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There has been a call for wildlife crime busters in the Gardaí

Maybe beefing up prosecution of environmental crime within the Irish EPA would work better

 

Several members of the Social Democrats have proposed that the new government in Ireland establish a specialised Gardaí unit to deal with wildlife crime and to “properly resource” the National Parks and Wildlife Service, presumably to work with such a unit.  There are no details on how such an arrangement would be structured or implemented, nevertheless, we can work off of it and suggest some issues that need to be addressed in any movement to expand prosecution of environmental crimes.  Another way of dealing with criminal enforcement of environmental laws would be through a police force within the Irish EPA.

 

 

 

 

Substantive Laws

Some of the existing environmental laws in Ireland provide for criminal sanctions, including fines and imprisonment, so there is an existing substantive legal structure for criminal enforcement.  But if there is a movement to strengthen any criminal enforcement, there should be an assessment of what additional behaviors or violations should be subject to criminal sanctions.  A challenging, and interesting, issue would be how to criminalize actions that adversely affect climate change.

Another interesting issue is the implications of the EU Directive on the protection of the environment through criminal law (2008).  Article 3 lists conduct that “constitutes a criminal offence, when unlawful and committed intentionally or with at least serious negligence.”  The conduct covers a variety of activities, including handling of waste or radiation materials, destroying wildlife or certain habitats.  In addition, breach of a host of environmental Directives listed in the Annexes are covered.   Article 4 requires that “inciting, aiding and abetting the intentional conduct referred to in Article 3 is punishable as a criminal offence.”  Article 5 provides that “Member States shall take the necessary measures to ensure that the offences referred to in Articles 3 and 4 are punishable by effective, proportionate and dissuasive criminal penalties.”

In light of its acknowledged status as a laggard when it comes to climate change action, Ireland may have trouble satisfying many of the requirements of the EU Directive.  If environmental criminal enforcement is to be strengthened, litigation over Ireland’s compliance with the Directive may be necessary.

A recent study, Crime and Punishment, by the European Environmental Bureau (EREB) addressing environmental crimes calls for Member states to increase capacity building and resources to investigation units, enforcement bodies and prosecutors, and to provide clear EU sentencing guidance to judges.

Capacity Building for Enforcement

One of the problems of creating a special unit within the Garda  Siochana, or Gardaí, Ireland’s police force, to enforce crimes against wildlife is that it may be viewed as a second tier force.  For example, in the New York Police Department (NYPD) officers in the Traffic Division who issue parking tickets are often seen from within as belonging to a status lower than NYPD “cops.”  Moreover, if selection for this special unit comes from within the Gardaí, it can end up with officers who have little commitment to environmental problems.  It seems that one of the advantages of the independent Irish EPA is that staff are selected by the EPA and are not merely assigned to work there from other agencies.

Instead of folding such enforcement into the Gardaí, we would suggest that there are more benefits to the establishment of a police unit within the Irish EPA.  Besides making use of an independent hiring process, there are other advantages.

Prosecution of environmental crimes by officers requires specialized scientific and technical knowledge and the EPA is the institution with that knowledge and expertise.  These EPA experts can help guide investigations, based on science and facts, and can serve as expert witnesses in any prosecution.

 

 

 

 

Photo by Harriet McHale

 

Working closely with the experts within EPA on a day-to-day basis would provide a critical resource for enforcement officers.  Such a relationship would also be very useful for the EPA experts.  Most of those experts have been trained in science disciplines and they likely find the world of criminal enforcement with cops, lawyers and judges a strange place.  Getting to know the enforcement officers on a daily basis makes that other world a more familiar and comfortable space to work in.

Another advantage to relying on the Irish EPA for environmental crime enforcement is that EPA already does it, to some extent.  The Office of Environmental Enforcement  (OEE) in EPA has the authority to take direct legal action against those who violate environmental laws, including inspecting facilities, taking samples, filing legal actions that include fines and potential criminal punishment.  The OEE also has a major responsibility for supervising the environmental protection activities of local authorities.

A recent study of environmental crime enforcement in Ireland, from the decade 2004 to 2014, found that there were few criminal cases and few offenders, especially give that there are 13,000 manufacturing facilities in Ireland.  It also found that there were relatively few audits, inspections and monitoring activites given the number of facilities.  In addition, the study found that there were no cases where imprisonment was imposed in the ten years.   In total, the convictions for environmental crime represent about 0.1% of all manufacturers.

