The Left and the Climate Crisis After the Pandemic

Adrienne Buller

In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, many hoped it would contain an inadvertent silver lining, in the form of reduced carbon emissions. But the real lesson of the past few months is now clear: we can’t stop global warming without radical systemic change.

Europe's biggest glacier, the Jostedal glacier, has gone through a natural process of expansion and recession over the past centuries, yet global warming has accelerated its melting over recent decades. (Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

The last eighteen months have seen the climate crisis rise to the top of the political agenda. The climate strikes spearheaded by a new generation of young activists have challenged the complacency of political elites. Scientific research on conditions in the Arctic and Antarctic have driven home the message that climate change is already happening and its consequences may exceed even the most alarming predictions.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world earlier this year, many people wondered if it would bring an unintentional “silver lining” in the form of reduced carbon emissions as a result of lockdown measures. But we now know that any such side effects will be completely insufficient to bring down emissions by the necessary amount, in the absence of far-reaching structural change to the world economy. But will the pandemic make it harder to bring about that change?

Adrienne Buller of Common Wealth spoke to Jacobin for a wide-ranging discussion of the climate crisis, the pandemic, and the responsibilities of the Left. This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.


DF

The first question I wanted to ask you was about the idea of a pandemic silver lining, which was something that people were expressing very much in the early stages of the pandemic and the lockdown that was imposed right across the developed world, that there might be a silver lining in this at least for the climate crisis — because of the involuntary shutdown of transport systems and in particular of air travel, it might lead to a significant fall in carbon emissions. And that it could give us some breathing room with the targets that are supposed to be met for 2030.

We’re now nearly six months into this general lockdown. Could you say a little about what we now know about the picture of the effect that it’s had on emissions?

AB

Yeah, definitely. So this is something that I wrote about back in April, when the first peer-reviewed study of this was released. It showed that until that point in the year, we’d seen about a 17 percent drop in emissions around the world relative to the previous year. And in some developed countries like the UK, it was closer to 30 percent where there were quite stringent lockdowns in place.

At that point they projected that over the course of the year we’d be looking at something like a 7.5 percent drop, which put us roughly in line with the figure that we need every year for the next decade, according to the IPCC, to remain within the 1.5 degree target.

So on the one hand, it was the largest ever single-year fall in emissions, but it just got us on track to where we need to be every year for the next decade to be on track for the 1.5 target. A few months down the line, I think people have been surprised by just how quickly emissions have bounced back. So, now we’re now looking at about a 5 percent year-on-year drop from the previous year, which again, won’t really be enough to get us to where we need to be from a global target perspective.

I think the really important thing here is that a lot of the silver lining takes came out of big flashy headline figures, like the 17 percent one, but it’s important to remember when it comes to climate change, what matters — here I’ll use a bathtub analogy — is how full the tub is as opposed to how fast the tap is going.

So we slightly turned down the tap, but the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is still immense and has a huge time lag. We’re looking at a pretty negligible overall impact this year, about 0.01 degrees Celsius, that’s been slowed by that process.

DF

It does give the lie, doesn’t it, to the idea that you could address the climate crisis in some kind of meaningful way through individual consumer choices and behavior. The idea of people being conscious about their carbon footprint.

AB

Yeah, I think it really underscored just how structurally embedded so much of our emissions profile is. We’ve never seen a disruption to GDP and the global economy like we have through the COVID lockdowns, and yet so many parts of our lives, whether it’s electricity production or commercial shipping — as opposed to individual transport, agriculture, or deforestation — continue apace. And that is something that requires a much more significant and deliberate shift in underlying systems rather than just a shutdown.

The cruel irony of some of these things is that deforestation, for example, has actually just absolutely soared during the lockdown because, as other parts of the economy are hit, people have turned to resource extraction in a new way to make up for that. So, deforestation is up 77 percent over the average for the past three years, as a direct result of the lockdown. So it’s a much more nuanced situation than just, you know, people are driving their cars less because they’re not going to work, and that’s enough.

