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OPINION: Coronavirus should not be exploited to fuel climate emergency

by Jean Su and Tasneem Essop | Center for Biological Diversity
Tuesday, 7 April 2020 09:00 GMT

Flames emerge from flare stacks at Nahr Bin Umar oil field, as a worker wears a protective mask, following an outbreak of coronavirus, north of Basra, Iraq March 15, 2020. REUTERS/Essam Al-Sudani

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Politicians have responded to the pandemic with economic stimulus packages skewed toward helping polluters and locking in emissions

As the coronavirus halts the United Nations’ climate change talks this year, there is a growing fear that global leaders will use this health crisis to undermine climate ambition in the guise of ‘saving the economy’. Some governments are even exploiting the pandemic to move us closer to climate catastrophe by funneling public money to fossil fuel polluters.

Postponing November’s U.N. negotiations in Glasgow was necessary to protect public health. But we can’t let the coronavirus be a pretext for handouts to oil companies or for stalling the urgent climate action needed this year.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the planet only has 10 years left to make the revolutionary changes needed to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Not one year can be wasted, especially the first of this last-shot decade.

In 2020, the Paris Agreement requires each nation to announce an upgraded commitment to slash its greenhouse gas emissions and raise its financial contributions to help other countries fight the emergency.

Those upgraded commitments are at risk without physical talks, which force the world’s biggest polluters to the table with the world’s most impacted countries. Talks also allow the public to confront the global political elite. Even though this global forum will be lost this year, governments should not feel that the public’s eyes are averted during this current crisis.

Our eyes are wide-open on a new exploitation of the coronavirus to further endanger the climate. Politicians have responded to the pandemic with economic stimulus packages skewed toward helping polluters and locking in dangerous emissions for decades to come.

The United States recently approved a US$2 trillion stimulus bill. It dedicated US$500 billion in yet-to-be-leveraged loans to bail out corporate America, including the most polluting industries like airlines and oil and gas companies, without any conditions to stem emissions. Relief and subsidies for the ailing clean energy industry were summarily blocked.

What didn’t get funded was a sufficiently robust plan to equip hospitals with the masks, ventilators, and beds needed to fight the pandemic ravaging the country. Nor did the conservative-controlled Congress provide effective measures to protect everyday families from evictions and shut-offs of their access to electricity and water.

Similarly, China approved a US$7 trillion stimulus package that included significant financing for new coal power plants.

Canada’s Alberta government provided billions in loans and loan guarantees to the oil corporation constructing the Keystone XL Pipeline, which will transport some of the most climate-polluting oil on the planet. Days earlier, the provincial government laid off over 20,000 teachers and educators amidst claims of being cash-strapped.

These governmental responses to the coronavirus further entrench the dirty industries driving our planet to climate destruction. For governments like the United States, China, and Canada, the coronavirus is a convenient excuse to re-shuffle money to the world’s dirtiest and most dangerous companies, while leaving literally hundreds of thousands to die.


One of this pandemic’s most profound lessons is the danger of government delay and the denial of scientific evidence. The success of certain countries in addressing the coronavirus has rested on their leaders listening to experts, understanding and accepting the grave risk to their citizens, and acting decisively.

In contrast, leaders who denied the scientific evidence and minimized the pandemic’s severity at its outbreak are bearing witness to results that are astronomically and unforgivably fatal

When it comes to the climate, denial and cronyism are just as fatal. We have to stop governments and polluters from taking advantage of people and the planet during this crisis, when many are at their most vulnerable.

Think of it this way: If we could transport ourselves back to the end of 2019, most countries would take a different path on the pandemic. We’d mount a bold, coordinated attack on the virus.

When it comes to the climate emergency, we don’t need time travel. We still have the opportunity to accept and act. If we don’t, the consequences will be unfathomable.  

Jean Su is the energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Washington, D.C. Tasneem Essop is the executive director of Climate Action Network International, based in Cape Town, South Africa.