The Pandemic is Bad News for Climate Change

Susan Robertson
3 min readApr 8, 2020

Short term gains, long term pain.

Here’s the thing — the pandemic is creating amazing, positive gains for the climate. Emissions are down. Electricity consumption has fallen. Animals are returning to cities.

Reports that wildlife is returning to urban areas is, in some cases, overstated. Source: Unknown. I’d thank them if I could, but a co-worker shared this on a team chat.

Globally, people are taking actions to curb the spread of this virus, actions that will define the current generation in the way that the wars and depression defined the lives of our grandparents or great grandparents (or great great grandparents, depending on how old you are). We will lose people. The economy will suffer.

In the short run, we are seeing that it is, indeed, possible to curb the economy for the good of the environment. It is, indeed, possible, for businesses to change the way they work. For many of us to stop commuting, sitting for hours a day in our cars.

Governments are pushing cash into the hands of citizens, where they can. Africans may well be fucked, with limited medical infrastructure, massive shanty towns across the continent, and likely insufficient funding for widespread testing. Folks will die there, in greater numbers than in the rich parts of the world, where I am merely inconvenienced by a city that is closed for business. I work from home, as many in the knowledge economy can do. Recent African economic growth might take decades to come back.

This virus is just getting started.

There will be a day when this is all over. Wealthy nations will spend to stimulate the economy. It’s the one lesson we collectively learned from the Great Depression (will it forever more be known as the First Great Depression? Time will tell). People will consume because they can, if they can. They will go back to Walmart and their ilk and stock up on plastic items made in China to entertain themselves. They will shop at Amazon and buy things they have been thinking about during this time of unemployment. Governments will focus on driving consumption, production, and raising incomes and therefore raising tax revenues. It’s how economies recover from tragic downturns.

What will happen to the climate debate in the face of an onslaught of need from the majority of the world’s richest nations? We can, if we want, face the rebuilding of our economies by investing in greener more sustainable activities. But we won’t. The need will be too great, and we will collectively face the challenge by doing more of the same because we know how to do it, and we know it works.

We only had 12 years, so they said, to get it right. Experts are saying it will take 2 years just to get through this pandemic in full. And then we face a long economic rebuilding. How long will that take? Five years? More? A decade?

When, then, will we take on climate change?

The answer is, we probably won’t. We can’t afford to tackle climate change AND the virus.

Thanks to the virus, it’s suddenly too late for climate action.

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Susan Robertson

Susan is an economist who worked in international development. Interested in food, board games, dogs, and development. Writing about whatever I feel like.