DF

Now, looking ahead a little, to the more long-term perspective and the kind of changes that might come about as a result of the pandemic — even if we do have a vaccine in a reasonably short timeframe and the formal lockdown or slowdown measures can be phased out.

One of the things that people are speculating about is a shift in patterns of work and the normalization on the part of companies in having most of their staff not needing to come into the office and being able to work from home at least part of the time. That’s one long-term shift, but there are others that we could think of, of course.

What effect do you think that is likely to have on the climate crisis? Is there a silver lining on that front as well?

AB

Again, it’s really hard to know because on the one hand, we’re seeing clear suggestions that people will be working from home more, and that could have an impact. But on the other hand, among people that do need to travel to go into work, if they can, many people are using public transport less due to public health restrictions, and that’s contributed to some of the bounce-back we’ve seen.

So, it comes back to what will matter in this instance — frankly, the sort of recovery programs that we see will matter much, much more than the changes to working habits, although those do matter. But ultimately, green stimulus packages, what we’re doing with bailouts, what we’re looking at with generally restimulating the economy, all of that will have a much, much larger impact on the legacy of COVID for global emissions — and the outlook for that thus far isn’t great.

DF

Yeah. That leads straight onto the next question I was going to ask you: We do now have some picture of what the long-term plans are for economic recovery in the major industrial states, such as in the United States, in Europe, in China, and so on.

What can we say about those plans? Do any of them take into account the urgency of the climate crisis and the potential opportunities to use economic recovery and stimulus programs to promote decarbonization? Or is it very much the case that governments want to get back to business as usual?

AB

It’s been interesting because I actually have been surprised by just how much the idea of a green recovery and of building back better, for example, has been adopted as a mainstream frame. I think whether it’s the Biden campaign or the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, frankly, in the UK that was taken up as a mantra very, very quickly.

Now, whether that’s been reflected in actual policy decisions is another question altogether. So, while in the UK, for example, we looked at about a £3 billion green recovery-type stimulus that looked at insulating houses, et cetera, it’s a tiny fraction of what we actually need. A lot of it is reshuffled manifesto commitments that have just been brought forward a little bit.

And a lot of the bailout process has involved completely no-strings-attached cash for really carbon-intensive companies and industries. This COVID corporate-financing facility, which is in partnership with the Bank of England to bail out large corporates — about a fifth of that has gone to automotives, fossil fuels, and an aviation. I think about 10 percent alone is two airline companies with no requirements — not only to hold on to staff, but to look at things like decarbonization targets. And the story is really similar elsewhere.

So the G20 as a whole has committed about £120 billion in bailout cash so far to support fossil fuels. A group that I used to work for called Influence Map has tracked the Federal Reserve’s bond-buying program and found that it’s extremely overweight in fossil-fuel bonds, even those that are rated as junk investment grade.

There’s also been a huge surge in lobbying with some success rolling back environmental regulations, which companies argue are punitive for their survival under the context of a pandemic. So, unfortunately the outlook there hasn’t been so promising. And the reality is that these decisions now are going to be the ones that really make a difference long-term for emissions.

So there’s a study that was released that looked at the potential of green recovery stimulus to get us on track for one and a half degrees. And the only one that gets us close was the strong scenario that the researchers used. And that looked at about 1.2 percent of global GDP being invested in stimulus. And we’re a long way off from that. And that was the only one that gets us in line. So thus far, optimism is low, I suppose. Although the adaptation of the frame is, I suppose, encouraging in some respects.

DF

While we’re on the theme of optimism being low over the last few months — while people have probably been preoccupied (and understandably so) with the pandemic and all the politics surrounding it, there have been some deeply alarming news reports about the latest scientific findings about the loss of ice in Greenland or in the South and so on.

Perhaps people have seen those headlines and maybe read the first paragraph or two of the stories, but aren’t digging deeper into the research. Could you bring people up to speed with what we now know — what we’ve discovered in just the last few months?

AB

In prepping for this podcast, I scrolled through my Twitter feed and it’s basically just been a who’s who of terrible environmental developments over the past six weeks. And yeah, there was a very large cover story in the Economist recently about the Greenland ice sheet.