The study suggests that such a low level of enforcement action may result, at least in part, from the fact that Ireland’s economy is largely service-based and its industrial sector consists of relatively small firms where one might expect fewer significant pollution events.  On the other hand, smaller operators often are less careful in their environmental practices.

EPA’s OEE was found to rely on prevention, through national and regional planning and compliance workshops, seminars and conferences rather than punishment for enforcement purposes.  More carrots than sticks.

Finally, it is generally the case that EPA takes responsibility for infractions of licenses that it issues, and other polluting events are the responsibility of local authorities that EPA supervises.  One of the challenges of relying on local authorities for environmental enforcement is that the resources and skills available to local authorities vary widely across the country, with some well position to enforce and many not so much.

Conclusion

The suggestion for eco cops to prosecute wildlife is interesting and it should generate a wide discussion within the environmental community.   For the reasons discussed above, we suggest that the discussion should certainly start with an assessment of the existing enforcement program within the Irish EPA.

Note

The author served as an assistant Attorney General in the Environmental Protection Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office for 20 years.  He also served as Senior Counsel for Commissioner Initiatives in the New York State Department of Conservation (DEC).

For an example of an enforcement initiative using a police unit dedicated to environmental violations, see STOP SMOKING DIESEL TRUCKS in the ieBLOG section of this magazine (May 2017).  It describes an environmental enforcement initiative that made use of DEC conservation officers to lessen the adverse impacts from diesel exhausts on people in communities of color or low income.
Sources:

Sylvester Phelan, “Calls to establish specialised Garda unit to tackle wildlife crime,” AgriLand (28 July 2020).  bit.ly/3f8R3yX

DIRECTIVE 2008/99/EC OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 19 November 2008 on the protection of the environment through criminal law bit.ly/2P6gI0D

A&L Goodbody, A Guide to Environmental Law in Ireland bit.ly/3jWh08A

European Environmental Bureau, Crime and Punishment (March 2020).  bit.ly/2PcVdet

Michael J. Lynch, Paul B. Stretesky & Michael A. Long (2019): “Environmental crime prosecutions in Ireland, 2004–2014,” International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice (13 May 2019).   https://bit.ly/335aAxM

Idling engines make the devil’s work

They can harm and kill, and for no good reason.

We have all been trying to live through and understand some big moments  lately — Brexit, coronavirus, Black Lives Matter, BoJo-ism and Trump-ism.  And the general election in Ireland in February has only in the past few days resulted in the formation of a government.  Its Programme of Government has adopted a firm target of a 7% reduction in total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across the entire spectrum of economic sectors.  That is a big demand.

In the midst of these big moments, an initiative to stop idling of any vehicle is in danger of being overlooked.  It should not get lost.

Recently IrishEVs.com, a consumer awareness website that aims to fight the common myths surrounding electric cars and to promote their crucial role in reducing our carbon footprint, has launched a petition to pressure the Irish government to introduce anti-idling laws as part of the fight against climate crisis.  There is little in the way of details about what such legislation might entail, but we have plenty of models on which to build such controls, in the EU and US.

While driving combustion-engine vehicles, of all sorts, is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, just sitting stationery in the vehicle and letting the engine run, or idling, can be just as harmful.  As Irish EVs note in their Press Release for the Petition, “The introduction of such laws and awareness campaigns could result in an annual saving of 40 tonnes of air pollution from Ireland’s 10,000-strong bus fleet alone. Meanwhile, if the average driver avoided idling for just 3 minutes every day of the year, CO2 emissions would be reduced by 1.4 million tonnes annually – the equivalent of taking 320,000 cars off the road.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

In framing any anti-idling legislation, there are several key implications that we have learned from other such programs.

An advantage for measures to control idling is that they can be focused on hot spots of pollution near vulnerable populations, e.g., schools, hospitals and care facilities.  Picking students up at school often leads many parents or caretakers to sit idling their vehicles while waiting for their riders, and that concentrates polluting emissions.  Those emissions are compounded by a fleet of school buses that idle while waiting to load students.  Dropping students off at school most often involves less idling, but of course any regulation should apply to any idling near the schools, as well as hospitals or care facilities.

