COVID, climate and the power of denial

NEW YORK — The 2020 election is over. And the big winners were the coronavirus and, quite possibly, catastrophic climate change.

OK, democracy also won, at least for now. By defeating President Donald Trump, Joe Biden pulled us back from the brink of authoritarian rule.

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But Trump paid less of a penalty than expected for his deadly failure to deal with COVID-19, and few down-ballot Republicans seem to have paid any penalty at all. As a headline in The Washington Post put it, “With pandemic raging, Republicans say election results validate their approach.”

And their approach, in case you missed it, has been denial and a refusal to take even the most basic, low-cost precautions — such as requiring that people wear masks in public.

Deaths from COVID-19 tend to run about three weeks behind new cases; given the exponential growth in cases since the early fall, which hasn’t slowed at all, this means we could be looking at a daily death toll in the thousands by the end of the year. And remember, many of those who survive COVID-19 nonetheless suffer permanent health damage.

To be fair, the vaccine news has been very good, and it looks likely that we’ll finally bring the pandemic under control sometime next year. But we could suffer hundreds of thousands of American deaths, many of them avoidable, before the vaccine is widely distributed.

Awful as the pandemic outlook is, however, what worries me more is what our failed response says about prospects for dealing with a much bigger issue, one that poses an existential threat to civilization: climate change.

As many people have noted, climate change is an inherently difficult problem to tackle — not economically, but politically.

Right-wingers always claim that taking climate seriously would doom the economy, but the truth is that at this point the economics of climate action look remarkably benign. Spectacular progress in renewable energy technology makes it fairly easy to see how the economy can wean itself from fossil fuels. A recent analysis by the International Monetary Fund suggests a “green infrastructure push” would, if anything, lead to faster economic growth during the next few decades.

But climate action remains very difficult politically given (a) the power of special interests and (b) the indirect link between costs and benefits.

The consequences of irresponsible behavior during a pandemic are vastly more obvious and immediate than the costs of climate inaction. Furthermore, it’s a lot easier to discredit COVID deniers than it is to discredit climate-change deniers: All you have to do is point out the many, many times these deniers falsely asserted the disease was about to go away.

So getting people to act responsibly on the coronavirus should be much easier than getting action on climate change. Yet what we see instead is widespread refusal to acknowledge the risks, accusations that cheap, common-sense rules such as wearing masks constitute “tyranny,” and violent threats against public officials.

So what do you think will happen when the Biden administration tries to make climate a priority?

The one mitigating factor about the politics of climate policy I can see is that unlike fighting a pandemic, which is mainly about telling people what they can’t do, it should be possible to frame at least some climate action as carrots rather than sticks: investing in a green future and creating new jobs in the process, rather than simply requiring that people accept new limits and pay higher prices.

Obviously we need to keep trying to head off a climate apocalypse — and no, that’s not hyperbole.

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But even though the 2020 election wasn’t about climate, it was to some degree about the pandemic — and the results make it hard to be optimistic about the future.

Paul Krugman is a syndicated columnist who writes for the New York Times News Service.

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