The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the world economy into free fall and led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, but all is not doomed – the crisis also has significant silver linings.
First, the pace of climate change is slowing down, giving scientists and policymakers more time to innovate and assess the efficacy of policies aimed to solve the problem. Strict lockdowns to mitigate the spread of the virus caused huge decreases in transportation and industrial activity, substantively reducing the use of fossil fuels on aggregate. The concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases dropped as a result— global greenhouse gas emissions fell 17 percent compared to last year, but are rising once again as economies cautiously reopen. While some argue that COVID-induced economic hardships will erode public support for stronger climate action, every challenge comes with a corresponding set of opportunities.
In this case, there is a massive opportunity to integrate climate policy into the post-pandemic economic recovery through green stimulus programs. States have varied in their willingness to adopt a green recovery: the European Union dedicated a quarter of its COVID-19 recovery package for climate priorities, while developing countries with limited fiscal space might double down on carbon-intensive investments to speed economic recovery. Nevertheless, governments are faced with an unprecedented opportunity to transcend the false dichotomy between economic growth and effective climate change action. It would be wise to learn from the fact that the $90 billion in green stimulus spent in the 2009 US recovery package did not generate long-term changes in total US emission levels. Why? Because climate change is a collective action problem, and the efficacy of a green recovery should be judged by its ability to complement comprehensive long-term climate policy – like policy standards and regulatory reform – that fundamentally shift private behavior and resource allocation, rather than mere emission reduction. Beyond the potential for a greener, less carbon-intensive economic recovery, people are realizing that they can be equally productive at home, meaning a long-term behavioral shift towards more teleconferencing and less business travel. This is great news for the environment given that 11 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to aviation. Although COVID-19 won’t solve climate change, we can all appreciate how one acute and lethal crisis can ameliorate a slower, yet longer-lasting one.
Second, the coronavirus outbreak makes the possibility of war much less likely. This seems counterintuitive given state competition over medical supplies and the realities of vaccine nationalism. But various reasons point to the fact that the pandemic significantly decreases states’ motive to go to war. For starters, as Barry Posen – professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology – argued in Foreign Policy, the impetus to go war often results from a sense of optimistic overconfidence, or militarily, a strong and sudden relative advantage. But the pandemic is blighting major powers more or less equally, thereby eliminating disproportionate vulnerability amongst great powers. In addition, the pandemic is ravaging economies around the globe, which in turn serve as the main source of military power. States’ pessimism about their military prospects is therefore conducive to peace. In addition, the very nature of war necessitates clusters of close proximity in military bases and naval operations—the pandemic reduces the likelihood that such clusters will form, let alone succeed. Global supply chain vulnerabilities prompted a move toward selective self-sufficiency, and strategic decoupling. This will dampen international trade in the short-term, but also reduce rivalry intensity. Less trade friction could potentially reduce escalatory tendencies amongst great powers, thereby increasing the odds of peaceful co-existence.
Third, the pandemic affirms the indispensable value of effective public institutions. States plagued with endemic corruption and inefficient bureaucrats faced lethal consequences and exacerbated public skepticism in state-driven solutions. On the other hand, states who came into the pandemic with well-trained, competent, and dedicated public servants experienced an uptick in public trust and a robust state-citizen foundation to build on long after the pandemic is over. This foundation is central to robust institutional frameworks that can support public servants and institutions to be anticipatory and resilient going forward.
These silver linings are just a few of the positives that will come out of this global health crisis. Being actively mindful of the suffering millions are grappling with should not preclude us from maintaining a spirit of optimism as we navigate the perils and opportunities inherent to the pandemic. Indeed, the best way to honor those who have suffered is to transcend doomsday narratives and offer indispensable glimmers of hope to fuel a brighter post-covid era.
Sultan Althari is a Masters Candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Student-Affiliate at the Kennedy School's Middle East Initiative.