Crisis, Opportunity, COVID-19, and Climate

By Seth Evans, ECA Massachusetts Leadership Team. There are many memes connecting the ideas of crisis and opportunity.  Winston Churchill, for example, invoked the idea in the aftermath of World War II, saying, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Many of us have heard the meme that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of two Chinese characters signifying “danger” and “opportunity,” though native Chinese speakers recognize this as a slight misinterpretation of the word.

In any case, during this time of coronavirus, many climate activists have tried to emphasize the opportunities that the combined health and economic crises have wrought.  It is activists’ “job” to do this. We look at the problems of the world with a keener sense of both pessimism and optimism than the ordinary citizen.  The pessimism comes from taking the problems seriously. The optimism, in turn, comes from the belief that once people are educated about the problem and mobilized into action, that action will help ameliorate the problem.

For climate activists, the outline of the crisis=opportunity equation consists of several main ideas:

  • The economic slowdown is making a measurable and, in some cases, visible dent in greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.  As citizens recognize the potential for this more sustainable level of economic activity to help save the planet, there is opportunity to channel that new understanding into advocacy.
  • Future rounds of economic stimulus legislation that may be necessitated by a prolonged recession/depression are an opportunity to create the kind of climate rescue package we need to move the country off fossil fuels and create millions of new clean energy jobs. Citizen pressure on legislators can make this more likely, especially during an election year.
  • The drop in the price of oil precipitated by the economic downturn will make oil companies less profitable. This may cause some to cut back operations and could weaken their financial and political clout.
  • The lack of preparedness for the pandemic in the USA was due to a profound mistrust of science, expert opinion, and government bureaucracy (i.e., the “deep state”) by our know-nothing, populist president.  By drawing the analogy to climate change, activists can arouse politicians and voters to insist we are better prepared for the inevitable and destructive consequences of climate change.
  • The pandemic and social isolation requires – ironically — that we think more socially (vs. individualistically) about our responsibility to each other. It also creates the impetus to reflect about “what’s important,” which is to say, the more enduring values such as family, charity, and friendship. This impetus will also energize people to advocate for more humanistic values in the polity, and will lead to more concern for the effects of future crises, such as climate change.

But while all of these potential causes for optimism are real, activists need to guard against any false optimism during this time of crises.  The problem lies in the fact that the “crisis equals opportunity” meme is not only an inducement to citizen activism, but it is also the go-to mantra of private, for-profit corporations. Needless to say, they are better financed and organized to be able to take advantage of a crisis, as illustrated in these counter-examples:

  • While some of the fossil fuel industry supports (e.g., the US purchasing vast amounts of oil to build up its reserves) were taken out of the Stimulus Act, the fossil fuel industry, using its vast political and financial power, may still be able to access billions of dollars in loans and grants that are not yet designated for particular industries or companies.
  • The fracking and coal industries, already in financial distress and cut off from loans from many banks, may now be offered a lifeline — as “job-savers” — in the form of low- or no-interest government loans.
  • The low price of energy will likely make raising equity and debt capital more difficult for alternative energy ventures. 
  • In the rush to protect companies from the effects of a prolonged recession, Trump is dropping industry compliance requirements for a host of environmental regulations, which will inevitably contribute to an increase of many types of pollutants, including greenhouse gases.
  • Calls for new government investing in green technology will be fought tooth and nail by conservatives, who will cite the example of Solyndra going bankrupt after receiving loan guarantees during the 2008 recession.
  • Calls to make sacrifices for the common good are already being filtered by politicians and the news media along the same partisan and ideological lines that pre-existed the crisis. Our culture may emerge more divided than ever from the pandemic.

The point is, any comfort we climate activists might take from the pandemic-induced economic slowdown and potential associated cultural changes, may easily prove chimerical.  This is not the time to yield to vague notions about cultural shifts, forgetting what we know about the raw exercise of political power.  It is, instead, the time to increase our level of activism to make it more likely that the positive outcomes we seek are promoted in every way possible, even at the risk of offending those who would say, “It’s too early to focus on the climate when we are in the middle of the coronavirus emergency.” 

Instead of a mantra of “crisis equals opportunity,” we would be better off invoking the words of Joe Hill, the legendary songwriter and union organizer, who, on his deathbed, beseeched workers, “Don’t mourn, organize.”