes [and] individual behavior changes. We've proven that we can do that quite quickly.

“We're also seeing little eruptions, perhaps, of incredible solidarity, of empathy, frankly, of love for neighbor,” Figueres continued. “And it is that mindset — that we're all in this together, that actually we can do big things if we collaborate radically with each other — that is going to help us also deal with the climate change crisis.”

Figueres and Rivett-Carnac spoke with Climate Cast host and MPR chief meteorologist Paul Huttner about this and their new book. You can hear it by hitting play on the audio player above.

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