Foreign Relations & International Law

What Does the COVID-19 Pandemic Mean for Climate Change?

Rachel Westrate
Tuesday, June 23, 2020, 8:01 AM

In a perfect world, the historic policy and economic changes made to adapt to the pandemic would move the world forward into a future prepared to combat the climate crisis.

Smoke stacks at the Cleveland-Cliffs Northshore Mining Company in Silver Bay, Minnesota on July 9, 2019. (Tony Webster,; CC-BY-2.0,

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Venetian canals are clear enough to see fish through the normally cloudy water, and dolphins have been seen swimming in Italian ports; the Himalayas are visible from India and Nepal for the first time in decades; and air quality in cities from the United States to China has never been better. Air traffic has decreased by 50-80 percent from the same months last year, and office buildings are sitting dark and empty. People are beginning to rethink their relationship with nature, the necessity of frequent and long-distance travel, and their consumption patterns.

Overall, the global shutdown due to the coronavirus is likely to result in a 4-7 percent decrease in annual carbon dioxide emissions this year. Meanwhile, the largest economic stimulus effort in history is underway—the very kind that will be necessary to transition the global economy in a fashion necessary to combat climate change. In a perfect world, these historic policy and economic changes, coupled with changing consumer behavior, would move the world forward into a future prepared to combat the climate crisis.

However, we do not live in a perfect world.

The decrease in emissions is not nearly enough to solve the planet’s global warming woes. While this year will likely see the biggest historical drop in carbon emissions ever recorded, carbon levels in the atmosphere are still expected to rise in 2020, as atmospheric carbon will stabilize only when the planet reaches net-zero emissions. To limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, global emissions would have to drop by 7.6 percent every year this decade—with additional reductions needed each year to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. If a global pandemic and worldwide shutdown are producing only a 7 percent drop in emissions this year, drastic measures will need to be taken to reach these climate goals.

But other trends that have come to light during the pandemic will make it difficult to implement planet-saving policies. The past few months have proved how severely underprepared most major economies are for dealing with novel threats to national security. Doubt in science is at an all-time high, as epidemiologists and climate scientists alike face skepticism about their expertise. Public transit usage is at an all-time low as people decide to take their individual cars to avoid the coronavirus instead of using the subway or busses. Entrenched economic interests, such as airlines and fossil fuels, are receiving millions of dollars in bailouts to continue their business-as-usual practices instead of supporting a transition to a greener economy. And the massive amount of spending being done to help the global economy recover now is unlikely to be repeated to address climate change any time soon if climate change measures are not included in current recovery packages.

On a recent episode of Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman’s podcast, Bill McKibben—the founder of, an organization dedicated to ending the use of fossil fuels and promoting renewable energy—explained that “the next ten years for climate change is what February was to the coronavirus,” urging decision-makers to act quickly and decisively on the climate crisis. Similarities between the coronavirus and climate change abound. Both are global problems that don’t respect national borders, both require immediate behavior changes to prevent catastrophic future damage, and both tend to hit vulnerable communities more heavily. And in both cases, international cooperation is needed to respond effectively. Acting early, and acting fast, was necessary to curb the worst effects of the virus—as seen in New Zealand, Australia and Germany—while countries that have had a slow and haphazard response, like the United States and Brazil, have suffered higher rates of infection and death.

So how can the world move forward from the coronavirus pandemic to ensure that the next 10 years set humanity on a path toward climate stability?

Prioritizing Green Economic Recovery

The global economy has seen a severe downturn since the beginning of the pandemic, as unemployment rises and businesses lose profits. Trillions of dollars are being directed to revive the economy through coronavirus relief packages, but noticeably missing from U.S. recovery packages are ways to address the climate crisis. So far, the United States has passed relatively climate-neutral stimulus packages. Democrats advocated for provisions to support the renewable energy industry and wanted to tie the airline industry bailout to emission reduction requirements. Republicans wanted to use $3 billion to buy oil for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. None of these provisions made it into the final stimulus bills. The European Union, however, is focusing on a Green Deal recovery, and stimulus money in Canada is coming with “green strings attached.”

The pandemic seems to have accelerated energy investment trends already occurring—a decrease in use of fossil fuels, while falling prices of renewable energy infrastructure and recognition of green energy co-benefits have helped wind and solar hold steady. The decreased demand for oil and the price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia sent oil prices plummeting into negative territory. Coal and oil burning has declined in the first months of 2020, and overall energy investment is expected to decrease by 20 percent in 2020, according to the International Energy Agency. The decline will touch every sector of the energy industry, but oil and gas have experienced the biggest loss while utility-scale renewable energy has been more resilient, signaling its continued viability for future investment.

The sudden change in economic activity resulting from the coronavirus has also shown that many industries have the ability to redirect themselves. Clothing and fashion brands across the globe have stopped manufacturing clothing and starting making masks, auto and energy companies have started making and refurbishing ventilators, and perfume companies have been manufacturing hand sanitizer. This versatility suggests that adapting business models to be sustainable and healthy for the planet may be easier than previously imagined.

