Climate change after the pandemic

by John Quiggin on November 21, 2020

Even as the future of US democracy remains in the balance, and as the pandemic still rages, I’m still working on my book The Economic Consequences of the Pandemic. At this stage, it’s hard to get a clear idea of how things will look when and if the pandemic is brought under control. One thing that is certain is that the problem of climate change/global heating will not have gone away. Over the fold, the intro for the chapter I’m writing on this topic. Comments, criticism and compliments all gratefully accepted.

The pandemic disaster has absorbed all of our attention. But the longer-running, and ultimately more dangerous disaster of global heating has continued to wreak its ever-increasing havoc.

The hottest temperature ever reliably recorded (130 F or 54 C) was observed on Sunday August 16 2020, at Death Valley. Unsurprisingly the record temperatures gave rise to hundreds of disastrous fires throughout California The scale of the fires was described by the New York Times as ‘staggering; with 1.4 million acres burned by August. But this was not a once-off disaster. Fires in 2017 set a new record for their extent and damage, only to be eclipsed by even worse disasters in 2018. The fires of 2019, which saw much of the electricity grid shut down for days on end, and 250 000 acres burned, seemed mild by comparison.

This pattern is not unique to the US. Massive fires have occurred from the Arctic to the Amazon. Over the Southern hemisphere summer of 2019-20, my own home country, Australia, experienced the worst bushfire season on record, with major cities blanketed in toxic smoke for weeks on end. Thirty-four people were killed by the fires themselves, but hundreds more died from the acute effects of the smoke, and many more are likely to die of long-term effects. Humans weren’t alone. Nearly 3 billion animals were killed or displaced, with whole species threatened with extinction.

On the Atlantic coast of the US, the climate drove a different kind of disaster. As has become normal in recent years, the first storms of the North Atlantic hurricane season arrived in May, before the official start of the season on June 1. In August, Hurricane Laura became the strongest on record (by windspeed) to make landfall in Louisiana, tying a record set in 1856. Only the speed with which Laura moved inland prevented catastrophic damage on the scale seen with disasters like Katrina and Sandy. By mid-November, the 2020 season was declared the most active on record. There is now very strong evidence that climate change is causing more severe hurricanes, with heavier associated rainfall and rapid intensification.

As with the pandemic, we had plenty of warning about climate change. The science of global warming has been understood since the 19th century, and evidence that warming is taking place began to mount from the early 1980s. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988, and produced its First Assessment Report in 1990, leading to the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The report established that global warming was taking place and that “emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases: CO2, methane, CFCs and nitrous oxide. These increases will enhance the greenhouse effect, resulting on average in an additional warming of the Earth’s surface. The main greenhouse gas, water vapour, will increase in response to global warming and further enhance it.” However, considerable uncertainty remained regarding whether observed global warming was due to natural variability, human activity or some combination of the two.

The Second Assessment Report in 1995 presented stronger evidence that warming was being driven by greenhouse gas emissions. But already there was pressure from some governments to water down the conclusion.

A series of subsequent IPCC Assessment Reports has documented the increase in global temperatures and established, beyond any reasonable doubt, that human activity is primarily responsible. The most recent was the Fifth Assessment Report, released in 2014. The key finding:

Warming of the atmosphere and ocean system is unequivocal. Many of the associated impacts such as sea level change (among other metrics) have occurred since 1950 at rates unprecedented in the historical record. There is a clear human influence on the climate. It is extremely likely [probability greater than 95 per cent] that human influence has been the dominant cause of observed warming since 1950,



Alex SL 11.21.20 at 2:53 am

At the beginning I had hopes that the pandemic might change some things for the longer term, for example by people realising that they can just do online meetings where they would have hopped onto an airplane before. Now that I have seen restrictions relax and people bouncing right back into their previous behaviours even on small, insignificant things (e.g. supermarket staff told me that cash payments, previously avoided because the money could carry germs, are back), I have become much less optimistic.

One year from now I fully expect managers to be back to 2-3 flights per week to have one hour meetings interstate, Joe Average to fly to Bali/Majorca/Mexico for annual holidays, and Jane Doe to be back on her daily 2 x two hour commute of which one hour each way is bumper to bumper traffic jam. (And half the people on my side of the political spectrum will say that’s fine, because all of climate changes is exclusively the fault of 1oo billionaires, and nobody else has any agency or responsibility.)

Regarding whether we will heed the warnings better than warnings of a pandemic, I read with interest a recent Tweet by Paul Krugman. He pointed out that the crises have similar characteristics, but that climate is much more difficult, because whereas everybody is immediately and 100% affected if they catch a disease, the effects of climate change are diffuse and incremental. Even with the pandemic there are many who remain in denial mode while their family members, neighbours and co-workers are getting sick; how does that bode for climate change denialists while their country’s coastline is eaten away and harvests fail?

Lying media! Leftists trying to control my life! The Greens have caused the bushfires! Ocean levels fluctuate naturally! There have always been hot years! Bureau of Meteorology manipulated past weather records! We have seen that movie already.

Bizarrely, our only hope is that solar has become so cheap that The Invisible Hand Of The Market will save us, because market radicals have moved the Overton Window to where any economically transformative action by the state has become politically unthinkable.


JakeB 11.21.20 at 4:41 am

Not that I disagree with your argument or the data you present, but I don’t feel the relevance.

If you’re talking about the economic consequences of the pandemic, and you want to talk about global warming, shouldn’t there be a connection made more directly between them sooner? Such as the decline of public transportation wherever people can manage to drive instead in badly afflicted places, or the loss of economic resiliency owing to job losses and its likely effects on the ability to push towards greener energy sources? But maybe you will be digging into such things further into the chapter.


bad Jim 11.21.20 at 5:04 am

Excellent! Forgive me for suggesting that 100ºF in Siberia is more startling than a new record for Death Valley.