So, a study has been published showing that over the course of 2019, it lost the equivalent of a million tons of ice every minute. And that’s now a rate at which it will never be replenished by new ice and snow.

That’s been coupled with the hottest ever measured temperature in Death Valley — 54.5 degrees Celsius — and the collapse of the last intact ice shelf in Canada. We’re at a 95 percent loss of old ice in the Arctic. The largest tropical wetland system in the world has had triple the fires over the last year. And Siberia has hit nearly 40 degrees Celsius.

It’s a litany of unbelievably catastrophic events over the past few months that have kind of been lost, including those that involve a really tragic loss of human life. For example, over the past month, about a hundred people have died in Pakistan due to record rainfalls and flooding. It’s just been a terrible time for the climate and people around the world. And unfortunately, a lot of that has been missing, I think. I mean, quite understandably.

DF

One slogan — more than a slogan really, a worked-out program in many ways — that’s become popular on the Left recently is the idea of the Green New Deal. There was a very good book written last year by Ann Pettifor, called The Case for the Green New Deal.

She made the argument that there were actually two different versions or conceptions of the Green New Deal that had developed along separate tracks in Britain and in the United States, and she argued there was a different focus between them.

The US version was quite particular to the American context, whereas the British version, which she had been involved with from its early stages, had more of an international focus and a more international perspective. Would you agree with her on those points?

AB

I think there’s an interesting insight there. Ann, obviously being involved in the original 2008 drafting of the UK Green New Deal would recognize that they identified, a slightly different set of problems to what the US Green New Deal addresses.

In 2008, the Green New Deal group, convened out of the New Economics Foundation, was looking at what they saw as a triple threat of the climate crisis, what they called the credit crunch (the financial crisis in 2008), as well as projections about energy shortages globally as a result of advancing peak oil (which actually hasn’t really come to fruition due to innovations in the oil and gas industry, particularly fracking and liquefied natural gas).

What they identified as those three problems did lend itself, I think inherently, to a more global perspective insofar as energy shortages and peak oil demand are an inherently global issue, and they saw that as a threat to everyone.

But they also identified a source of the UK’s most significant contribution to climate injustice globally, which was its role as a seat of financial power. So the UK, the City of London, as a major site of financial flows, global insurance, particularly with Lloyd’s of London, which is a leading project insurer, without which things like a natural gas plant or a mine, can’t go ahead. All of these things have brought huge profitability to the City of London and they also wrought havoc on the rest of the world.

So there was an internationalist perspective there insofar as they recognized that this one part of our economic system has tremendously outsized impacts globally. And they did look at things like the global taxation system, international financial flows, capital controls, getting countries the means to enact control over their own domestic economies rather than risking capital flight and all of these things that are raised as a specter when countries in the global South suggest that they might try and decarbonize.

Whereas in the United States, which I guess drew inspiration from that, there is a more national focus in tone. Partly that comes down to constraints related to the fact that it actually proposed legislation. It was a resolution in the House and I think there are certain constraints that come with that, so it had a more domestic focus.

And I think a valid criticism is to say that it’s the focus on the US becoming a global leader in decarbonization and clean energy and all of these things that had the economic nationalist tone. The frontline communities that the motion identified, for example, tended to be people on the domestic front lines. That said, where they have the scope to do so — in the “be it resolved” section of the resolution — there is an acknowledgement of international impacts and distributions.

And again, whenever we talk about the Green New Deal, it’s such a — as you say, you use the word slogan — and in some ways that’s fair because it does mean so many things to so many people. In the UK as well, I would add a third sort of Green New Deal to this, which is the one that was campaigned on within the Labour Party and adopted to some extent in the recent manifesto.

What all three of these Green New Deals have in common from an international perspective is the idea of international financing and technology transfers. And this is where there’s a really legitimate criticism of all Green New Deal proposals: that this is as far as our collective imagination has reached for what the Green New Deal means internationally.

