Biden’s climate plans will kill like COVID

Business-first ‘soft’ denialism means disaster

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U.S. President Joseph Biden marked Earth Day last week with a virtual summit bringing together 40 world leaders to discuss and make new commitments on stopping climate change. The week before that, the World Health Organization confirmed that the world had a new record for weekly COVID-19 cases, 5.2 million infections. 

These two stories are not only connected by climate change’s role in this pandemic and the ones to come, but by how the United States and its allies have responded to each. COVID-19 illustrates just how the legacy superpower will move through the next decades of climate crisis: with incompetence and death in its wake.

Globally, most people fear COVID and climate change as threats to human life. U.S. policy frames each as business problems, and policy solutions for each prioritize business interests even if they pose new harms or fail to solve the problem. 

Mere days into the initial shutdowns last year, the Wall Street Journal argued for reopening in the name of “economic health.” Dozens of public health officials resigned or were fired as state and local politicians suppressed warnings that business didn’t want to hear. Hundreds of thousands of deaths followed in the United States alone. 

In the same way, Biden is pursuing a business-first climate policy, calling on the country to “reap the economic benefits” of decarbonization. And just like U.S. COVID policy, this economic prejudice poses threats to life and safety. Last week, Reuters reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is seeking to add four million acres to its Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to not plant crops -- allegedly to sequester carbon and protect the environment. 

The push appears to be part of Biden’s 30 x 30 plan, a vague executive policy that seeks to cut agricultural land and water use each by 30% by 2030. This comes at a time when food prices have increased globally for 10 months straight, a streak now approaching the 2007-2008 food price crisis. Biden’s “climate” policy conveniently pays cash directly to agribusiness while further driving up their commodity prices, ratcheting up pressure on hungry people around the world. 

Both U.S. COVID and climate policies suffer from a new, softer form of official denialism. Unlike the hard denialism of former U.S. President Donald Trump and his even more extreme allies, business leaders have formally abandoned “hoax” talk on climate. They never openly avowed it for COVID, only discreetly funded it. In both cases, however, they have misrepresented the science behind effective solutions because they can’t afford them.  

Take, for example, official hesitancy to admit that COVID-19 is spread primarily by respiratory aerosols and not droplets or surface fomites. Data indicate against the idea that the virus spreads primarily through droplets of saliva or mucus, and we’ve known since last July that surfaces rarely transmit the disease

But a droplet-borne disease allows businesses to reopen just so long as everyone is six feet apart -- the distance at which the droplets fall to the ground. Aggressive surface cleaning gives them a marketing hook. An aerosol-borne disease, on the other hand, means that any space where people are sharing air can be dangerous. Businesses should stay closed and/or invest in expensive HVAC upgrades, but they haven’t: this is why restaurant spending has been an effective predictor of COVID spread. 

Business-friendly climate talkers also trot out “solutions” with huge downsides they never address. One example: “far-reaching investments” in carbon removal. Removal is the foundation of “net zero” commitments and strategies, but doing enough of it could consume up to 80% of the world’s agricultural land and cost up to half a quadrillion dollars. Just as the only solutions to COVID were massive state interventions to shut down commerce, the only solution to the climate crisis is a dramatic reduction in overall energy consumption -- a radically different way of life.

This is a fate rich countries have shifted onto exploited countries instead. Rich countries get to talk about “back to normal” right now because about one in four of their people have been vaccinated, while only one in 500 have in poor countries. The United States is helping pharmaceutical companies make it harder for those countries to access the vaccines because money is more important than Global South lives.

Climate change also primarily threatens these lives, but these tropical communities have long been the target of rich country commodity extraction. Their desperation is good news for business. Soaring food prices, water costs rising nearly 500%, and forced migrations can all be prevented in the West with state subsidies Washington would never tolerate from poor countries. 

Of course the people in these countries might have something to say about this, but U.S. business is prepared for that too. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines had prominent billing at the climate summit, saying that climate change is “at the center” of U.S. foreign policy. The attendant threats mean new weapons sales for military contractors, just as CIA spinoff Palantir has reaped profits from managing the COVID crisis

This is the most fundamental parallel between how the United States sees COVID and the climate crisis: they really aren’t crises as long as mostly poor people die and business makes a buck. 

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