Climate change after the pandemic

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,

21 thoughts on “Climate change after the pandemic

  1. The Polarstern research team, MOSAiC, has completed its one year research time in the Arctic. It will take some time to analyse the data and to publish the findings. The research project, its importance and some general insights regarding global warming are in:

    The EU and the UK are taking this topic serious in their post-pandemic policy debates and design, according to all information I can clean from the press.

  2. I seriously wouldn’t worry about it. Technological change is now happening so fast that economics will ensure that moves to fix problems will happen sooner rather than later.

    Affordable EV cars will be extremely common by 2025 and ubiquitous by 2030, with or without the blathering of politicians and ‘International Agreements’. Coal is already done, down 50% in 10 years in the US ( from memory ). Anyone foolish enough to build a new coal mine will lose most of their money ( and they should be allowed to do so, as an example to others.) Just keep the taxpayer out of it, please.

    BP, Exon/Mobile and Shell are all starting to realise that up to half of their petroleum assets will be stranded and almost worthless by 2030 – 2035. They are busy getting out of that game. Oil will probably stay dirt cheap which will drive all but the most efficient producers out of business. However, even the Saudis are seeing the writing on the wall. Peak demand for oil has probably already passed.

    Solar is now so cheap that we can afford to overproduce it, thus greatly cutting down on the requirements for huge stationary batteries. Even though this excess power will be slightly intermittent it will still enable huge industries thriving on basically free, though unreliable ( > 85% reliability ) energy. Hydrogen, synthetic fuel, aluminium etc. Of course, large scale use of EVs and V2Grid will also help with the battery storage issue.

    Agriculture is also being disrupted with most dairy and animal farming well on the way out in a similar time frame. Precision fermentation will see to it. Palm oil plantations will also decline as it starts being made in vats instead – at 10x efficiency.

    Lots of good stuff happening if you look.

  3. (Blast smartphones)
    A good clear scene-setting.

    “The science of global warming has been understood since the 19th century.. ” This is too elliptic. The basic principles were established by Tyndall and Arhenius, but not in a way that allowed disentangling the causal factors in the historical record or making useful predictions. This required an ant-like collective labour of measurement and building progressively more comprehensive, fine-grained, and accurately calibrated climate models. James Hansen can stand as the poster hero for this collective effort. Even in a capsule summary, I suggest adding a sentence on the modellers.

  4. Perhaps mention that climate change causes extreme cold as well. Some parts of the globe will have extreme cold and extreme heat, depending on the season.

  5. Fires – are now also notable in Europe, Africa, and Russia. Everywhere but Antarctica? Worse than spikes in Death Valley and general lower latitudes are the polar temperature rises.

    “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.” – And very effectively influential (mis)leading specialist economist ‘authorities’.

  6. Quote from a story in the SMH back in May:

    World: “There is no way we can shut everything down in order to lower emissions, slow climate change and protect the environment.”

    Mother Nature: “Here’s a virus. Practise.”

  7. The ecological consequences of the pandemic will be much more important than their economic consequences. And yes, climate change trumps all of that. The economy depends on the biosphere of course. There are so many ramifications to what is happening it means that looking through an economic lens simply cannot capture what is going on. I am not sure how an economist can capture the enormity of it all.

    Take horseshoe crabs for example. Their extinction could stem from both climate change and the current pandemic. Horseshoe crabs will be vital in the search for and provision of a safe covid-19 vaccine. How so? Read on.

    I note this oddity because it relates back to Liebig’s Law of the Minimum. Growth (or even maintenance of growth to date) is dictated, not by total resources available, but by the scarcest vital resource as limiting factor. The thing is, it is difficult to predict what will be the limiting factor in any complex process without extensive, nay absolutely comprehensive knowledge, of the ramifying human production web and the ramifying natural world web (organic life and inorganic processes and systems) which impinges on it.

    Could horseshoe crab numbers prove to be the limiting factor in producing vast amounts of vaccine, presuming a vaccine can even be created? Will marine heatwaves multi-decimate horseshoe crab numbers just as we need vast amounts of horseshoe crab blood? We can’t know the answers to these questions yet. The horseshoe crab could prove to be another real limit or just a suitable emblem perhaps of real limits. Ancient endowments of all kinds (horseshoe crabs are ancient) being pushed to their own extinction limits will in turn begin to illustrate the veracity of Liebig’s Law of the Minimum in shocking and unpredictable ways.

