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Why the politicization of COVID is a bad sign for climate change

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By the time Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, posted a tweet on Sept. 7 declaring that “Real America is done with #COVID19,” the pandemic, and how one responded to it, had already metastasized into a political litmus test.

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Jordan’s message accompanied a video posted by Barstool Sports showing a packed football stadium at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where tens of thousands of maskless fans, in what's known as the “Jump Around,” exuberantly danced at the start of the first home game to be played before a capacity crowd since the beginning of the pandemic. Although the Delta variant of the coronavirus continues to spread, killing more than 1,600 Americans every day, many citizens were not interested in taking precautions after a year and a half of restrictions, which Jordan celebrated in a tweet that seemed equal parts “mind over matter” and political rallying cry.

For many Republicans, the freedom to skip vaccinating, masking and social distancing — whatever the health repercussions for them and everyone else — has become a defining mantra. The ethos of that famous exhortation in 1775 from Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty or give me death,” is not only prolonging the U.S. coronavirus outbreak but sounding an ominous warning about the even larger, yet-to-be-waged battle against climate change.

Like halting the spread of COVID-19, mitigating climate change requires sacrifices for benefits that are hard to see. Even if the transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy boosts the economy in the long run, some Americans will take a hit in the short term, from oil field workers to drivers paying more to fill up their tank.

Yet continuing on our current path is, without a doubt, the worse choice. Like attending a large indoor banquet full of unvaccinated people, none of whom are wearing masks, in an area of the country where the Delta variant continues to set records for new cases, hospitalizations and deaths, adding greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at the current rate is an invitation for disaster, climate experts tell us.

University of Wisconsin Madison students at a college football game between the Eastern Michigan Eagles and the Wisconsin Badgers on Sept. 11 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.
University of Wisconsin-Madison students at a college football game on Saturday. (Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Scientists might have hoped that public opinion would shift once the impact of climate change, long seen as a problem for future generations, began being felt in the present. This summer, the United States has seen deadly droughts, heat waves and wildfires, hurricanes and flash floods. But just look at COVID-19, which has killed over 659,000 Americans. The ability to deny what is right in front of our faces is apparently more powerful than any expert would have thought. 

A global pandemic, as well as a mountain of data showing that rising temperatures make death the more likely outcome of Patrick Henry’s either/or, are apparently not reason enough for many of the Republican Party’s stalwart defenders of personal liberty to change their behavior.

Last week, when he announced a plan that will require some 100 million workers to either get vaccinated or undergo weekly testing for COVID-19, President Biden vented at those who have refrained from being inoculated.

“We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin,” he said in a speech at the White House. “And your refusal has cost all of us.”

He also took direct aim at Republican politicians who have fought against enacting vaccine and mask mandates, thereby hardening existing partisan divisions, while going after the core tenet touted by the GOP.

President Biden speaks discusses the fight against the coronavirus pandemic on Sept. 9, 2021 at the White House.
President Biden discusses the fight against the coronavirus pandemic on Sept. 9. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

“This is not about freedom or personal choice,” Biden said. “It’s about protecting yourself and those around you, the people you work with, the people you care about, the people you love.”

His speech invited a swift response, as well as a flurry of lawsuits, from those he was criticizing.

“Joe Biden’s COVID vaccine mandate completely ignores the science and is an attack on Americans’ right to privacy,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, tweeted. “The feds have NO AUTHORITY to force employers to make their employees get vaccinated.”

Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis also called Biden’s action “unconstitutional” and said the president was “threatening the jobs of people in my state.”

“We’re going to protect their jobs against federal overreach,” DeSantis, whose state has been particularly hard hit by the Delta variant, said.

In the same week that the president and Republicans were fighting over mandates, Democrats in Congress began laying out the specifics for how the U.S. will go about Biden’s goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent by 2030. If similar pledges by the industrialized world are not achieved, a growing chorus of climate scientists say they see virtually no hope of keeping global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius, the threshold that they say would trigger an almost unfathomable cascade of catastrophic effects.

Dartanian Stovall looks at the house that collapsed with him inside during the height of Hurricane Ida in New Orleans on Aug. 30.
Dartanian Stovall looks at a house that collapsed with him inside during Hurricane Ida in New Orleans on Aug. 30. (Michael DeMocker/USA Today Network via Reuters)

The details of the Democrats’ plan, which are included in the party’s $3.5 trillion spending plan, began emerging on Friday. They include a $150 billion program to replace fossil fuel power plants with those powered by wind, solar and nuclear energy, $13.5 billion in funding to build electric-vehicle charging stations, $9 billion to update the nation’s electric grid and $17.5 billion targeted at reducing carbon emissions from buildings and vehicles.

In a summer of unprecedented extreme weather disasters across the U.S. that scientists have linked to climate change, the costs of inaction on the issue are just starting to come into focus.

By 2050, climate change is forecast to diminish global economic output by 11 to 14 percent, according to an April report by the insurance provider Swiss Re, if temperatures continue to rise on their current trajectory.

In Florida, where the U.S. government estimates that climate-change-fueled extreme weather disasters have cost the state more than $100 billion over the last 10 years, Republican lawmakers have, like DeSantis on COVID, remained focused on jobs.

“I think we clearly want to, need to, address the impacts of climate change, and we’ve got to protect our environment, but we’ve got to do it in a fiscally responsible manner,” Sen. Rick Scott told NPR last month when asked about the release of a dire report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that the window of opportunity to avert the worst consequences of global warming was quickly shutting. “We can’t put jobs at risk.”

Flames consume multiple homes as the Caldor Fire pushes into South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Aug. 30.
Flames consume multiple homes as the Caldor Fire pushes into South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Aug. 30. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

The problem, of course, is that our present economy is based on fossil fuel consumption, the very thing that endangers life as we know it.

“The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said in a press release accompanying the release of the latest IPCC report. “Global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many of the changes becoming irreversible.”

Like curbing the coronavirus pandemic, the prospect of meaningfully affecting climate change cannot be accomplished with half measures. That means either the world will need to agree on collective action at the forthcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, and implement those measures swiftly, or the goal of keeping temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels will be quickly dashed.

“The viability of our societies depends on leaders from government, business and civil society uniting behind policies, actions and investments that will limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” Guterres said. “We owe this to the entire human family, especially the poorest and most vulnerable communities and nations that are the hardest hit, despite being least responsible for today’s climate emergency.”

The global pandemic has been, in some ways, a test run for climate change, with the major difference that we have an efficient solution for COVID-19, in the form of vaccines. No such scientific lifeline is yet waiting in the wings to offer us the chance to turn back global temperatures. Even if it was, given the discordant political response to the pandemic, our fealty to freedom might keep us from ever using it.

Protesters demonstrate for medical freedom and health choice in St. Paul, Minn., on Aug. 28, 2021.
A demonstration for "medical freedom and health choice" in St. Paul, Minn., on Aug. 28. (Michael Siluk/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

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