Construction sites are another location where idling is prevalent and dangerous.  One element of an effective idling enforcement campaign is to include a provision that when the owner of a site has control over deliveries and movement of trucks at construction sites, that owner becomes financially and criminally responsible for any idling of any truck on or adjacent to the site.

A disadvantage of anti-idling actions is that they involve change of behavior, never an easy task. But demanding that people pick up their dog’s poop off sidewalks was also a big change, and yet it has worked by and large, through some enforcement and largely from peer pressure.  Seeing many others scooping up poop does put pressure on other dog lovers, especially in urban areas.  Hopefully the same result would follow wide publicity and initial enforcement for idling laws.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the real challenges is how to enforce idling laws or regulations.  Typically, the law bans idling of vehicles in excess of three to five minutes.  So some enforcement officer has to observe the idling for a short time before enforcing the law, usually with a summons or traffic-like ticket. That takes time and justifies limiting idling to three minutes.

Local authorities are well positioned for enforcement of anti-idling laws since they typically have other responsibilities for traffic and parking, and idling is closely related.   Such traffic officers can easily add idling to their assigned areas of responsibility.  It does not take significant retraining or resources, and idling can be observed while parking tickets are being written.

At the same time state, regional or national governments can participate in this pollution-prevention initiative by prescribing the terms of idling behavior:  which vehicles are covered, which places are affected, and for what length of time is idling permitted and banned.  This adds an important level of consistency between local areas for the idling behavior required.

A combination of a national/regional idling standard and local enforcement, using existing traffic staff, offers a sensible way to address a serious air pollution problem.

Idling wastes fuel and money, and controlling it brings health and environmental benefits without costs.  At the same time, local authorities can generate income from idling fines, as they do from parking fines, helping to offset any regulatory costs.

 

NOTE

For a description of the idling laws applicable in New York City and New York State (as of 2017) see, below, Stop Idling Vehicles: Report Public Health England.

 

Sources

IrishEVs, Campaign for Irish government to introduce idling laws to fight climate change (1 June 2020). www.irishevs.com/idling-petition

Stop Idling Vehicles: Report Public Health England in Reports section of www.irishenvironment.com (1 May 2019).

Stop Smoking Diesel Trucks in ieBLOG section of www.irishenvironment.com (1 May 2017).  See details for an enforcement initiative to fine diesel trucks emitting pollutants beyond limits set by state law, and with a component of enforcement against idling trucks at the same time.  The author of this ieBLOG post was actively involved in creating and arranging the enforcement of this initiative when he was an Assistant Attorney General for the New York State Department of Law.

A broad and deep climate action plan that is not centered on carbon pricing?

Yep, it’s possible, and American enviros seem to think they have such a plan

David Roberts, one of the clearest thinkers and informed writers on environmental matters in the US, has detailed a “climate policy platform that can unite the left.”  The platform is not the product of a few policy wonks but the result of a wide swath of Democrats and those on the left who have gone a long way to align their thinking and policy planning.   Much of the impetus to this development comes from the critical 2020 anti-Trump election, and challenges and possibilities presented by the coronavirus crisis, where reimagining how we behave and relate is spreading.

One achievement of the long and crowded nomination process of the Democrats was that a lot of talent was devoted to developing serious and aggressive climate action plans.  Those plans were subjected to political and public assessment throughout the nomination process.  Recognising that the Republicans are useless, at best, has been rather liberating.  No sense wasting time on compromising to suit the useless; just bring along as much of the left and middle as possible.

Adding fuel to this political fire was the growing appreciation for the dire 2018 report of the IPCC that looked closely at the differences in impacts between a 1.5°C rise in global temperatures and a rise of 2.0°C.   Several conclusions from the IPCC report have been reverberating for two years:  we have about a decade to act or we may be facing catastrophic impacts, and to avoid the impacts the world must achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.  That is, whatever we put into the atmosphere by 2050 must be met by an equivalent amount of reductions in emissions. “The IPCC concluded that to limit temperatures to 1.5°C would require the entire world to reach net-zero carbon emissions, emitting no more than it is absorbing, by midcentury.”

There are several shifts affected by the talks that have been going on within the labor and justice and environmental movements, and Roberts addresses them before delving into the details of the three components of the climate platform.

