In May 1st, I landed in a seaside city in China after almost forty hours of traveling. This was four months after the then “mysterious pneumonia-like” virus raided China and nearly two months after states across the US locked down. After years of traveling back and forth between the US and China, I am deeply familiar with feeling of landing in the homeland each time and seeing the unique color of the sky — light baby blue with a shade of sandy yellow near the line where the sky meets the earth, covered with a layer of haze as if true face of the sky is hidden behind a veil. There was something different about this landing. When I took the first peak out the airplane window, I wasn’t struck by that familiar feeling that I had known for years. Something was different about the scene outside. Parked airplanes, empty terminal, airport workers in masks – nothing special under our “new normal,” but the sky was bright and clear – no mixed-in shades of yellow and no layer of haze. For the first time in years, after landing in China, I felt like I was still under the same piece of blue sky as I was back in the US.
If there is one thing COVD-19 has shown us, it would be what it is like to live in a world free of pollution and industrialization. For the first time in years, the streets of New York are empty, blue skies are seen in New Delhi, and wild life is taking over usually populated beaches. However, this everything-is-beautiful-and-fine scene is just a temporary illusion. COVID-19 will pass like all pandemics did in history, and after the virus retrieves back to nature or after the human race adapts to live with it, things will quickly reverse back to normal, and another looming crisis will make its way back to us – climate change.
COVID-19 is undoubtedly the worse global crisis the world has seen in the 21st century. Unemployment rate is at all time high since the Great Depression, oil prices dropped to an unprecedented sub-zero rate, and small and big firms alike are going out of business. Without a doubt, this pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on the world economy and possibly reshape the world for years to come. This, however, is also a time for us to reshape our world and our future by taking crucial steps to curb climate change.
It is not hard to say that the world has failed at cooperatively responding to this COVID-19 global crisis just like it has failed for years to act on climate change. For a collective action problem like climate change, relying on the government is not the solution. COVID-19 has been a test on all countries, not just their health care systems but their leadership as well. In that sense, the US has not succeeded so far. In the face of this crisis, partially due to America’s extreme form of federalism, the federal government and the White House quickly pushed responsibilities onto states. Without an effective central leadership, the country wasted weeks during a crucial time to contain the spread of the virus domestically. Now, we are largely reliant on everyday people coming together to fight this pandemic. When it comes to climate change, we cannot wait for the government to take the lead either. Unfortunately, climate change has been politicized into a bipartisan issue in the US. Rather than waiting for the White House and Congress to act, or for countries to pull together a more effective Paris Accord, we as consumers must incentivize change.
During this current crisis, we have already seen the power of a sudden demand shock in industries like fossil fuel and airlines. For the first time in history, there is a surplus in oil supply, driving prices down to as low as -$37.63 barrel. Ryanair, Europe’s biggest budget line, is planning to cut 3,000 jobs, which only adds to the already widespread pain in the airline industry across the world. The automobile and rental car industry is also being crushed by COVID-19. This is just a demonstration of the impact we can make as consumers from the demand side on big polluting industries, and this is a crucial time for us to demand structural changes.
While the whole world seems to have paused, the government and big firms carry on their businesses as usual. After all, government and businesses are co-dependent — when the economy crashes, businesses look to the government to be saved. Like during all demand recessions, the crashing economy relies on the government to generate a Keynesian economy through stimulus packages. Congress has already passed several stimulus bills and relief packages, but as the oil and gas industry lobbies aggressively, Trump is now planning to bail out the big polluters, including in the form of purchasing oil for the government’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve. If we want a green and renewable future, this is not the way to go.
This pandemic is a crucial time for lawmakers to rethink the future of the economy and for us consumers to demand structural changes. In the short term, economic recovery is the priority for all sectors of society. However, rather than bailing out the big firms, the government should focus on helping workers and small businesses directly. One mistake Obama made during the 2008 global financial crisis was to focus too much on bailing out the banks rather than helping American homeowners with a large enough stimulus bill. The consequence was a swift recovery of the financial market and a widening gap between the prosperous financial market and the real economy. Now, instead of bailing out big industries like fossil fuel and the airlines, the US should commit to helping the American people directly like it did through the CARES Act and provide immediate aid to workers, states, and small and medium businesses with a large and enduring stimulus and relief package. A lot of discussions are already taking place on how the federal government can help these parties directly to immediately and effectively alleviate pressure from the economy, such as proposals for stimulus plans as large as $1000 per adult and $500 per child, mandating or supporting paid leave for workers in certain businesses, and increased funding for Medicaid and unemployment insurance from the federal government.
More importantly, rather than saving the fossil fuel industry, this is a time to invest in renewable energy. This is not saying that the US should completely abandon industries like fossil fuel. Helping those industries is crucial for the recovery of the economy. The collapse of industries dependent on fossil fuel can lead to a series of consequences, ranging from fiscal instability to national security issues. After all, our world at this time is still heavily dependent on those industries. However, this is a time to demand structural changes and push for a greater step towards a renewable future. Before this crisis, the fossil fuel industry was already in decline, whereas wind and solar represented the fastest-growing source of jobs. Now because of COVID-19, clean energy sectors are experiencing devastating impact and job loss. By supporting these sectors now, we can establish a foundation for a bigger and faster transition towards a clean future and make tangible change to curb climate change. At this moment, congress has many options to support clean energy, and these options do not involve bringing the fossil fuel industry down. The federal government needs to grant the clean energy industry its top requests, which center around direct pay tax credits and qualification for renewable tax credits despite delays due to supply chain disruptions. Congress can pass bills like the GREEN Act to extend clean energy tax credits. We can also demand that bailouts of the fossil fuel industry be conditioned on requirements of carbon emission thresholds or other efforts of reducing environmental externalities. These are just a few of the many ways the federal government can support the clean energy sector at this crucial moment.
In the past few years, as wild fires and hurricanes wage across the US, we have realized that the threat of climate change is more real than ever. Our effort as an international community to combat this imminent global crisis is not caught up to the speed of rising sea levels. Now, during this unprecedented time of crashing oil markets and economic meltdown, we must not settle on massive bailouts of the fossil fuel industry. In the short term, helping workers, states, and small to medium businesses directly should be the goal. In the meantime, we must fight for a renewable and sustainable future, and we as consumers possess the unique power to pressure the government and influence businesses from the demand side. Structural changes are costly to implement, but if we do not pay the cost now, we will not be able to afford it when climate disasters come. After all, this pandemic has given us a chance, and we should take it.