Going forward, though, there’s a lot of interesting work being done by a number of academics in the UK. For example, work on the idea of a reparations framework, as opposed to just technology transfers. This means materially atoning for the impacts of colonialism, as well as for outsized contributions to global carbon emissions and environmental degradation. That, I think, is the next frontier that the GND needs to pursue if it’s going to be a genuinely internationalist project.

DF

You might have seen a recent interview with the historian Adam Tooze where he was discussing the impact of the pandemic on world politics and on the world economy in general. But during the course of the interview, he addressed a point to the section of the Left that has begun to organize around the idea of the Green New Deal.

He argued that there was a gap in their thinking: that in Britain and the United States in particular, they hadn’t identified potential allies on the side of business, on the side of capital, who might have a shared interest in policies for decarbonization.

According to Tooze, this is necessary to, if you like, divide the side of capital so that on the one hand there are the people determined to cling onto the status quo and who are deploying all their resources in defense of that; while on the other hand, there are elements within capital that can see an interest on their part in bringing about these changes.

Obviously that’s a particular vision of how political and economic change might come about, but I was wondering what you make of that.

AB

Yeah, that was a really interesting one. It comes down, to some extent, to the question: How do we conceive of the Green New Deal? How do we define it and what is its purpose? Is its purpose to drive decarbonization or is its purpose something much more broad than that? And I would argue it’s the latter. In the interview, Tooze talks about the fact that he’s not necessarily in favor of the Davos-style business-led climate agenda, but that it’s necessary for decarbonization.

I would approach that with a bit of skepticism, only insofar as I think there is a lot of energy and agitation on the part of finance, for example, a lot of business, and in the US military, for example, on the urgency of decarbonization. That agenda does exist in the space that he’s identifying, and we don’t really need to be pushing to get them to care about decarbonization.

Any sound financial institution will know that it needs to care about that if it doesn’t want billions of its assets to just go up in smoke. The same goes for the US military, which sees it as a massive national-security threat.

I think the more important question is not, how do we get people to care about decarbonizing? It’s how fast and crucially, and through what shape? How are we decarbonizing? Who is it going to benefit and how quickly will we do it? That’s where the Green New Deal doesn’t necessarily need to concede to business interests, or some of the groups he identifies. Not because they’re not powerful groups — and he’s absolutely right that they have to be confronted or brought onside — but because the Green New Deal as a project, and as an idea, it has to be one that is pushing the boundaries of what we think should be done, and has to be championing the social and economic justice side of things.

Otherwise, we’re just getting back to the era in which environmental politics was exactly that. It was environmental, siloed, and kept separate from these other issues, which are inherently part of the same problem. Yes, the Green New Deal, as he identifies, has been set up in a lot of ways to pick a fight “with everyone with power,” as he describes it — and that’s absolutely true, but I think that’s kind of its purpose.

The Biden campaign is a good example of what the outcome of that can be. He’s taken the elements of it that will be amenable to business, which is the fiscal stimulus side of it, the green investment side of it. It’s hard to get anyone to say no to that, if you’re in the renewable energy community, for example.

But it’s really important to have a movement that is still out there. One that’s shouting: that’s not enough, this has to be done in a way that pursues racial justice, it has to be done with a global perspective and all of those things that go alongside with it. And I think you risk losing that if you focus too much on coalitions with those who already have power. I think it can serve both.

I spent a lot of time in my previous job, a couple of years working within the financial sector, lobbying groups there to care about the climate and all of them already do. What they don’t pay as much attention to but what they need to pay attention to, and what the Green New Deal serves, is the justice side of things — the social and economic side of it. And I think that is a project that it needs to continue pursuing.

DF

Going back to the long-term follow-up from the pandemic, in terms of economic power, would you say we have a picture now of which economic forces are going to be coming out of the pandemic strengthened or weakened? Which kind of vested interests — I believe you’ve referred to them as “climate adversaries” — are going to be in a stronger position or a weaker position coming out of this crisis?