One of the key shifts involves carbon pricing.  As a result of the long and complicated dialogue about climate plans, there is a recognition that any such plan did not need to rest on the foundation of putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions, whether directly through a tax or “fee,” or indirectly through a cap-and-trade system.

In the US, as elsewhere, there is a recognition that any mechanism that smacks of a tax or direct economic burden is politically doomed, domestically and maybe internationally, especially in the post-cornavirus period.  Roberts argues that “Carbon pricing has been dethroned.”   “Carbon pricing — long treated as the sine qua non of serious climate policy — is no longer at the center of these discussions, or even particularly privileged in them.”   He suggest that raising carbon prices high enough to hit the 2050 target would be almost insuperable; cap and trade is still in the “reputational toilet;” and carbon taxes never saw the bipartisan support their backers always promised.

Roberts acknowledges that carbon pricing in climate policy may still have a space (he does say it has been “dethroned‘ not killed) but it will not be a central space.  Based on the experience of states that have actually passed legislation, climate policy will rest on something more pragmatic and targeted, something more like industrial policy.

Roberts then digs into the details, and he is always good on details.  What matters is that we achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.  How we get there is less important than that we get there.  Achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 is becoming the new baseline for US climate policy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standards, Investment and Justice

That policy is founded on three components:  rapid decarbonization through stringent sector-specific standards; large-scale public investments; and, a commitment to justice. Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a labor and environmental coalition, calls for “a policy agenda that frames climate action as industrial policy geared toward rebuilding America’s infrastructure and manufacturing base, with justice and equity baked in rather than an optional ingredient.”

The first component focuses on setting stringent standards for electricity, cars, and buildings, which together constitute 2/3 of US emissions.  The intent is to get rid of the carbon directly.

This standards-based approach is at the heart of the Green New Deal, which has been instrumental in the ongoing talks among the US enviros.  Roberts covers differences between various groups but they all acknowledge that clean energy policies have been the biggest success in various states.  As Roberts notes, “The details vary, but there is a strong common core: performance standards and incentives for the three biggest emitting sectors, aimed at making rapid, substantial progress on emissions in the next 10 years. The ultimate vision is a carbon-free electricity sector powering an electrified, emission-free vehicle fleet and building stock.”

The second component requires large-scale public investment.  Whatever happened to all the talk about investing in infrastructure?  Here the infrastructure is not the old fashioned “grey infrastructure” — roads, bridges, sewers — but a modern version that includes a national green bank, rural electrification, universal broadband, long-distance electricity transmission, and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.  The intent is to support green industries, manufacturing, and research, and, above all, to create jobs.

The critical role for jobs is centered on the third component: Justice, for unions, fossil fuel workers, and front-line vulnerable communities.  The participation of these groups in the climate talks early on is a real advancement.  And timely because if the hope is to expand the base for these plans beyond traditional environmental groups it must include communities of color and low income and workers.

Finally in his analysis, Roberts covers some issues that remain largely unsettled, including holding the fossil fuel companies accountable; supply-side efforts, like keep it in the ground; role of nuclear power; and, carbon capture and sequestration.

There do remain lots of issues and details that will demand clarification over this year, and that will no doubt create conflict.  But there are only five months before the 2020 get-rid-of-Trump election and if the Dems, the vulnerables, the left, the unions, the others can forge a policy platform that addresses climate breakdown in a meaningful and comprehensive way and tie in new infrastructure investment, and meaningful jobs, well that bodes well for that election of elections.

Sources

David Roberts, ” At last, a climate policy platform that can unite the left,” VOX (27 May 2020).  bit.ly/3cmo0vj

 

Hey, Let’s Get Together and Form a Government in Ireland

OK, as long as we do not have to commit to any actual actions!

 

In the latest general election in Ireland in February 2020, Sinn Fein (SF) won the largest number of first preference votes (the “popular” vote) with 24.5%, compared to Fianna Fáil (FF) with 22.2%, and Fine Gael (FG) with 20.9%.  But Sinn Fein did not contest all constituencies and Fianna Fáil won the most seats in Dáil Éireann (parliament) with 38, followed by Sinn Fein with 37 and Fine Gael with 35.  In the 160-seat Dáil, 80 seats are necessary to carry a majority.  Consequently, a stable government will require two of the three big parties, plus some others.

