Coronavirus Spreads Climate Hope : Lessons from Washington state
We are embroiled in a global emergency that we, as a species, have not previously experienced. This menace is responsible for massive numbers of premature deaths and, if left untreated, could forever threaten our global security. Misinformation about the cause and how best to address it, has been pervasive. If you thought I was referring to COVID-19, you would be wrong. Rather, I am speaking about something far more destructive: climate change.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that, “Climate change is the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century.” The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that we have about 12 years to avoid global temperature increases of more than 1.5℃, which would set off irreversible chain reactions and feedback loops accelerating its effects. From poisoned rivers, polluted air, more violent storms, and deadly heat waves, we are already experiencing the wrath of a changing climate.
As the devastation of COVID-19 reaches every corner of the globe, it is imperative we act quickly while relying on data and science to inform our decision-making. The same must also be true of climate change. Fortunately, many places around the world are beginning to respond well to the virus, providing a glimpse into how coordinated governmental actions might be taken to combat climate change. My home state of Washington, for instance, provides an example of how government has taken decisive action to address the widespread crisis following the outbreak of COVID-19.
Government Isn’t Always the Problem
On February 29th, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that Washington was the first state in the U.S. to record a confirmed COVID-19 death. Governor Jay Inslee acted quickly to issue and implement the first batch of restrictions such as school closures and a ban on large gatherings in the state to stifle the spread. Around the same time, the Legislature appropriated $200 million in emergency funds to support institutional efforts to respond to the public health catastrophe. Inslee issued the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order on March 23rd followed by additional emergency proclamations. These orders included an eviction moratorium, a suspension on elective surgeries to conserve personal protective equipment (PPE), and an enactment of other unprecedented measures to save lives and provide relief to businesses and people.
After about a month, it appears to be working; the U.S. state first hit by this coronavirus has flattened the curve. This encouraging example begs the question: What if governments around the world acted with these kinds of decisive actions to mitigate climate change?
The virus has demonstrated what governments are capable of doing in the face of disaster. The widespread notion that public institutions, most notably democratic ones, are slow acting, ineffective, and incapable of swift and structural change has been exposed. Local, state, and national governments have taken rapid action to protect people with drive-through testing sites, shelter-in-place orders, and repeated and synchronized calls for “social distancing.” So why has little to no action been taken to address the greatest threat to our planet and public health?
The Necessity for Bold Climate Action
For decades, conservative politicians and special interest groups, particularly in the fossil fuel industry, have blocked efforts to address the very real and alarming danger posed by climate change. Despite their cries that climate policies would adversely affect our economies resulting in mass job loss, industrial upheaval, and financial ruin, studies now show climate change, if not addressed at all, could cost the U.S. economy hundreds of billions a year and globally even more. Due to the financial harm caused by COVID-19, our societies are as disrupted now as they’ve ever been. It behooves us, then, to act now to solve the climate crisis while simultaneously revolutionizing our economies to be greener, more sustainable, and more resilient.
In Washington state, the Legislature and Governor Inslee (who ran for President of the United States with climate change as his top priority) have shown what a new path forward might look like. Washington has committed to proving that mitigating climate change can, in fact, boost the economy. The pursuit of a bold and progressive agenda has resulted in policies that are helping ordinary Washingtonians thrive.
Washington State Leads the Way
Just in the last few years, while maintaining one of the strongest and most robust economies in the country and being named Best State in America, Washington has made incredible strides in addressing the climate emergency with hopes of bringing carbon emissions down. Last year, the Legislature passed the Clean Energy Transformation Act (CETA) enabling Washington’s electricity generation sector to become carbon zero by 2045. The Legislature also passed a Clean Buildings policy aimed at retrofitting large industrial facilities. Senator Liz Lovelett—the legislator I work for and Vice Chair of the Senate Environment, Energy, and Technology Committee—sponsored the companion legislation of a public-private partnership called Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy and Resiliency (C-PACER) that incentivizes commercial property owners to embark on energy efficiency projects. Appliance efficiency standards were strengthened, as well as the establishment of a photovoltaic (PV) module product stewardship program, and a ban on single-use plastic bags. These policies have positioned Washington as a leader in combatting disastrous climate outcomes while providing a blueprint for other states and countries to follow.
As Washington plans for life after COVID-19, state lawmakers are keen on developing even more ambitious ideas to move the climate agenda forward. Senator Lovelett and her colleagues plan to create a state bank to fund local public works and sustainability projects as well as establishing a low carbon fuel standard to address the transportation sector’s disproportionate contribution to Washington’s carbon emissions. As revenue forecasts show massive fiscal shortcomings due to the pandemic, creative carbon pricing schemes such as “Cap and Invest” are beginning to gain momentum. Our office is focused on infusing climate considerations into growth management planning, as well as passing a transportation budget package that puts a tax on carbon. Electrifying our ferry fleet, which is the second largest in the world only to Norway, and making the necessary charging infrastructure investments that encourage consumers to purchase electric vehicles, are all in the works.
Along with the progress being made in the state of Washington, there has been an inadvertent positive externality from the fallout of the virus—a significant reduction in global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. With the globalized economy temporarily stalled, the planet has been given a chance to breathe and recover. For the first time in 30 years, the Himalayans can be seen in parts of India 125 miles away and deadly pollution in some of China’s largest cities has fallen, likely saving the lives of tens of thousands. These anecdotal nuggets of hope prove what is possible when carbon is curbed. However, these momentary victories won’t mean much if we continue business as usual post-COVID-19.
Our Defining Challenge
I believe we stand at the precipice of history with a brief moment to think differently and dream big. It is uncertain how long this pandemic will last and how much damage it will ultimately inflict. What is certain, however, is that inaction on behalf of the climate will lead to unimaginable harm. The disruption caused by this virus presents a unique opportunity to finally take meaningful steps to fundamentally reevaluate and restructure the way our societies operate.
Just as the traumatic Great Depression revealed a grand New Deal redefining government’s role in the economy, or the American Civil War finally put an end to the barbarism of slavery, we too must take the tragedy of COVID-19 to transform and save the only inhabitable planet we have ever known. Now is the time to come together, even though we may be quarantining apart, and to rise to this challenge that will define us and lead to our renewal. May perseverance, courage, and action be coupled with hope, optimism, and grace as we navigate through these trying times together. Humanity’s greatest feat awaits.
Jorden Kronen is an alumnus of the 2019 Atlantic Dialogues Emerging Leaders program.