AB

This has been a really interesting one for me to watch. I guess the first one would be, if we’re looking at people who may have taken a hit, you can look at the fossil-fuel industry, which was already taking a hit prior to COVID — there was an oil price shock related to OPEC [Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries]. But since then, we’ve seen huge developments like Exxon has dropped out of the Dow Jones Industrial index, for example, for the first time in a century. If you look at the S&P 500 index, fossil fuels now are the smallest component of that, again for the first time. And we’ve also seen companies like BP and Shell enact massive write downs of their fossil-fuel assets on the scale of tens of billions of dollars.

So, on the one hand, there’s some cause for optimism with some scientists suggesting maybe this could bring us forward to what they call peak oil demand, which means maybe the world will never have as much oil demand as we had in 2019 ever again, which would be pretty huge.

But at the same time, I think we’re seeing a lot of innovation on the side of fossil-fuel majors. Groups like BP who’ve started to brand themselves as climate progressive, they’ve become very clever in using things like their low-carbon transition fund to invest in alternative uses for fossil fuels, like plastics or like animal feed and things like that — and that’s getting them a free pass.

At the same time, a number of other companies have been lobbying — for example, in trade negotiations for Kenya, which has been quite progressive on its rules related to plastics, to drop those regulations so that we can redirect fossil-fuel production away from energy and into alternatives like plastics and petrochemicals. So I think that will be a new frontier on which we have to fight that industry.

The second group that I think is probably the most interesting one to come out of this crisis is the asset management industry, and particularly the big players there — they’ve had a really good crisis. We’ve seen record inflows to ETFs, which are exchange-traded funds, a kind of pooled investment vehicle, and particularly to things called ESG ETFs, funds that invest with an environmental and a social conscience, if you will.

But the problem is, those are overwhelmingly provided by just a couple of players, the BlackRocks and the Vanguards of the world. So they’re coming out of this having hugely increased assets and power, which is going to be a huge adversary going forward insofar as a couple of asset managers increasingly having an incredible degree of sway over the direction of the wider economy.

You know, BlackRock has close to $7 trillion in assets, which is an unfathomably huge number and not only do they have direction-setting power over the economy through capital allocation, but increasingly they have indirect and direct political sway because they’re becoming so big. For example, BlackRock was given the role of deciding which assets to purchase in the Federal Reserve’s asset-purchase program. It’s also been invited to advise on EU sustainability rules, again because it’s seen as being so big and having such unique expertise that it has to be included.

And it doesn’t have a great record on the climate front. We’re looking at a system in which that’s an incredibly undemocratic progression. So that’s where I’m focusing as we come out of COVID, I’m looking at who has amassed a massive amount of power out of this crisis — and it’s those kinds of groups.

DF

I think it’s fair to say that on the Anglo-American left at least, there was a general feeling of deflation and demoralization after the events of the last year, where going into 2019, you had two politicians, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, who appeared to have the possibility of winning an election and exercising power. And when they did stand for election, they put forward, as part of their platform, quite an advanced environmental program. Perhaps not as advanced as it should have been in terms of what actually needed to be done, but certainly compared with any program that’s been put forward by a party or a politician with the potential of leading a government in one of the major industrial capitalist states. Perhaps the Labour program in 2019 and the Bernie Sanders platform earlier this year were the most advanced of their kind that had been put forward.

And yet both of them were defeated. Both of them fell short. And since then we’ve seen the politicians that are filling the left-of-center space in those countries — Joe Biden, Keir Starmer — have a very different political approach and political methodology. So, I wanted to ask you, would you say you share in that general feeling of disappointment, deflation, demoralization, or do you think there are grounds for optimism?

AB

Is it okay if I say both? I think absolutely, there’s a very understandable deflation that’s come from what frankly was a shockingly successful wave of very left-wing representation in mainstream political parties in the UK and United States.

I think what’s important to remember in this, though, is just how young those projects were — both the Corbyn project and Bernie Sanders as a major political contender. There’s a really good article written about this by someone named Christine Berry, about the Corbyn project and the fact that it was disorganized and chaotic enough that it’s kind of a miracle that it ever became what it did.