    There is no way economic analysis or economic prescriptions (economics is mainly a prescriptive discipline) can capture all of this. It’s even proving extremely difficult for science to capture all or rather even enough of it. Emergent phenomena in natural systems are surprising us all of the time. The only safe course would be to shrink our global footprint well below all estimates of a safe footprint precisely because of this very issue of “Liebig Limits” lurking everywhere in a system pushed close to its limits.

    The reason this self-limiting course is sadly impossible (apart from human need and greed) is geostrategics. No nation is willing to unilaterally shrink its population and economy whilst others insist on their right to keep growing. Of course, the USA is currently unilaterally shrinking its population and economy but it is not doing so intentionally. It is doing so mainly out of sheer idiocy and delusion. Perhaps we have to grimly hope that capitalism in the same way ruins the ability of the Chinese people to think clearly and behave rationally. It is showing every sign of doing so. China tops the world count, in absolute terms, of obese people. China is insisting on its right to grow (for social and geostrategic reasons) to a per capita wealth level (read impact on biosphere level) equal to that of contemporary and now declining USA. None of that is possible. A myriad of limits great and small now impinge on us. The year 2020 is the year we hit our limits. Climate Change is “Big Halsey”. Zoonotic disease is “Little Fauss” (pronounced “little force”). While your eyes are on Big Halsey (as they should be), a million Little Fausses (little forces) are coming to get you. You will need more than the nine eyes that each horse-show crab has.

    (Fact: Horseshoe crabs have nine eyes.)

  8. Unfortunately there is no developing a preventative immunisation for global warming in under a year and expect to distribute it worldwide (and have it taken up without serious objections) in under two. Tech development is helping with emissions – we have passed the point where most new energy generation investment is in low emissions (solar and wind) but have not reached the point where new overall fossil fuel use is in serious decline.

    We will still do much better with governments that accept that fossil fuels in serious decline is a desirable outcome, with policies intended to promote it; somehow between the media and the Lib/Nat/Lab triopoly the preservation of the fossil fuel sector has been made sacrosanct and any support to clean energy must come matched with equal or better support for fossil fuels included.

  9. Somewhat strange post as a limited connection between the two issues. One issue, I guess, is that the conservative rump disbelieves in the severity of the virus (some disbelieve it altogether) as they disbelieve the science of climate. Both issues have become wrongly politicized – if you recognize a problem you are seen to be a left-wing liberal.

    Americans live a life dominated by fictional TV and the blurring of lines between fact and fantasy. What “fees” and is “directly experienced” is all that matters since news and other data cannot be trusted. I recall Allen Ginsberg’s poem titled “Television Was a Baby Crawling Toward That Deathchamber”. The climate and Covid denialists are driving the US/world towards a gloomy end.

  10. “Americans live a life dominated by fictional TV and the blurring of lines between fact and fantasy.” – Harry Clarke.

    I agree and modern media, as employed by the unfettered market system IS part of the problem, from newspapers, radio, television and now on to the internet. But I can’t help thinking there are two deeper problems at work. One is the genesis of our Western societies and their wealth in colonialism and slavery but I will leave that large issue aside for now. The other problem is religion, in particular Christianity in the West. Monotheistic “sole-truth” religions teach people that belief is more important than knowledge; that dogma and doctrine are more important than empirical investigation. This misleading training goes deep into people’s psychs and renders them credulous towards doctrinaire authority and appeals to such authority and skeptical about empirical evidence and the possibility of objective facts contradicting what they believe.

    Often, in fact, the firmness with which such people believe something is for them the sole gauge of truth. If they really, really believe something then it must be true. Indeed, it is seen as so obviously true that it is absolutely unassailable. Blind belief in modern, anti-scientific views and belief-based views in general rather than in evidence-based positions is natural result of training people to BELIEVE dogma first and foremost to and to thence reject dis-confirming real world evidence. Religious training in fundamentalist “faith” (a fancy word for blind belief without evidence) is at the root of creating a population unable to separate fact from fantasy.

    It’s a reversal of the Humanist Enlightenment: a new Endarkenment. Of course, mechanistic science and scientism rather than complex systems science are also problems in their own right, along with capitalism, spiritualism and prosperity gospel becoming the new religions of the modern age.

