Podcast: Will the coronavirus pandemic change the way we deal with climate change?

  • Published on March 30th, 2020

50 years of increasing science denial on the political right wing has reached a tipping point in the USA. Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted 100,000 to 200,000 deaths in the country. Those deaths are hitting liberal areas now, but will switch to disproportionately impact red states in the coming months.

will the coronavirus pandemic change the way we deal with climate change?


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And that will have implications for one of the other issues of the 21st century, climate change, another file where the USA has decided to steam into the past rather than lean into what scientists having been telling us about reality for decades. The silver lining is that we’ll see strong impacts on voting patterns in November 2020, but it will come at a horrific cost, one that was avoidable.

Let’s start with the basics. Climate change is real, serious, caused by us, and we have solutions. It’s completely solvable.

COVID-19 was completely predictable, and it’s unfolding pretty much the way I outlined in this lengthy Quora answer from 2013:

tl;dr: we’re handling it with global coordination, strong public health measures, and it won’t be nearly as bad as the 1918 Spanish Flu in terms of deaths. We’ll get it under control, but it will take a couple of years before we have enough people in the world immunized through vaccination that we can stop worrying about it too much.

In terms of climate change, the vast majority of the world does take it seriously and is taking fairly serious action. Insufficient, but there is a lot of movement. The current low costs and broad, rapid spread of wind and solar generation is due to efforts by governments that started decades ago, and it’s just accelerating. Ditto for electrification of transportation.

We have exactly one outlying major country in terms of dealing with climate change, and that’s the USA. It has not only ceded its global leadership position, but it is actively steaming in the wrong direction. Luckily, the efforts of previous, saner administrations mean that USA’s emissions will likely bend downward regardless, just more slowly and much less adequately.

There’s a huge divide in basic science acceptance that is partisan in nature in the United States.

Republicans have been sweeping up the irrational wedges of the populace for decades. Racists with the Southern Strategy. Young Earth Creationists with the Moral Majority years. People susceptible to propaganda with Fox News. For the past decade they have been sweeping up the anti-vaxxers. As a political strategy, it’s been a Pyrrhic victory at best, and led directly to someone like Trump being able to hijack the entire conservative movement in the USA for self-aggrandizement.

That divide is about to become incredibly serious. The split over climate change was slow moving, and it was going to hit Red states incredibly hard because they are the least resilient states. Resilience is needed. Good governance, good infrastructure, foresight, adaptability, good emergency response systems, low corruption: these are not well represented in Red states. And climate change was going to stress them.

I’d posited in print and podcast, even before the pandemic, that Republicans were very likely to lose Florida and hence the presidency over climate change. Floridians have figured out that climate change is very serious and is already impacting their state, and want federal action. Texas has too, hence Beto’s near-win in 2018. Nebraska and other Red central states were hit with rain bombs that wiped them out.

The very slow moving climate change issue was becoming a burning poker in the eye of election. When the Trumpiest Trumpster in Washington, Matt Gaetz, is clearly on the side of climate change, and when Lindsey Graham is publicly saying Trump has to accept climate change and do something about it, there’s movement.

But now there’s the coronavirus. Things are about to get biblical in the Red states. Slow moving floods and fires that they can dismiss as being due to poor forest hygiene, as if manscaping is all that’s necessary in the face of lengthening droughts and heat, won’t cut it compared to plague.

Right now, there’s a huge and predictable divide between Republican sentiments and sane world sentiments on pandemic, with Red states being vastly more dismissive of it, and treating it as something that happens to Blue states and irrelevant to the real America.

But I’m watching very rapid exponential growth from small numbers in Red states and states Republicans need in order to keep the presidency in November. The numbers are showing 20% increases day over day in confirmed cases — just confirmed, not the actual numbers — in Red states across the board.

States like Mississippi are defining churches, barbers, and restaurant eat-in dining as essential services and people are going to church and the like.

People, including one person who commented on something I published in another forum, seem to think that rural dwellers don’t see one another and won’t get infected. That’s not reality. Churches, restaurants, bars, diners, gas stations, Legion halls, and the like mean that there is constant contact and opportunity for contagion spreading through rural areas.

People seem to think that the infection is only going to attack the liberals in dense urban areas. No, the liberals are the ones who are sensibly practicing social distancing much more than the conservatives, because they aren’t listening to propaganda telling them that it’s nothing to worry about.

