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Public Distrust in Science Made COVID Worse. It Will Also Harm Climate Policy.

How will this winnowing of public trust in the scientific realm play out in ongoing efforts to tackle global warming?

Anti-quarantine conspiracy theorists demonstrate in Edinburgh, Scotland, on November 7, 2020.

Earlier this year, when the coronavirus pandemic led to a global wave of lockdowns, the world saw marked declines in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions due to closed borders, restricted travel and shifting energy demands. At the height of the lockdown, estimates pin the daily CO2 emission reductions as high as 17 percent, while current numbers indicate that the global emission reductions for the year could fall between 4.2 percent and 7.5 percent.

These trends, however, don’t necessarily translate into a drop in atmospheric CO2 levels, which is the accumulated total of current and past emissions.

That’s because CO2 concentrations, which reached a record high in 2019, continue to rise, albeit at a slower rate than last year, according to the World Meteorological Organization. This upward trend is borne out at individual testing stations, with the monthly average CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, hitting 411.29 parts per million (ppm) this past September — up from 408.54 ppm a year prior.

The impacts from the coronavirus pandemic aren’t restricted to greenhouse gas emission levels alone, however — the ongoing fallout promises profound political, regulatory and societal ripple-effects on wholesale efforts to tackle climate change. “We have not done very well as a globe on cooperating on this one very specific, quite well-defined and scientifically clear issue,” said Lisa Dale, lecturer with Columbia University’s The Earth Institute, of the overall global response to the pandemic. And so, when it comes to the “much larger, much more complex, much less scientifically certain issues around climate change,” Dale wonders: “How can we understand the possibility for international cooperation?”

This year has seen a number of international climate related conferences temporarily pushed back, at the vanguard of which is the Conference of the Parties (COP 26), the latest UN climate change conference, which has been postponed until November 2021. There are plusses and minuses to this delay, experts argue. Given how the commitments outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement still allow for more than a 3 degree Celsius (3°C) rise in global temperatures over pre-industrial levels — an increase that could have devastating environmental impacts — this year’s conference was to be an opportunity for countries to announce significantly stepped-up climate strategies five years on. With the clock ticking and greenhouse-gas emissions still rising, any kind of foot-dragging is seen by many as potentially perilous. This is especially important given prior criticisms levelled at the agreement, such as the non-binding nature of national emission cuts.

Nevertheless, according to Nathaniel Keohane, senior vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund and former special assistant to President Obama on energy and the environment, had the conference gone ahead as anticipated, the timing would have occurred immediately after the recent presidential election, “and that was going to mean the U.S. wasn’t going to be prepared.” Depending on the election outcome, “either you would have had a situation, like at Marrakech in 2016, when everybody’s sitting around, head in their hands,” he said of that year’s UN climate change conference, which came on the heels of Donald Trump’s presidential victory. “Or, you would have had people celebrating, and yet, not have the time and preparation to act on it.”

What’s more, an additional year will give the Biden administration time to settle into the White House, ensure that the U.S. re-joins the Paris climate accord and start making good on his promise to “rally the rest of the world” to meet the threat of climate change, said Keohane. “I think we’re going to see, ironically, that the rescheduling of the conference will make for a more ambitious COP and for a better outcome,” he said.

What Will Biden Do?

Beyond a staggering death toll, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on global economies. Here in the U.S., the federal government announced at the end of October the largest recorded three-month economic contraction which erased nearly five years of growth. But experts glimpse opportunities for governments to make significant investments in low-carbon projects, like renewable energy and clean transportation infrastructure, as a means of kick-starting flat-lining economies. “I do think one of legacies of COVID on climate change will be the investments that we’ll make as a means of driving economic recovery,” said Keohane.

Indeed, part of Biden’s climate plan is a promise to invest in infrastructure projects, like modernizing the electric grid, in an effort to achieve a 100 percent clean energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050. In a recently released 2021-2022 spending review, the U.K. government announced £100 billion in capital expenditures next year, which includes funding for electric vehicle charging infrastructure and new carbon capture and storage (CCS) clusters. The domestic stimulus packages that Germany and France unveiled both focused heavily on low-carbon investments.

Even so, taken as a global whole thus far, economic stimulus plans have seen funds largely funnelled towards high carbon industries. Here in the U.S., climate and sustainable energy projects received little attention in the $3 trillion in relief packages passed earlier this year, for example. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) latest report finds that global investments in energy efficiency have been declining since 2015, with the pandemic triggering further impacts. Other climate experts are pushing for G20 countries to “significantly” increase their stimulus investments in nature-based solutions, like tropical forest and coastal protection and restoration schemes, as a means of securing economic and environmental sustainability. All the while, political headwinds abound.