At the moment, the two “main” political parties in Ireland, the “duopoly” of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, are attempting to get together for the first time in a new joint government, with their combined 73 votes.  Neither wants to be seen to be dancing with SF, so they need either the Green Party with its 12 votes, with maybe a few independents to be safe, or a chorus line of independents.

To entice others to join with them to form a new government, The Duopoly has prepared a draft framework for Government that they hope will not offend anyone or tie The Duopoly’s hands to any specific actions.

No wonder Fintan O’Toole has labeled the document “a colouring book for adults”:

24 pages of idyllic scenes drawn in rough outline. They then passed the crayons to the Greens, the Social Democrats and the Labour Party: please colour in these pictures. A bit of green here? Perhaps some red on the fringes? Lots of pink. Whatever you like – so long as the tax stuff stays nice and blue.

While O’Toole is always a wonderful writer, and clear thinker, he has been much too kind in this instance.  The draft document is not just glaringly vague and devoid of any substance, it is irresponsible.  Most colouring books are far more interesting and useful.

I’m willing to be practical, but just for a moment.  The Duopoly figures they can be vague and uncommitted in their draft plan for a programme of Government so those not-SF will consider joining them.  That’s the way it is usually done.

But these are no longer usual times.  The coronavirus has changed all that.  As soon as the coronavirus crisis recedes (assuming it does), the fast unfolding impacts from climate breakdown will resurface as the overriding concern.  In addition to whatever we have learned about dealing with the virus, we also know that the climate breakdown is so much more threatening, more far-reaching than the virus, and there is no vaccine for climate breakdown.

What is disturbing about the noncommittal draft programme is that it pretends that there are no concrete environmental actions that it might have put on the table.  It is as if the Citizens’ Assembly, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action, and the Climate Change Advisory Council did not exist.  Such avoidance behavior raises the question that has always been here and that remains: Can The Duopoly be trusted?

Let’s look at the language of The Duopoly’s draft and see what it offers.  Here are some statements of intent from the draft plan on “A Green New Deal,” and some suggestions for why it is so vacant.

·      “The climate crisis is the most pressing existential crisis.”

One wonders what The Duopoly makes of the word “existential”?   Really serious, really bad?  Then why so reluctant to offer anything concrete for dealing with this “existential” crisis.

·      “Set new carbon reduction targets, identifying and implementing early significant changes and underpinned with a clear road map for delivery”

Not only vague, but they don’t even seem able to commit to increasing the targets.  They could just as well mean that they will lessen the reduction targets by lowering the burden on those responsible, say, for example, the agro-food industry

·      “Ensure that the recovery at domestic and European levels is carried out through a green lens.”

The green lens seems like a new metaphor. Wonder what that means – those dark sunglass lenses that hide what you’re looking at?

·      “Take immediate action in response to the biodiversity crisis…”

If they know that immediate action is necessary, then they must know what that action is.  How about telling us, so we can judge their knowledge and sincerity.

·      “Invest in public transport across Ireland…”

Does The Duopoly think that we all will be thrilled that it is going to invest in public transport.  How can it not.   We might wonder how much it intends to invest, and how that compares to investing in roads.

·      “Plant 440 million trees by 2040”

Planting trees is the low-hanging fruit that even Donald Trump will eat.

·      “Roll out an ambitious home energy retrofitting programme”

How many years have we been promised a roll out of home energy schemes, without effect, even though there is no rocket science or undeveloped technology necessary.

·      “Continue to recognise and support Irish agriculture in its ongoing transition to emission efficiency”

Three cheers for Irish agriculture – hip hip methane, hip hip methane, hip hip methane

Whether the draft plan will appeal to the Greens remains an open question, but it seems clear that such an alignment must seem more appealing to The Duopoly than dealing with lots of diverse independents.

The Greens have responded to the draft programme with 17 Questions, setting forth what specific actions they require from The Duopoly.  Notably the Greens demand a commitment to an average annual reduction in greenhouse gases (GHGs) of at least 7%, which is double the existing government’s commitment.  This would seem to be is a red line in the sand demand.

The Duopoly has responded to the 17 Questions with comments.   On the 7% solution for GHGs The Duopoly does not answer with a direct “Yes,” as it does to other Questions raised by the Greens. It equivocates, arguing that  “We firmly believe that it is important to consult and persuade people and sectors to take the actions to ensure that we meet any new targets that are set.”  In other words, it cannot commit without the endorsement of the agriculture lobby.  We can be confident that’s not going to happen.  The Duopoly suggests that, “We would like to understand and tease out with you through talks, the specific actions that would have to be taken to achieve at least an average 7% a year reduction.”

