Trump's Bungling of Coronavirus Response Mirrors His Approach to Climate Crisis

Karen Sokol

March 16, 2020

"This report is a catalogue of weather in 2019 made more extreme by climate change, and the human misery that went with it." That is the statement of Brian Hoskins, chair of Imperial College in London's Grantham Institute for Climate Change, about the recently released State of the Climate in 2019 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the WMO compiles information from scientists all over the world that has been a key driver of international climate law and policymaking. One of the IPCC's reports was similarly dire to that of the WMO's, but not without hope.

Although anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have disrupted the planet's climate system in ways that have already caused and will continue to cause massive harms all over the world, the IPCC warned, we still have time to prevent a level of disruption that would render the planet uninhabitable for humans and most other species that we share it with. The IPCC gave policymakers a roadmap for how to achieve that: do not allow warming of the Earth to exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, which in turn requires us to achieve global net zero anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions by mid-century. That roadmap is the basis of the historic Paris Agreement that President Trump declared he would abandon upon his entry into office. Our withdrawal will become effective roughly a week before the presidential election and the next round of key climate negotiations.

In reading the many thought-provoking commentaries on the multiple connections and parallels between the coronavirus crisis and the climate crisis, it has struck me that one way to think about most of the articles and essays I've come across is as a call for adherence to three of the key principles undergirding Paris: the need for science to be the guiding light for policymaking, for global solidarity in taking action, and for prioritizing those who are most vulnerable to the impacts of the crisis. Trump rejected all three when he condemned the Paris Agreement as "draconian," and he has done so again in his response to the coronavirus.

Here are excerpts from three of the most compelling commentaries I've read that describe the rejection of each principle in the case of the coronavirus emergency:

(1) Need for science as guiding light

Many epidemiologists and public health experts have urgently called upon the administration to adhere to basic science in its response to the outbreak. One of the most scathing that I have seen is an editorial penned by the editor-in-chief of Science magazine, H. Holden Thorp:

While scientists are trying to share facts about the epidemic, the administration either blocks those facts or restates them with contradictions. . . . For the past 4 years, President Trump's budgets have made deep cuts to science, including cuts to funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the NIH. With this administration's disregard for science of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the stalled naming of a director for the Office of Science and Technology Policy—all to support political goals—the nation has had nearly 4 years of harming and ignoring science.

(2) Need for global solidarity in taking action

Trump finally made a statement to the nation about the coronavirus outbreak on March 11, shortly after the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic. Laura McGann, the editorial director of Vox, detailed the astounding level of xenophobia that he spewed from behind his Resolute Desk in the Oval Office:

Trump looked into the camera and warned Americans of an enemy who has infiltrated our borders. We are at war, he said, with a "foreign virus." . . . It's a tactic meant to distract from what his administration has and hasn't done, in this case to combat the coronavirus pandemic. . . . The pandemic, of course, isn't a spy. It's not an infiltrator. It's a health crisis that's been long predicted. The way we'll fight it is through mechanisms like social distancing, a technique that requires clear, direct information so everyone knows it's important to participate and how to do so. It's a shared responsibility. We are in this together.

(3) Need for prioritizing those who are most vulnerable to the impacts of the crisis

Like the climate crisis, the coronavirus has laid bare the myriad structural weaknesses that have long been eating away at the fabric of our society. So, with respect to this principle, Trump is largely representative of U.S. policymakers in his rejection of it. Dr. Alfredo Morabia, an epidemiologist and editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Public Health, made this clear in an interview with Amy Goodman:

And I think that this pandemic shows that the idea that reducing access to welfare to the poor in order to stimulate them to get jobs or to get the immigrants to become self-sufficient, etc., in order to reduce public expenses, these things don't work. [Rather,] they make us more vulnerable, because the problem of access to care, access to hygiene, access to sanitation. . . . But are we going to have access to tests now? And if we have a treatment by the end of the year, access to treatment, and next year, very important, if we have a vaccine, people must have access to the vaccine, too. . . . We are like a single organism, a collective individual. And this is how we have to consider ourselves.

The climate crisis is an exponentially greater threat to our species and the planet than any known virus. But what the failures of governmental response to "smaller" crises such as the coronavirus tell us is that the three principles of Paris can work, but only if we implement them now, and at warp speed.

Read More by Karen Sokol
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