So, on the one hand, we can be deflated insofar as that was a resounding loss on both sides of the Atlantic. But politically, this was never going to be a short-term change. It’s about long-term organizing and movement-building. And when it comes to the climate perspective particularly, I do see grounds for optimism. Not because I think that I’m a starburst climate radical in any sense, but I do think the messaging has cut through in a way that has been surprising to me.

The government’s own figures in the UK this year show record high levels of concern in the UK for climate change — as a really important issue in the midst of the pandemic. You’ve got 80 percent of the population expressing strong concern — or I think it was “very or fairly concerned about this crisis” — and in the United States, while Biden is hardly on the left in his party, he hasn’t shied away from making climate a really, really important part of the platform, what he’s running on, and how he’s differentiating himself from the Trump program.

So, I think there are some grounds for optimism. That said, it will be an incredibly difficult few years ahead to regain a lot of the ground that was lost. But again, to feel like this is a resounding defeat forever would be to lose sight of the context: this was just the beginning of a project that will take a long time to build.

DF

That feeds into the last question that I wanted to ask you, which is a wider point about the politics of the environmental crisis. Not just in Britain or the United States, but generally, it feels as if there’s a big discrepancy between on the one hand, the urgency of the time horizon of the climate crisis and the talk about 2030 as being a hard deadline that has to be addressed and has to be met; and, on the other hand, the strength, or rather the weakness, of the political forces that are pushing for the kind of radical structural change that would be needed.

It feels as if we need radical change, but we’re running out of time for it and we don’t have the time that’s needed to cohere those forces and bring them into a position where they can challenge power. I think that’s a fairly common way of looking at the situation we’re in. In that framework, how do you see the environmental politics for the next decade or more panning out?

AB

Yeah, this is a really interesting and challenging one — and I wish I had all the answers on it. I don’t think anyone does, unfortunately. I think there’s probably, when it comes to party politics and being in positions of actual political and legislative power, probably those opportunities will be quite limited over the next decade.

So, then the question becomes, what do you turn to? And something that will be incredibly important over the coming decade will be small-scale organizing at the community level. In the UK, you can look at local councils trialling GND-type policies so that when the time comes for us to potentially take seats of power again, through elections, for example, you can gesture to a project that has been delivered and say, hey, look, we did this, it worked. And that gives you the clout to push for those changes at the national level.

Right to buy is a really good example of this in the UK. It was trialled, I think, in the borough of Wandsworth, for a period prior to it being adopted as national legislation. They took a small example and pointed to it to say, hey, this did what we wanted it to do, and that ended up, as we all know, being an incredibly important economic policy shift in the Thatcher era that has spillover effects to this day. So I think that’s one part of it.

The other part, for me, will be about looking beyond climate as an insulated issue and really looking at broad social movements and coalition building with other movements. So, Black Lives Matter is a really good example of this. That’s a social movement that has seen unprecedented success in a lot of respects in terms of visibility, some of the wins, the longevity of the support, and not dying out as far as protests go, as far as urgency, and as far as the strength of the demands go. They’ve done a really excellent job of having a very clear single message — Black Lives Matter — and pairing that with really specific demands on which they don’t concede. So that’s a lesson for the climate movement where often, I think, we’ve been a bit more nebulous about what we demand.

The other part will be connecting the climate movement to those issues. So, not just saying there are links between racism and the climate crisis, but saying, these are products of the same system and if black lives really do matter, then we will tackle climate change because those are the lives that are on the front lines of climate and environmental breakdown.

So, really building the recognition that these are movements that have to go together and building much closer ties and supports between the climate movement and other social movements. I think coalition building will be a huge part of the project going forward, and really moving climate away from an insular space and into something that is much more widely connected to broader social change.

DF

Thanks to Adrienne Buller, for joining us for that discussion, that still contained a dash of optimism amidst the gloom that envelops the subject of climate change.

If you want to know more about Adrienne’s views on that subject, I’d recommend reading some of the articles that she’s written for a number of publications, including Jacobin.

AB