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Coronavirus Resuscitates the Environment

An improbable natural experiment on climate change is playing out.

Epidemics can reveal unexpected truths about human societies. The Black Death boosted wages, for example, and liberated female sexuality (1)(2). The coronavirus may tell us whether we can solve climate change by modifying individual behavior.

The Skies Clear Over India and China

With most businesses closed and most workers temporarily idled, we are seeing the impact of diminished economic activity, work, manufacture, travel, and energy consumption on the environment. Immediate signs are very positive.

Air quality in cities like Mumbai has improved dramatically . The thick smog that made it impossible to recognize someone a hundred feet away has miraculously disappeared. Even in Shanghai, where people have returned to work, the skies remain clear probably because of the global slowdown, which means that factories are working below capacity due to the collapse of global demand for all but medical products.

Low demand means that less electricity is being used and less coal is being burned at electricity generation plants. Not everyone has returned to work yet so there is less traffic and less commerce.

All of this provides a useful preview of what a sustainable economy of the future may look like.

No doubt, medical science will have succeeded in taming the coronavirus but two other demographic trends will slow economies of the future. First, as the population ages, the retired population will increase steadily posing major fiscal problems for future governments. Second, the overall population is projected to decline sharply before the end of the 21st century—reversing the current population explosion—as the number of persons of reproductive age declines as a fraction of the population (3).

If large cities like Tokyo are reduced to half of their current size, as population experts predict, then the environmental impact could be greater even than the peak of the COVID-19 epidemic. For now, the disease offers us a convenient window into the future and the transitory effects of the economic slowdown may presage the stable state of future economies.

Will Cities Cool Down?

Perhaps the most obvious test of the view that global warming is the result of economic activity is the impact of the pandemic-related slowdown on global temperatures.

We can expect some moderate cooling due both to the reduction of greenhouse gases in smog. Moreover, the cooling ought to be greatest in urban areas given that cities are as much as 2 degrees Celsius warmer than the rest of the land surface. This temperature gradient is attributable to a combination of the effects of greenhouse gases and smog, along with the physical principle that darker surfaces, like tarmac, absorb more solar energy than brighter surfaces like fields, or oceans.

Can we expect the current sharp economic contraction to produce either local cooling over cities or global cooling capable of moving the needle on climate change?

Local change in cities can be anticipated as a matter of pure physics. It is, however, doubtful whether these local changes could have a significant impact on global warming.

The reason is that they are likely to be too brief to have any material impact. If the planet's heat is analogous to a reservoir of water, then the coronavirus contraction is like drawing a bucket of water from that reservoir and expecting the level to decline.

Using water as an analogy is not incidental because the planet's oceans—that have been steadily warming—constitute a huge reservoir of thermal energy over two-thirds of Earth's surface that take decades to change rather than years, or (hopefully) the months of the pandemic. While the immediate impact of COVID-19 for the climate may be limited, it is possible that it will lead to more profound behavioral changes as people sample a more frugal lifestyle and like how it feels.

Will Consumption Decline in the Long Term

Social distancing crushed many businesses where people spend large amounts of money. Most restaurants closed their doors and a handful remained open just for takeout orders. Bars, nightclubs, and gyms are also out of business. There are few flights anywhere, so the tourist business has gone dark.

The lights are also out at many different retail outlets like boutiques, galleries, clothing stores, shoe shops, hardware stores, gift shops, antique stores, and so on, with only essential businesses like groceries and pharmacies remaining open.

Even doctors' and dentists' offices are rarely visited as most conferences get reduced to telemedicine.

All of this means that a lot of opportunities for spending money have gone away, although there is always online shopping for avid spenders.

With almost no leisure spending, people are challenged to come up with stimulating ways of passing their time. For parents of young children, keeping the kids amused is a full-time occupation given that they no longer attend school.

For many, these days are long and challenging. Others are discovering new passions, whether it is enjoying the great outdoors in long rambles, painting along with the children, or attending Zoom parties.

There are two economic consequences of all this. First, we are becoming accustomed to a low-consumption lifestyle, whether due to social distancing or job loss and income reduction. Second, we are discovering new ways of spending leisure time that are low on expenses.

If these lifestyle changes were to stick long after the economy reopens, they would force the economy into a permanent state of low, or negative, growth. This means lower energy consumption and a long-term correction in climate change.

References

1. Clark, G. (2007). A farewell to alms: A brief economic history of the world. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

2. Guttentag, M., and Secord, P. F. (1983). Too many women: The sex ratio question. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

3. Kotkin, J. (2012). The rise of post-familialism. Singapore: Civil Service College. http://www.cscollege.gov.sg/Knowledge/Pages/The-Rise-of-Post-Familialism.aspx

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