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The COVID-Climate Nexus

Summary:
America’s upcoming election will take place against the backdrop of a dreadful pandemic and mounting climate threats. On both counts, US voters must choose whether to bring back respect for science and sensible public policy, and an awareness that we live in an interconnected world. CAMBRIDGE – From early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, a common refrain has been, “At least maybe now we will get serious about addressing climate change.” One can certainly see the logic behind this thinking. The terrible toll the pandemic has taken should remind us of the importance of three things that are also necessary to tackle global warming: science, public policy, and international cooperation. The Way We

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America’s upcoming election will take place against the backdrop of a dreadful pandemic and mounting climate threats. On both counts, US voters must choose whether to bring back respect for science and sensible public policy, and an awareness that we live in an interconnected world.

CAMBRIDGE – From early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, a common refrain has been, “At least maybe now we will get serious about addressing climate change.” One can certainly see the logic behind this thinking. The terrible toll the pandemic has taken should remind us of the importance of three things that are also necessary to tackle global warming: science, public policy, and international cooperation.

We should therefore listen to the scientists who have been warning for decades that unchecked greenhouse-gas emissions would have severe environmental consequences. The fact that some of these consequences – including wildfires, cyclones, and even a plague of locusts in Africa – have dramatically appeared in the same year as COVID-19 would seem to reinforce the message.

But while the parallels between COVID-19 and climate change are logically sound, I fear that the inferred political connection may be a non sequitur. If some leaders and their followers in such countries as the United States, Brazil, Mexico, and even the once-sensible United Kingdom can downplay the pandemic’s significance and override scientists’ recommendations, they can do the same with climate change.

The pandemic should remind everybody that the facts of nature cannot be wished away, and that progress follows a scientific path. Conspiracy theories claiming that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China are no more valid than those alleging that COVID-19 is a Chinese plot.

Moreover, contagious disease and environmental damage are both classic examples of what economists call negative externalities: problems that markets cannot handle on their own, because people who sneeze without a mask or who pollute the air do not bear the full consequences of their actions. The growing recognition of public policy’s essential role might lead the pendulum to swing away from small-government ideology. But government intervention should be designed intelligently and targeted to achieve its goals efficiently.

Jeffrey Frankel
Jeffrey Frankel, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, previously served as a member of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers. He directs the Program in International Finance and Macroeconomics at the US National Bureau of Economic Research, where he is a member of the Business Cycle Dating Committee, the official US arbiter of recession and recovery.

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