Republican voters trend a lot older than Democratic voters. Republican voters trend to higher obesity and other pre-existing conditions. Rural areas are not healthy areas in the USA — the data show quite the opposite. The healthiest areas are densely populated urban areas with high walkability and transit use, where people get out of their cars become more fit and healthy. The fit people at ski hills and the like come from dense urban areas, not from tiny towns in Red states.

That means that Republican voters are much more susceptible to dying from COVID-19 on average than Democratic voters. It’s an ugly reality, and deeply sad.

And the USA, infamously, is the only developed democracy in the world without universal health care. Basic health services that are assumed as accessible to all in every European country, most of Asia, and Canada are incredibly spiky, aligned with and available only with increasing socioeconomic status. Health insurance for large numbers of Americans is tied to employment. If you do not have it through employment, it is quite expensive and often doesn’t fit into a person’s budget. Hospitals turn people away who are uninsured, leaving them to find free and distinctly inferior service clinics running as charities.

Red state unemployment is going to skyrocket. The combination means that large numbers of people there are going to be uninsured, will not be able to afford to not hunt for work, and will not be tested. They’ll be the roaming infected, unable to isolate.

Over the next three months, inordinate numbers of Republican voters are going to sicken and die because they have been lied to for decades and they leaned into the lies rather than rejecting them. Come November, there will be a visible statistical difference in voting based on more Republican voters being dead than would normally happen.

And every US state is not Red or Blue. They are all purple in various shades.

Those shades are going to change. A lot of people who currently think Trump is doing a fine job — massively split along partisan lines — are going to be dealing with the very visible, near-term fallout from this. It’s easy to dismiss Trump’s lies when you aren’t surrounded by people dying because of those lies. In the coming months, Trump’s lies and the lies that Fox News has been peddling for a couple of decades will come crashing down.

Denial of reality only works for slow-moving issues and indirect issues. Pandemics aren’t slow moving or indirect.

Red states are going to be devastated. Borders between US states will close. Most US Red states will be declared disaster zones and require extraordinary assistance from Blue states.

Red state economies are going to be in serious trouble, much more serious than the information-work oriented economies of cities. The vast majority of the economic might of the USA has been in Blue states and counties for a couple of decades, and that’s about to become much more starkly true.

Will Republican voters start understanding that climate and COVID have a lot in common besides alliteration? It’s hard to say. There will be fewer of them in the coming months, and they will be focused on survival and scraping together income in decimated areas.

Last year I worked with a Canadian First Nations band to discuss building a modern, 100,000 square foot carbon-neutral greenhouse on their land, providing jobs, money, learning, and opportunity to the members of the band, including the young. But they couldn’t get past the devastation of the opioid crisis killing their youth, couldn’t get past the emergency situation that they were facing, in order to effectively invest in the future in an effective way.

Red states, rural areas, and small town America are all going to be suffering as First Nations communities have with an epidemic burning through their populations. They will be focused inward, hurting and in pain.

It’s unclear what will be left when it’s over. Will they return to sanity and science, or will they turn to preachers and populists?

I’m optimistic, if anyone who has written what I’ve written above could be called optimistic at all. I think that the survivors will realize that a major transformative experience has just occurred and that the reality that they’d been denying was no longer far enough away to ignore. They’ll realize the massive disparity between what they have been hearing from Fox News, Trump, and their pastors and reality. They’ll realize that the lies that they have accepted and repeated have killed their loved ones in massive numbers.

I think that come November, Trump’s failures on COVID-19 will kill Republican electoral chances across the board.

Leaders gain support in countries in crisis when they are actually leaders. The weird blip in Trump’s approval ratings at the end of March is occurring in part because the current outbreaks are in major cities dominated by liberal populaces. There’s a lot of deeply ugly gloating in Red states that’s matching the coronavirus minimization rhetoric.

But COVID-19 is not going to respect the rural-urban divide. Over the next months, the reality on the ground in rural areas is going to change radically. And Trump and the Republicans will be clearly on the wrong side of that reality.
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(Originally appeared at our sister-site, Cleantechnica.)

About the Author

Mike works with startups, existing businesses and investors to identify opportunities for significant bottom line growth in the transforming low-carbon economy. He regularly publishes analyses of low-carbon technology and policy in sites including Newsweek, Slate, Forbes, Huffington Post, Quartz, CleanTechnica and RenewEconomy, with some of his work included in textbooks. Third-party articles on his analyses and interviews have been published in dozens of news sites globally and have reached #1 on Reddit Science. Much of his work originates on Quora.com, where Mike has been a Top Writer annually since 2012. He's available for consultation, speaking engagements and Board positions.
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