The current U.S. recovery efforts are likely to last only a few months, which gives lawmakers an opportunity to create a bill that prioritizes green recovery, supports renewable energy and assists businesses transitioning to sustainable practices. Oxford University has published a research paper on how to make stimulus packages good for both the economy and the climate, and experts have weighed in on the most important provisions to ensure economic and environmental justice. Lawmakers should take note as the next round of stimulus negotiations occur in the coming weeks.

Promoting International Cooperation, Information Sharing and Transparency

Threats like the coronavirus and climate change have no respect for national borders, and the resurgent nationalism seen in countries like the United States has proved detrimental to effectively addressing the virus. The former secretariat of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, has explained that those countries that have approached the virus from an isolationist perspective, like the United States and Brazil, have failed in keeping their citizens safe from the virus and are unprepared to deal with the threat of climate change, while those that have managed the pandemic well are likely to be better equipped to fight climate change. The vice president of the Asian Development Bank said at a U.N. conference in May that “information sharing, capacity building, and policy coordination” across borders are key in response to both the pandemic and climate change.

These words ring true. Countries that have been successful in containing the virus have put aside political differences to act in unison with leaders from other countries, shared data and supplies, and learned lessons from other countries in how to respond quickly and effectively, in what Figueres called “a huge forced collaboration exercise.” Meanwhile, moves by the Trump administration to isolate the United States—like pulling out of the Paris Agreement and threatening to cut funding to the World Health Organization (WHO)—undermine the international cooperation and security that are necessary to address international crises like the coronavirus and climate change.

The pandemic has also raised concerns about China’s lack of transparency in its response to the coronavirus. Allegations are circulating that China did not act soon enough, undercounted infections and deaths, and has not shared informationwith other countries that is crucial to fighting the virus. Relations between the United States and China, two of the biggest carbon emitters in the world, are coming under severe strain as a result of the pandemic, as Trump calls for an investigation of the WHO’s treatment of China.

This ground is equally shaky when it comes to climate change. Coordination between the two powers has proved crucial for climate action in the past. The United States and China are two of the key world actors that will be necessary to decrease greenhouse gas emissions in a meaningful way. And as world economic powerhouses, they will need to assist developing countries in mitigating and adapting to climate change. While China’s National People’s Congress has not set an economic growth target for the first time in decades—which could potentially decrease the demand for energy-intensive investment—the country approved the construction of five new coal plants in March, undermining China’s supposed commitment to the Paris Agreement targets. These mixed signals are also coming from the United States, where Trump has been rolling back environmental protections, but coal-fired power plants are continuing to reduce their production or close altogether. If the U.S. and China can’t trust each other to act simultaneously and aggressively to combat climate change, and to share resources and responsibilities in adapting to a new world, the difficulty of combating the climate crisis grows exponentially.

Shifting the United States’s Conception of National Security

Traditional “hard security” investments in the weapons and troops that can be used against an enemy are becoming less important as the threats the world now faces are viral, ecological and technical—“threats without a threatener.” More Americans have died in the past several months due to the coronavirus than have died in every war since Vietnam began in 1964. The United States was unprepared to handle a national security crisis nonmilitary in nature that refused to respect national borders—which may speak to the inability of the U.S. to effectively fight climate change.

The current administration has struggled to conceptualize national security as broader than the military, or to be creative in how the military can help respond to new security threats. Trump abolished the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense established by President Obama under the National Security Council, he publicly considered resuming nuclear weapons testing as U.S. deaths from the coronavirus reached 100,000, and the military ordered $4.7 billion worth of new fighter jets in the midst of the pandemic. Some Navy medical ships were deployed to Los Angeles and New York to house patients, but at the same time, an aircraft carrier became a hotspot for the virus and was out of service in Guam for months. The Department of Defense has largely stayed out of the fray, and the $750 billion spent yearly on the national defense has been practically useless in combating the largest national security threat the country has faced this year.

Similar to the coronavirus, climate change is not a “traditional” national security threat, although its effect on national security has been documented extensively. Including climate change in the national risk assessment is only a first step—the United States needs to start thinking now about how to best study, avoid and respond to climate emergencies. These measures could include dedicating specific defense resources to fighting climate change, investing in climate-resilient technologies, and updating disaster response systems both at home and abroad. The U.S. national security system is not currently designed to respond to threats such as pandemics and climate shocks. Instead of investing more in the current system, the United States needs to rethink what national security means and what is necessary to protect it.

The current pandemic has provided a glimpse of what happens when the United States isn’t prepared to respond to a novel threat. The country should heed these lessons in moving forward. Instead of trying to return to business-as-usual, the better path is to pursue a greener, cleaner, integrated and more secure future that will prepare the U.S. for the climate fight ahead.

Rachel Westrate is a 2L at Harvard Law School. On campus, she is Vice President of the Environmental Law Society, part of the Harvard Environmental Law Review, and a researcher for the Environmental and Energy Law Program. Before law school, she served as a research assistant at the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C.

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