COVID-19 has sucked the oxygen out of the room on the climate economy
The Niagara Falls of news releases into any journalist’s in-box attest that there is always plenty of contention for the moving spotlight of media attention.
As early as March of this year, the Pew Research Institute, a think-tank that studies media trends, observed that people had become “immersed in COVID-19 news.”
And while other issues have occasionally nudged the pandemic and its economic impact off centre stage, it is hard to think of many subjects that have so consistently hogged the limelight for so many months in a row.
According to one of Canada’s leading environmental economists, that single-minded focus has both diverted and delayed attention on a subject that he expected in 2020 would finally get its moment in the sun: climate change.
Shut out by pandemic
“For two months or even three, people like me were shut right out because ministers were dealing with aspects of COVID in cabinet,” said Mark Jaccard, one of Canada’s foremost climate scientists who is often described as an architect of the pioneering carbon-pricing scheme introduced by the B.C. Liberals back in 2008.
With what may have turned out to be bad timing, the Simon Fraser University professor’s political manual, The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success, finally hit bookstores in February — just before the pandemic began to dominate the news agenda.
While inevitably disappointed, the longtime adviser to governments on practical climate economic policy remains philosophical. Jaccard’s biggest idea — one that some climate activists may find frustrating — is that the only realistic path to defeating climate change is political action to install “climate-sincere” politicians and governments and then hold their feet to the fire.
While personal attempts to eat less meat, say, or buy an electric car make individuals feel good about themselves and may influence a few others, Jaccard insists that the short-term economic advantages of adding carbon to the atmosphere are so lucrative that they require concerted government action to push things the other way.
And putting political pressure on governments means garnering media and public attention, something harder to do when the whole world is worried about something that seems far more pressing — namely a deep economic recession caused by a deadly health crisis that just won’t go away.
“You have policy windows,” Jaccard said, referring to those moments such as after Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans and the surrounding area in 2005, or following the past year’s devastating forest fires in Australia and the U.S. west, when the public and politicians are forced to take climate issues seriously.
He said COVID-19 is just the 2020 version of a series of global events that have redirected attention away from the climate change issue just as it was beginning to take off.
‘We got really excited’
“We got really excited about the Kyoto Protocol in the late 1990s, and then along came 9/11 — and everyone got diverted with the U.S. wanting to invade countries in the Middle East,” Jaccard said, referring to terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
“And then you could say the same thing when we got excited about Hurricane Katrina, and you had Republicans and Democrats in the mid-2000s putting together policy … and China started to say, ‘Uh-oh we better get going.’ And then along came the  financial crisis.”
As the world, and especially Canada, seemed to be getting the pandemic under control during the summer, climate advocates were hoping their issue would come to the top of the agenda. But subsequent waves of the disease once again pushed COVID-19 stories to the top of the “most read” columns, narrowing the news hole for climate coverage.
While political analysts were expecting a nod to green spending in Monday’s fiscal update, they say short-term allocations will mostly be diverted, quite reasonably, to bailing out parts of the Canadian economy devastated by a new round of pandemic lockdowns.
Jaccard says that has added to delays, as the latest government plan — to use post-pandemic economic recovery spending to advance the green agenda in a way that will finally put Canada on a path to Paris 2030 — has meant previous policy plans and spending have been deferred.
Despite the latest postponement, Jaccard remains hopeful. Conversations with conservatives have left him with the impression that even a change of government would not prevent Canada from moving forward on the climate change agenda.
And while he thinks the Trudeau government remains “climate-sincere,” he says media attention is essential to keep pressure on the Liberals not to spend too much money on political feel-good plans, such as tree planting, at the expense of real measures to cut carbon output. As The Economist reported recently, growing trees in one place doesn’t mean they aren’t being cut down elsewhere, and natural systems tend to return their carbon back to the atmosphere.
“If you’re allowing someone to keep polluting and then you’re sort of convincing yourself that you have offset that or compensated it,” Jaccard said, “the careful evidence doesn’t support that.”
Part of Jaccard’s continued optimism is due to the election of what looks like a climate-sincere Democratic government south of the border that — even without the support of a Republican Senate — can begin to make greenhouse gas-limiting regulations.
The election of a Joe Biden presidency may have created a new “policy window,” he said, as the U.S. moves toward existing Canadian schemes such as the coal phaseout regulation, where Canada is a leader. Meanwhile, Jaccard expects a U.S. push toward such things as the clean fuel standard, which will coax Canada into following suit as manufacturers insist on one set of rules for all of North America.