‘People will make a sacrifice for the common good’: How the fight against COVID-19 could extend to climate action

Expert: At least one way in which monkeys have the edge on us humans

In recent years, there has been significant momentum in the private sector to confront climate change. But the economic fallout of the coronavirus outbreak presents a significant challenge. Andre Mayer spoke to Tom Rand, the Toronto-based author of the new book The Case for Climate Capitalism: Economic Solutions for a Planet in Crisis, about environmental action at a time when the world is preoccupied with a more immediate threat.

Going into 2020, climate change was the biggest issue facing the world. COVID-19 has obviously changed the focus. What trends are you seeing in the way the business world is approaching climate action now?

It’s interesting to see telecommuting finally coming into its own. Not only are we avoiding getting on a plane for board meetings, but we’re getting more effective at working from home. There are limits – but it’s clearly possible to eliminate a large portion of business travel (a third to a half?) and work from home a couple of days a week. That would be a huge cut in carbon emissions and urban traffic.

Are any Canadian trends especially telling?

Canada has been hit doubly hard, and our heavy oil industry is under an existential threat. To my mind, COVID accelerated trends that were already inevitable over the long term: technology is the primary threat to heavy oil, not climate policy. Alberta’s heavy oil has long dominated our national dialogue, and sucks up an awful lot of political oxygen – far more than is warranted by its relatively small contribution to the national economy. It’s time to start talking about future economic trends – like e-vehicles, renewables and emerging telecommuting technologies. Perhaps this crisis will force us to look forward to economic opportunity, instead of being distracted by what’s in the rear-view mirror.

Do you think the coronavirus pandemic could have a lasting negative impact on climate action?

We’ve certainly emptied our public coffers. The cost of COVID far outstrips any climate effort I’ve ever seen, and it will be even harder to access public funds on the climate fight. But culture is just as important: perhaps our immediate fears over the pandemic, and the massive failure in the United States to prepare for it, will increase our respect for the experts ringing the climate alarm bells. What’s become clear over the past few weeks is the sense that we’re all in this together and must look to an empowered public sector to address systemic risks – like pandemics or climate. In the short term, we might continue with behaviours that reduce emissions, like avoiding unnecessary travel and working from home more.

Does the outbreak jeopardize investment in green projects?

I see little over the long term to affect the build-out of green projects. These things are getting built because they’re a better deal than fossil fuel counterparts, not because they’re goody-goody.

Your book argues that capitalism can have a significant role in creating a low-carbon world. How so?

Innovation, capital, jobs, technology – all of these are driven primarily by market forces. As we see with COVID, the public sector can (and must) provide a backstop to an economic crisis, but it can’t replace all that economic activity. At the same time, the business community must acknowledge that nibbling around the edges of our economy is not a sufficiently robust reaction to climate. Capitalism must be fundamentally rewired to address climate risk.

Are there any lessons to take from governmental responses to coronavirus that could be applied to climate?

When you can articulate a risk appropriately, people will make a sacrifice for the common good. Humans are fundamentally caring and decent. No one wants to unleash destabilizing forces that bring economic ruin. Only a sociopath would deny the need to address climate risk, just as only a sociopath wouldn’t endorse behaviours like physical isolation that reduce coronavirus risk.

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