Conclusion

Climate actions are needed and now, not teasing.  There can be no shuffling climate breakdown aside on the grounds that people need a break from tension, they need jobs, and the 1%ers need money in the post-virus-crisis.

There is nothing clear or visionary in The Duopoly’s plan.  They have taken turns leading Ireland since its beginnings and neither has produced a climate plan that carries any weight or respect.  There is no sense pretending that together they can do any better.   The Greens no doubt have to decide if their presence in government would change that.

The game is afoot, as Sherlock Holmes used to say, and where it ends nobody knows.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: update 3 May 2020

For a discussion of the logic, origins and implications of the 7% solution to GHG emissions in Ireland see online webinar hosted by Ireland’s Stop Climate Chaos (SCC), with SCC policy expert Sadhbh O’Neill, and featuring Dr. John Sweeney and Dr. Cara Augustenborg, and Kate Ruddock of Friends of the Earth, at: www.foe.ie/blog/2020/05/01/watch-it-back-webinar-on-7-emissions-reduction/

Sources:

Seán Clarke, “Irish general election: full results,” The Guardian (11 Feb 2020).   https://bit.ly/3auKiFg

A draft document between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to facilitate negotiations with other parties on a plan to recover, rebuild and renew Ireland after the COVID-19 Emergency  bit.ly/2VSMQYH

“Fintan O’Toole: FF and FG have produced a colouring book for adults,” The Irish Times (21 April 2020).  bit.ly/3aNdXK3

The Green Party, Green Party response to the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael joint framework document (23 April 2020).  bit.ly/3d0wcNG

Letter from Leo Varadkar TD (Fine Gael) and Micheál Martin TD (Fianna Fail) to Eamon Ryan (Green Party), dated 28 April 2020.   bit.ly/3bSMNmi

Dealing with Coronavirus and Climate Breakdown

Anything to be learned?

With the global spread of the coronavirus disease, and the drastic actions being taken by national governments to try to contain it, it is not surprising to see many asking if there are any lessons to be learned for dealing with climate breakdown.

Some argue that similarities between coronavirus and climate breakdown suggest that we can deal with both in similar ways.  We suggest that this is a simplification.  Looking at the similarities and distinctions between the two may reveal some of the complications in any such comparisons.

Similarities

The two phenomenon share certain traits: they are both global in reach; they have no respect for physical or political boundaries; they are unseen, invisible enemies; they rely on science to resolve; they require national and international cooperation; they are going to cost global economies trillions or more than we can count.

While other similarities might be found, they are outweighed by the distinctions.

Distinctions

Coronavirus is an immediate, fast moving, global threat to our health that exploded on the scene and appeared at our front doors in a matter of days or weeks, and the impacts are present and obvious.  Climate breakdown has been around for decades and its impacts are unfolding but the really scary consequences are decades in the future.

Climate breakdown is happening because greenhouse gases (GHGs) are spread in the ambient air all over the planet, and they stay there for long periods of time, while coronavirus is transferred from person to person, generally within several feet, for short periods, so isolation of the virus is possible.

Coronavirus will kill thousands to tens of thousands in days or weeks or months.  Climate breakdown is an “existential threat” that computer models tell us will kill hundreds of thousands to millions of people in decades, or half a century.

Climate breakdown will be with us forever, while coronavirus likely will depart in a short time – weeks, months, a few years.

Coronavirus is shutting down much of the world’s economy, albeit for a short period – maybe months – while mitgation measures for climate breakdown, like switching to renewable energy from fossil fuels, can transform and strengthen the economy.

While the extent of the impacts of climate breakdown are elusive, difficult to measure, the effects of coronavirus are only too visible.

Coronavirus is primarily a devastating health crisis, while climate breakdown is primarily an environmental disaster (rising seas, droughts, heat waves), which has severe health impacts.   Of course, we do not understand all the possible consequences of climate breakdown, which could unleash pandemic diseases across the planet.   It has been suggested that air pollution that is exacerbated by climate breakdown increases risks of people getting sick from viruses, including for pneumonia.  And climate breakdown can disrupt ecosystems, driving wildlife to places they never were before and forcing contact with other animals and leading to transmission of new pathogens.