As President-elect Biden will seek to put into action his ambitious climate policies, he faces the prospect of a divided Congress, with a Republican-led Senate presided over by Mitch McConnell — who, during his tenure as Senate majority leader, has frequently met Democratic efforts to green the economy with obstructionism. Added to that is a fossil fuel industry with tremendous political clout on Capitol Hill.

Some of Biden’s administration picks have also ruffled feathers among the progressive wing of the Democratic party. In John Kerry, for example, Biden’s has nominated a climate envoy with experience leading the U.S.’s efforts to fight global warming, but who has proven at crucial moments deferential to the private sector. Brian Deese, Biden’s pick to lead the National Economic Council, will vacate his seat at BlackRock, a global investment firm heavily criticized for its fossil fuel ties.

“We’re in such a hyper-partisan moment in U.S. politics that I don’t think one should be naive about what it’s going to take to turn the page,” said Rachel Cleetus, policy director with the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “There’s a lot the Biden administration can do through administrative actions, including regulations,” she added. Already proposed executive actions include methane emission reductions and a wholesale greening of U.S. government buildings. “But there’s no doubt that they need Congress to act as well, to really get some major transformative policies through.”

Where Cleetus sees potential positives is the way in which the cost of renewables has been slashed over the past 10 years, with the IEA recently claiming, for example, that solar is the “cheapest electricity” in history. Indeed its latest report, the agency focuses on renewables like wind and solar, as well as a broad suite of energy efficiency investments, as a primary means of creating millions of jobs.

“They’re extraordinarily competitive,” she said, of wind and solar. “Many of the benefits that 10 years ago were being talked about are true. They’re employing many people — they can be a source of even more employment,” Cleetus added. “And they’re helping start a shift away from fossil fuels. Here in the U.S., we’re seeing a record shift away from coal, for example.”

There’s also a health equity component to the need to modernize and green the nation’s energy infrastructure, as highlighted in the Lancet’s latest report on health and climate change, which found shared commonalities between the climate emergency and COVID-19. Climate change is proven to affect health and place additional stress on health systems, for example, while fossil fuel-driven air pollution can lead to higher rates of asthma. And which communities have been hardest hit by the coronavirus in the U.S.? Largely low-income communities of color.

“Where are we going to invest that taxpayer money?” Cleetus asked. “Are we going to invest it in the things that are going to help safeguard communities now and into the future? Or are we going to use it to reinforce fossil fuel dependence that has caused untold harm already?”

Plastic Waste Rises as Emissions Decline

A radical realtering of our lives has resulted in 30 percent more plastic waste being generated this year compared to 2019. Monthly across the globe, some 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are being produced. How much is this? By August, according to Scientific American, if all the masks manufactured up to that point had been stitched together, they would have covered the “entire landmass of Switzerland,” with a tremendous amount of this waste ending up in the ocean.

This problem is being shaped by broader forces. The collapse of the global oil market during the pandemic has made the production of single-use plastics cheaper than ever, for example, while at the same time budget constraints have led to recycling program closures. Anyone thinking that the problem of what to do with all this additional plastic waste isn’t a notable problem for the U.S. — and one primarily for developing countries with poor waste management infrastructures — would be sorely mistaken. This study found that the U.S. could be the third-highest contributor to coastal plastic pollution.

When it comes to climate change, the correlation with plastics are well established, and extend beyond the fossil fuels used in plastics production. These wastes that go to landfills become part of the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S. Discarded, they can end up in the ocean. As Dave Ford, founder and partner of SoulBuffalo, a group that brings activists and the industry together to develop solutions to the plastics problem, explains, “a dead ocean is not going to be very good for the climate.” Kelp forests, for example, are a potent carbon sink.

But Ford isn’t necessarily despondent about the future. He points to a new global treaty on plastic waste — what he calls a “Paris Accord on plastics” — that’s garnering growing international support. “Part of the problem with plastics is there’s no uniform definitions — there’s so many different types of plastics,” he said. “But everyone agrees that we need to figure this out, that we need to have a framework globally.”

An unavoidable feature not only of the pandemic but for many years has been an erosion in public trust of science and scientific leaders. “We have these hollowed-out scientific agencies right now in the U.S. that Biden’s going to have to rebuild,” said The Earth Institute’s Dale.

And how will this winnowing of public trust in the scientific realm play out in ongoing efforts to tackle global warming? “I think that’s going to be amongst the hardest parts of this,” Dale replied. “We’re going to have to work hard to reclaim scientific leadership. I think we can do it, but I think we have a lot of cards stacked against us, and it’s going to take significant time.”

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