Matt 11.21.20 at 11:24 am

I’d be interested to hear/see more about the impact of the epidemic on public transit use, as noted by JakeB above. As we have re-opened in Melbourne (but not fully yet – lots of people, including me, are still working from home) the typical awful Melbourne traffic is back as bad as ever, or even worse. From a casual view, it looks like transit use is still way down (although, since I don’t/can’t go “in to the office” these days, I don’t get as close of a view as I otherwise would. I used to mostly take transit to work.) The large private schools near where I live were always a nightmare at drop-off/pick up times, with long lines of luxury SUVs delivering the little angels, but it seems to be even worse now, with many fewer kids taking the chartered buses or walking to the tram or train. Because habits can shift quickly under stress, but then be hard to move back, I worry that a lot of people who took transit before the crisis will be slow to go back. When transit is funded by fares (as it is here – they are quite high already) this can lead to a downward spiral of higher fairs and worse service. Obviously, this would be very bad for global warming. Maybe it will bounce back, or maybe the changes are less than they seem to me, but I would be interested to see some study of the issue.


Tim H. 11.21.20 at 4:14 pm

Two thoughts, first I suspect some of the .01% need not only money, but to see others suffer it’s absence, if money isolates them from climate change driven damage, the debacle will be seen as a plus. Second, “Anthropogenic climate change”, while precise, doesn’t resonate well with many, may I suggest “We’ve overindulged, and given the biosphere indigestion”.


Omega Centauri 11.21.20 at 5:18 pm

So here we are as the pandemic winds down, which I expect will happen in a few months as vaccines become widely available, we will need to do a massive economic stimuli\us. The magnitude of this stimulus is large enough to fund the needed changes in energy infra-structure. But I have little confidence that we will take full advantage of this opportunity. Rich fossil-fuel benefactors still have enough political clout to divert much of the finances their way, and I doubt our political system is up to the task of saying “No! Not this time.”


John Quiggin 11.21.20 at 11:56 pm

Thanks for useful comments

@1 I think online meetings are here to stay, but we will have to wait and see.

@2 and @4 As it happens, I was writing to my publisher just before posting this and mentioned the (acceleration of the) decline of public transport as one negative environmental outcome from the pandemic. I have a bit of material on this in my draft, and will think about it a bit more

@3 Thanks, I’ll mention this

@5 and @6 I’m trying to integrate thoughts like this. I will see how it goes.


nastywoman 11.22.20 at 2:32 am

and some economical consequences of the pandemic:

”From Patch New York. “In what is surely no surprise for residents, two ZIP codes covering Midtown and Hell’s Kitchen rank among the most expensive in the U.S. by home sale price this year — although one saw a precipitous drop compared to 2019. According to the annual study by Property Shark, released this week, the 10018 and 10019 ZIP codes both ranked among the nation’s 100 most expensive this year based on the median sale price of homes from Jan. 1 through Oct. 15.”

“Three spots below is 10018, covering a sliver of the Garment District and Hell’s Kitchen, with a median price of $1,575,000. High as that may be, it represents a 38 percent drop from last year, when 10018 had a median sale price of $2,520,000 — good for 26th on the nationwide list.”

From Patch California. “Orange County has seven of the most expensive zip codes in the U.S., according to Property Shark’s annual ranking of the 100 priciest zip codes in the U.S. ‘Covering the exclusive Santa Monica neighborhood North of Montana and parts of Rustic Canyon, Santa Monica’s 90402 marked its second year as the third-priciest zip, despite coming in 10% below 2019 pricing levels,’ Property Shark said. ‘This price drop allowed Beverly Hills’ 90210 to equal Santa Monica’s median, as the former’s median sale price contracted at a milder 8%, thereby giving Beverly Hills its highest position since 2015.’”

From The New Statesman in the UK. “Even before Britain entered the second wave of Covid-19 and England was locked down again, you might have noticed that something was wrong with London – specifically central London. The truth is that cities such as London have lost their raison d’être – namely the monopoly they enjoy on the provision of talent. Have we reached peak London?”

“I put this to Jim O’Neill, the cross-bench peer and former Goldman Sachs chief economist. ‘The whole Bric concept, came out of 9/11,’ he said, in reference to the grouping of the major emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China. ‘The message below the surface was that this is the end of American-led globalisation. I suspect you’re onto something. In a way you could see a number of signs that London’s peak might have already been. Arguably Brexit is a very bad thing for London, given what it had done for the internationalisation of London. The real estate market had already peaked four years ago, and the rest of the country kind of hadn’t.’”

“More worryingly, his recent visits to London have crystallised his own fears for the capital. ‘What my generation, what your generation has grown up on seems to be dead, and the whole presumption [about] what’s driven the world economy in the past 40 years is now actually gone. All over the world – and London epitomises it – 60 per cent of GDP has come from big metro cities. I used to call London the Bric capital of the world [as the city that benefited most from the emerging Bric nations], now it looks like the capital of nothing.’”

From Money Control on India. “As the COVID-19 induced lockdown started easing in June there were indications that rents had been trimmed by 15% – 20%. Flexible and smart landlords agreed to re-negotiate rents downwards for a limited period with their existing tenants. The ones who remained stubborn and let go of their tenants have paid dearly with the consequences.”

“By the 1st week of November – rentals quoted by landlords were down 25% from pre-COVID levels at a median level in Mumbai. In the case of premium properties, quotations have dropped deeper anywhere between 30 – 40%. Now as properties lie vacant for months and maintenance bills remain at high levels, owners are pushed into a situation of steep cash outflow every month. Mumbai’s battered and bruised landlords are seeing red with no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Comments on this entry are closed.