Efforts to reduce the impacts of climate breakdown have been undermined for decades by fossil fuel interests with massive amounts of money.  Nobody is arguing in favor of more virus, though D. Trump and his malign policies are arguing (back to work!) in favor of protecting the investments of the few over the health of the many.

Coronavirus results in a temporary loss of food supplies on grocery shelves, while climate breakdown threatens food security through extreme weather events and destruction of soil itself, which losses can be global in reach and long-term.

While global in reach, some countries or areas can control coronavirus impacts even if others, including neighbors, ignore the threats and do nothing.  On the other hand, one country can take drastic mitigation measures for climate breakdown that can be nullified by greedy, ignorant neighbors or even distant countries that ignore the impacts of climate change.

The coronavirus can be controlled, to some extent, through testing and masks and gloves and social distancing, and maybe a vaccine.  Climate breakdown requires a transformation of the world’s energy sources (wind and solar, not fossil) and electric grids; sustainable, denser, walkable cities; plant-based diets; carbon taxes.  And much more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Implications

In comparing the two phenomenon, one particular hope may be more of a delusion.   Many commentators suggest that what everybody is learning from the coronavirus crisis can be applied to resolve climate breakdown challenges once the virus crisis ends.  It is respectfully submitted that there will be few voices calling for more restraint and austerity and sacrifice once the virus is  “conquered.”   Rather it is likely people will be exhausted, angry, looking to blame someone, longing for security, and desperate to get back to “normal,” or business-as-usual, not to a transformative Green New Deal.

Some suggest that the challenge of coronavirus demonstrates that people can change their behavior when faced with a large and imminent threat.  This is of course the Holy Grail of climate breakdown activists.  And it is true that the fight against coronavirus has created some modifications of behavior in response to the virus, some of which will even be helpful in overcoming climate breakdown.  Less flying and more telecommuting and videoconferencing are several examples.  But little behavior change is evident in the young people who flocked to beaches in Florida, and older people who belittled the virus, fed of course by the Virus Denialist D. Trump.

But perhaps the most telling comparison is the argument that we need to fight climate breakdown in the same ways we fought world wars, with full-scale, national mobilization of resources.  With the coronavirus, that argument is gaining force with the demand that factories manufacturing certain products (e.g., cars) that are no longer in immediate need be repurposed, by government dictate, to manufacture products that are critical, e.g., ventilators and protective gear for medical personnel and the general public.  Once the crisis passes, “normal” production can return.

That argument for national action to fight coronavirus may well result in various forms of war-time-like mobilization.  In any event, the argument is being examined and challenged and that is a useful exercise for our eventual dealing with the climate breakdown crisis heading our way.

Finally, perhaps the strongest ray of hope could come from the general public seeing the critical role of science in helping them stay healthy and alive.  So much the better for efforts to fight climate breakdown.

 

Sources

Shannon Osaka, “Why don’t we treat climate change like an infectious disease?” Grist (16 March 2020).  bit.ly/3brxhgO

Eric Galbraith, “Coronavirus response proves the world can act on climate change,” The Conversation (19 March 2020). bit.ly/2JbxGYC

Neela Banerjee, “Q&A: A Harvard Expert on Environment and Health Discusses Possible Ties Between COVID and Climate,” inside climate news (12 March 2020). bit.ly/3agWbPX

John Schwartz, “Social Distancing? You Might Be Fighting Climate Change, Too: Isolation and other shifts in behavior during the coronavirus outbreak could also alter our greenhouse gas emissions. But will the changes stick?”  The New York Times (17 March 2020). nyti.ms/33YppRv

Damian Carrington, “Climate emergency: global action is ‘way off track’ says UN head:  Deadly heatwaves, floods and rising hunger far greater threat to world than coronavirus, scientists say,” The Guardian (10 March 2020). bit.ly/2wuBFNi

Dan Gearino, “Coronavirus ‘Really Not the Way You Want To Decrease Emissions’,” inside climate news (11 March 2020). bit.ly/2QOdPml

John Sutter, “The pandemic isn’t fixing climate change,” CNN (27 March 2020).  apple.news/AIm68sKAdT9Wu0NzTu8KzPQ