Editorial: Climate change is just as real as COVID-19. Now’s the last, best chance for our government to treat it that way

A sunny day in Beijing
A resident walks past shadows cast by trees during a sunny day in Beijing on March 3. China’s far-reaching efforts to control the spread of the new coronavirus have resulted in a steep drop in carbon emissions and other pollutants.
(Ng Han Guan / Associated Press)

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is the crisis of the moment, and a terribly serious one at that, threatening not only human lives but also the global economy.

But it’s not the only crisis the world is facing, and we ought not, while confronting the immediate menace, disregard the other immense threat looming over us: global warming. Rather, somewhat counterintuitively, we should use the current pandemic to learn some lessons and glean some insights about the other perils we will soon be facing.

We’re not suggesting that climate change contributed to the coronavirus outbreak; there seems to be no direct link, although experts say a warming world could accelerate pandemics of insect-borne diseases (the coronavirus is spread person to person). But the global response to this pandemic does show that the world can come together to confront a shared threat. That could bode well for addressing climate change — if we treat it as seriously.


The pandemic is putting a chokehold on economic activity in hard-hit regions of the world — China, Europe and here in the U.S. When factories and businesses are closed, workers and customers stay home (here in California and in New York, by order of the governors). With few people traveling long distances, airlines slash flights. Sure, people and businesses continue to use energy, but not at the levels they did just a month ago. And that reduction in energy use in turn reduces fossil fuel consumption and emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Little of this will be long-lasting. Once the epidemic subsides, economic activity will resume and so, presumably, will emissions.

But the crisis offers opportunities for change, and we ought to be mindful of them as the pandemic and the economic crisis play out. Businesses are learning how much of their workforce can do their jobs remotely, which offers guidance for how they might operate in the future with a lighter carbon footprint. Consumers are undergoing a forced experiment in changed patterns of shopping and consumption.

Congress and President Trump also are negotiating a series of bailouts and other support packages to help people and businesses survive. They should take this opportunity to press for changes in how some of these industries operate.

The airline industry, for instance, should be asked to do more to reduce its carbon emissions, which have soared in recent years and will continue to rise as air travel itself is projected to increase. A September paper from the International Council on Clean Transportation used industry data to conclude that commercial air operations account for 2.4% of global carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels, and that industry emissions in 2018 were 32% higher than five years before.

One available emissions-reducing alternative is the use of so-called sustainable aviation fuels, including biofuels, but they are more expensive than conventional jet fuel. And airline companies can be pressured to adopt aggressive plans to replace older, higher-polluting planes. That would be in line with the demand for increased fuel efficiency commitments that the Obama administration attached to its bailout package for the auto industry.

Of course, extracting climate-friendly concessions will vary by the industry seeking bailout help, so we won’t get too prescriptive here. The main imperative for the government is to keep climate policy in mind as it devises a plan to rescue the economy.


But wait, you think. This is the Trump administration, which at best shrugs at the science and ignores global warming. True enough, but Congress also is involved, and it can place climate considerations on the table.

Here’s a good place to start: The government should not be bailing out the oil and gas industry at a time when we should be focusing on expanding production of renewable energy and the infrastructure to store and deliver it.

In recent days, early coronavirus scoffersincluding the president — have come around to the reality that this pandemic is a deadly threat and have finally begun taking strong steps to address it. Yet global warming is a larger and longer-lasting threat to humankind. We have about a decade, according to the experts, to make significant reductions in carbon emissions to avoid the worst ramifications of climate change. The world already is seeing the effects in longer and more severe droughts in some places, record flooding in others, stronger and more intense tropical storms and regional temperature rises that are making parts of the word nearly uninhabitable.

The science confirms all this, as it has confirmed the spread and dangers from the novel coronavirus. So maybe accepting the reality of COVID-19 will lead the administration to recognize the reality of climate change and work with Congress to begin addressing it in meaningful ways.