This country was founded by geniuses, but it’s being run by a bunch of idiots.-Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-LA)

Quickly now, when I say coronavirus pandemic and a federal response, what’s the first thing that pops into your head? I bet whatever it was didn’t have anything to do with climate change.

Well, think again—as I try to explain why Democrats and the clean energy and climate defense sectors proposed a series of climate-related initiatives as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the Cares Act or Act) which will be signed into law within days. The connection between climate change and stimulus legislation intended to respond to the coronavirus pandemic is not as tenuous as it might seem at first blush.

Greening the stimulus bill was neither the first nor only matter to which Democrats turned their Cares Act attention. They thought the original sum proposed by the White House–$850 million—was not nearly enough to accomplish the immediate tasks at hand, e.g., protecting workers who were losing their livelihoods and providing funds to hospital for needed equipment and protective gear. Moreover, they wanted to prevent companies receiving assistance from using federal dollars to buy back company stock or to pay multi-million dollar executive salaries.

The green initiatives Democrats in Congress talked about for inclusion in the Act were an extension of the solar and wind energy tax credits, turning the tax credits into direct payments, and making economic assistance to the airline industry contingent on its lowering its carbon emissions by 2050. The proposals did not make it into the final bill; however, we’ve not heard the last of them.

Republicans accused Democrats of playing politics with the legislation. In their obloquies, Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) and President Trump tried to draw national attention away from the Democrat’s concern that funds would be given to corporations without any oversight and onto their efforts to defend against climate change.

In typical Trumpian fashion, the president characterized Democratic efforts:

[The Democrats said] ‘We want green energy, let’s stop drilling oil’ — they had things in there that were terrible,” Trump said. “Windmills all over the place and all sorts of credits for windmills — they kill the birds and ruin the real estate. A lot of problems.

Democrats countered Republican claims they were holding up legislation that would aid the average Joe and Joann in their hometowns with charges of their own. Bernie Sanders’s campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, fairly expressed a common Democratic sentiment:

They utilize the fear tactic all the time. I’m not worried about Democrats getting blamed because they didn’t support a corporate bailout fast enough. I’m worried about people getting behind solutions that are not adequate for solving the crisis.

The climate defense community was not alone in wanting the current stimulus package to aid various industries within the energy sector. The oil industry was hoping to secure $3 billion for the Department of Energy to cover the cost of purchasing 77 million barrels of oil to fill the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). The funds were meant partially to offset the plummeting demand and price of petroleum due to both the global pandemic and the oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

The unprecedented clash between the two giant oil exporters—and former OPEC+ allies— threatens to push the price of a barrel below $20. Moscow won’t be the first to blink and seek a truce, according to people familiar with Putin’s position[i]. Some analysts are predicting oil to drop into the teens before it’s all over.

Unwilling to miss a chance for a government bailout, the National Mining Association (NMA) asked Trump, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to ensure that “coal companies have access to the necessary cash flow they need to continue operations.” The mine owners’ request was in the name of national security and based on their faulty assertion that coal reserves at power plants provide needed resilience[ii]Coal is currently the most expensive source of power in the US.

Other coal-related requests for stimulus assistance were made by a collaborative of climate protection and coal-area economic development organizations, including the Just Transition Fund, Appalachian Voices, Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, and Union of Concerned Scientists. In a letter to Congress, the signatories asked lawmakers to quickly advance equitable and comprehensive relief packages that support the people and the communities hit hardest by this [coronavirus] emergency. As non-partisan organizations focused on spurring economic development in places affected by the changing coal economy, we know these communities already struggle with deep job losses, declining government revenues and services, and ineffective health infrastructures.

All energy-environment-related proposals were left out of the Cares Act with the one exception of the $900 million for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) that helps households heat and cool their homes.

Although a connection between the coronavirus and climate change may not jump immediately to mind, the pandemic offers some stark reminders of what we the people are doing to the environment in the US and elsewhere. The global lockdown has reduced air pollution as industries stand idle. One study estimates that two months of reduced pollution levels in China have saved 77,000 lives.