  11. I agree with Iconoclast that religion can be a source of mystification. It can also be a valuable source of morality. The religious right in the US, particularly the evangelicals, seems to me to be distorting the essential messages of Christianity. Slavery has always been a problem for the official US constitutional ideology. “All men are created equal” was a self-evident truth that excluded those brought forcibly from Africa. The ambiguity of these constitutional claims persists today. Belief becoming subservient to bigotry.

  12. I am completely unconvinced that religion is useful for morality. I see no evidence that religious cultures are less cruel, less exploitative, less war-like and so on. We can think of the Catholic Spanish Empire and the Protestant British Empire for example. Both were extraordinarily cruel, brutal and exploitative empires. If anything religion and religious fanaticism seemed to heighten their cruelty and their assumption of the right to rule and exploit.

  13. Perhaps JQ could reinforce the point about heat danger with an anecdote from his triathlons, where participants are self-selected to be exceptionally fit and healthy. I assume that there are outdoor temperatures at which endurance sports events are cancelled, and probably horror stories from when this wasn’t done. This page ( says that the usual threshold for danger is 35 deg C wet-bulb, or 45 deg C at a more normal 50% humidity. 54 deg C isn’t just unpleasant, exhausting and dehydrating – it’s an immediate threat to human life.

  14. Endarkenment – as necessary for conserving democratic societies… same word in different context where it’s desirable society wide to promote the order and obedience to law necessary to democracy.

    From THE conservative philosopher who often travelled underground to teach it behind the Iron Curtain. Had lots to say about… everything, including Orwell’s 1984. His death at 75 early this year much lamented.
    …Scruton considered that religion plays a basic function in “endarkening” human minds. “Endarkenment” is Scruton’s way of describing the process of socialization through which certain behaviours and choices are closed off and forbidden to the subject, which he considers necessary to curb socially damaging impulses and behaviour.[145][146]

    “I am not an advocate of Enlightenment. On the contrary, I see it as a form of light pollution, which prevents us from seeing the stars.”
    – Roger Scruton

    Anaal Nathrakh – Endarkenment (OFFICIAL VIDEO)
    271,653 views•Premiered Aug 4, 2020
    Endarkening the mind: Roger Scruton and the power of law
    The body has recently become the subject of much attention in radical academic circles. This article examines the work of a thinker, the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, who has written extensively about the body, but whose work has been neglected in these debates. It seeks to elucidate conservative ideas about sexuality and morality and, more particularly, to outline the role that Scruton sees law playing in their constitution and regulation. For Scruton, law is crucial to the processes of ‘endarkenment’ whereby inner barriers such as shame and guilt are constructed. In helping to generate an ‘objective’ public realm, he argues that law is vital to the production of the practical knowledges or prejudices which provide meaning in the world and which hold particular cultures and societies together. In this context, the article contrasts Scruton’s views on the disciplinary processes with those of Michel Foucault. It concludes an a materialist note by suggesting that there are strong economic reasons why conservatism, even of Scruton’s unusually anathematic variety, might become increasingly influential in contemporary western capitalisms.

  15. Catholic Spanish Empire?

    This reminds of G W Bush’s method(ist) use for imperial mission accomplishments so far this century. First get the right lawyers, get the twisted positive psychologists running the APA, tell them what’s needed, then with their fixes off you may go doing no wrong nor any real harm.
    Hostiensis on papal plenitudo potestatis

    …This view of papal authority in temporal matters also applied to the kingdoms of non-Christians. For Hostiensis all sovereignty had been taken away from non-Christians and transferred to the faithful when Christ came into the world.[20] “This translation of power was first made to the person of Christ who combined the functions of priesthood and kingship, and this sacerdotal and kingly power was then transferred to the popes.”[21] Non-Christians were thus subject to Christians but could maintain sovereignty over their lands so long as they recognized the church as superior.[21] If non-believers failed to recognize the lordship of the Church, however, sovereignty could be taken away from them by the pope and transferred to Christian rulers.

    Hostiensis’ influence lasted well into the seventeenth century.[22] His thought played an especially central role in Spanish theories of empire during the age of discovery. Both Juan Lopez de Palacios Rubios and Fray Matias de Paz, who were recruited by King Ferdinand of Spain in 1512 to help legitimate Spanish title over the New World,[23] based their justifications of Spanish sovereignty over the New World on Hostiensis’ ideas on papal temporal sovereignty.[24]

    https ://en.
    Juan López de Palacios Rubios

    Juan López de Palacios Rubios (1450–1524) was a Spanish jurist called El Doctor for his expertise in canon law. He was the primary author of the famous Requerimiento, read during the conquest of America to the Indians, instructing them to submit peacefully. The text informed the natives that they were vassals of the Castilian monarch and subjects of the pope and, if they opposed they would be subjugated by force and turned into slaves.
    Spanish Requirement of 1513 (Requerimiento)

    …But, if you do not do this, and maliciously make delay in it, I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us. And that we have said this to you and made this Requisition, we request the notary here present to give us his testimony in writing, and we ask the rest who are present that they should be witnesses of this Requisition.[8]

    Unfortunately, google books makes no preview search available of the sparkling copyrighted Clive James’ translation of The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, in particular Book 3, Heaven, Canto 12.82-85. James should have a dig at old Hostiensis in heaven, or better take a swipe all 12 church doctors.

    Anyway, here’s a Longfellow version, not for the poetry, but for the fact:

    “Not for the world which people toil for now
    In following Ostiense and Taddeo, 256
    But through his longing after the true manna,”

    (foot notes)…256 Henry of Susa, Cardinal, and Bishop of Ostia, and thence called Ostiense. He lived in
    the thirteenth century, and wrote a commentary on the Decretals or Books of Ecclesiastical
    Taddeo Alderotti was a distinguished physician and Professor of Bologna, who flourished in the thirteenth century, and translated the Ethics of Aristotle. Villani, VIII. 66,
    says of him “At this time (1303) died in Bologna Maestro Taddeo, surnamed the Bolognese, though he was a Florentine, and our fellow-citizen; he was the greatest physicist in
    all Christendom.”

    Canto 12.82-85, p75, The divine comedy – Paradiso / Dante Alighieri ; translated and with notes by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: London : George Routledge, 1891

    https :// www.

    BTW, old Hostiensis held a strong contrary legal opinion that opportunity cost excused usury that only in the last century gained tacit Vatican approval in action if not in law.

    …In the 13th century Cardinal Hostiensis enumerated thirteen situations in which charging interest was not immoral.[48] The most important of these was lucrum cessans (profits given up) which allowed for the lender to charge interest “to compensate him for profit foregone in investing the money himself.” (Rothbard 1995, p. 46) This idea is very similar to opportunity cost. Many scholastic thinkers who argued for a ban on interest charges also argued for the legitimacy of lucrum cessans profits (e.g. Pierre Jean Olivi and St. Bernardino of Siena). However, Hostiensis’ exceptions, including for lucrum cessans, were never accepted as official by the Roman Catholic Church.

  16. I think it is perverse and reactionary to advocate the Endarkenment of the human mind both from the scientific perspective and from the moral perspective. It results in ignorant, shamed, twisted and emotionally stunted and callous peopl. Cruelly or thoughtlessly treated by those above them on the social totem pole, they are in turn inclined to cruelly mistreat those people below them. This is how cruelty and exploitation are perpetuated. Bullying creates bullies. Exploitation creates chained exploitations down through the system.

    To advocate Endarkenment is of a piece with advocating the purblindness, selfishness and greed celebrated by unfettered capitalism and neoliberal libertarianism: seeing only the good of self and not the shared good or the environmental good (the holistic good of wider systems). Look at Trump’s supporters. They are the “perfect” endarkened demographic. They have been kept ignorant, fed lies, brought up on prejudice-based reasoning, science-denialism, equal-rights denialism, intenral denial of their own elitist and racist views and so on. They are perfect fodder for a Hitler or a Trump to feed them populist, fascist or neo-fascist nonsense. In a very real sense, Endarkenment is the black life blood of the anti-democratic, fascistic tendency.

    Trump is making genuine “dictator moves” and seeking to foment and facilitate his coup on power. A number of respected commentators have noted this. It is perfectly reasonable to break Godwin’s Law in this circumstance and refer to the clear attempted progression of Trump and his supporters to anti-democracy and authoritarian tyranny: ie. fascism. As I saw, the endarkenment of minds is the black life blood of the anti-democratic, fascistic tendency.

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