The Guardian reported that Venice’s hundreds of canals had been emptied of speeding motorboat taxis, transports, and tourist boats. The chugging Vaporetto water buses now run on a reduced timetable. Even most of the gondolas are moored. The clarity of the water has improved so dramatically that cormorants have returned to dive for fish they can now see.

Almost as sad as the outbreak of the coronavirus itself, is it having taken a pandemic to give us a glimpse of what a sustainable environment might look like and what we’ve been doing to it with our energy choices and unbridled tourism. I’m not suggesting that the pandemic is somehow good for us or that the lives saved and those lost should be considered awash. Clear skies and canals, however, should give us pause.

Senate Majority Leader McConnell has said that the Cares Act is not a stimulus at all. It is, rather, a safety net for the next few months. That’s a stunning statement to make about the largest stimulus legislation in American history.

Congressional leaders and the White House have been upfront about the fact that additional legislation will be needed to spur a stalled economy back to health. Before such a stimulus is enacted into law, questions concerning which industries to support and the nature of the assistance will need to be answered. The relative collegiality that allowed the current stimulus bill to be drafted, debated, and signed into law in weeks is unlikely to be continued in the pursuit of those answers.

The pandemic’s devastating impact on the nation’s financial markets is being looked at by some as a forced opportunity to reflect on and redirect the nation’s economy. The confluence of the coronavirus and the oil price war between Russia and China places the energy sector at the top of the examination list.

Before the virus-induced economic havoc of the pandemic, the fossil fuel industry was in a death spiral—victims of market forces. Some sectors are spiraling faster than others, e.g., shale oil and coal, but all sectors facing the global shift to cheaper and cleaner alternatives like solar and wind.

Even the oil majors recognize the need to turn their corporate attention and resources to reducing their carbon footprints and finding alternatives if they are to survive. The dismal 2019 fourth-quarter reports of companies like Chevron and Exxon convinced investors from Wall Street to Main Street to divest their holdings.

Trump, along with many Republicans, justify their support of oil and coal under the claims of energy independence and national security. How secure is the nation when a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia so tanks the price of petroleum that even the oil majors have a tough time surviving under ordinary circumstances that are now being made extraordinarily worse by the pandemic? All Trump has had to say about the spat is he’ll become involved at an appropriate time. What makes him believe his “good friends” Putin and Mohammed bin Salman will stop their war because he asks them to?

To be truly healthy and independent, the US must move off a fossil fuel standard and onto clean energy. To-date, 23,000 deaths have been caused by the pandemic. In two months, China’s industrial lockdown has saved 77,000 lives because of reduced pollution.

Long after the coronavirus is conquered through science, lives will continue to be lost to pollution. We know how to cure the pollution problem today.

When Congressional attention turns from safety nets to stimulus, it will be a time for lawmakers to ask and answer the same hard question that triage doctors and nurses must answer every day because of the pandemic–in the shadow of inadequate resources do we keep a patient, who stands little to no chance of survival, on life support; or do we use our finite resources on those with the greatest chance to live?

Senator McConnell has called the proposed green amendments to the current stimulus package “unrelated.” Where the financial and physical health of a nation is involved, are there any amendments more related to the public’s safety and security than those whose purpose is to protect the environment?

In an era of hyperpartisanship and legislative gridlock, the rapid passage of the Cares Act stands as a brilliant exception. Emergencies brought on by climate-related weather disasters have not been responded to nearly as quickly or well over the past several years.

The battle between Republicans and Democrats on the need to combat climate change has not ended with the passage of the current safety net—it has been temporarily postponed.

Americans have now seen, in the starkest of terms, what can happen when politicians dismiss sound scientific evidence as fake news. I wonder, then, if this is what Senator Kennedy was thinking when he said the country was founded by geniuses but is being run by idiots?

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[i] Trump has called the spat “devastating to Russia.” He’s indicated he’ll become involved at an appropriate time. What in Trumpian terms is “appropriate?” It’s hard to say, although it’s safe to assume it will be sometime after he sees if he can get away with big petro-purchases to fill US reserves—and, possibly, then some.

[ii] The resilience argument was made by former Energy Secretary Perry early in the administration in letters to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It was an argument debunked in numerous studies.

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash