NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MARCH 30: Amazon employees hold a protest and walkout over conditions at the … [+]
Climate policies impose costs on specific sectors to create a public good. The climate benefits they produce are non-excludable; that is, everyone gains, including those who do not bear the costs of climate policies. The salary of a San Francisco software engineer does decline due to a new emission law. In contrast, a coal miner might lose his job. This is why workers in the fossil fuel and trucking industries view themselves as carrying the burden of climate protection—without much compensation. Unequal burden-sharing fosters a sense of victimhood, leading to a backlash against climate policies.
Coronavirus policies should avoid these sorts of political problems. Like climate policies, they create a “public good” that imposes costs disproportionately on specific sectors. While white-collar workers can telecommute, many non-telecommuters have lost their jobs. In the U.S. alone, 10 million are out of work; 6 million filed for unemployment benefits last week. The U.S. unemployment rate is expected to increase dramatically from 3.5 percent in February 2020 to 10 percent by end June, and remain at about 9 percent until the end of 2021.
The situation is equally difficult for frontline workers who are are required to turn up for work. These include first responders, hospital workers, grocery store employees, Amazon warehouse workers, and truckers. They face substantially higher risks of getting infected than the telecommuters and are often not provided protective gear or sick paid leave, should they fall ill.
“Just Containment” Should Accompany Aggressive Social Distancing
Political wisdom recommends that aggressive social distancing policies should be accompanied by equally aggressive “just containment” efforts. These include: (1) income replacement for those who have lost jobs; (2) healthcare access to all; (3) hazard pay for those, who are required to turn up for work; (4) a federal requirement for companies to provide protective gear to all employees; (5) housing cost relief for both mortgage holders and renters; (6) nation-wide policy to ensure that students across school districts have access to laptops and broadband internet so that their education is not disrupted.
The $2.2 trillion stimulus incorporates several aspects of “just containment.” But most of these are one-time interventions. Some states have imposed mortgage moratoriums to help homeowners, but no similar rent moratorium to help renters. Paid sick leave is limited to only 20 percent of the U.S. workforce. A recurring and more expansive “just containment” policy is required because the coronavirus problem will not end soon. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s push for a new round of coronavirus federal funding is an important step in this direction.
The Social and Economic Costs of COVID-19 Policies
Social distancing, a major tool to limit the spread of coronavirus, has substantial economic and social consequences. Take the case of K-12 schools. Several U.S. school districts resisted moving classes online. After all, how will 1.5 million homeless students get access to broadband, especially when public libraries are closed? Schools serve other important functions as well: about 20 million American students receive subsidized lunch. Any school closure could deprive them of food unless alternative arrangements for food delivery are made.
Governments need to be more assertive in protecting frontline workers. Reports suggest that several grocery chains, including Instacart, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods have neither provided protective gear nor enforced social distancing policies. Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island, New York, went on strike to protest against unsafe working conditions. Indeed, their fellow Amazon employees in Seattle recognized the double standards in how Amazon is considering the welfare of its white-collar workforce (who telecommute) and the blue-collar workers (who need to turn up for work). Amazon Employees for Climate Justice’s online petition notes: “This pandemic — like the climate crisis — stresses our society, its systems, and institutions. Both crises threaten everybody, but not equally. Logistics workers are on the front lines risking their lives now.”
Inequity Provides Fertile Ground for Populism
Until recently, the climate movement did not focus on equity in terms of helping those who bear the costs of climate policies. Mayor Bloomberg invested $80 million ($50 million in 2011 and additional $30 million in 2015) to support the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign. In 2019, he pledged an additional $500 million to close every U.S. coal-fired power plant. While Bloomberg has acknowledged the need to help coal-mining communities, his charity has donated $3 million only to support them (as per the information we could find). It is not surprising that climate skeptics are able to portray a war on coal as a war on coal mining communities.
Arguably, jobs lost in fossil fuel industries will be more than offset by the new jobs in the renewable energy sector. The problem is that those who lose their jobs are not necessarily the ones who will get the new ones. It might be difficult for a coal miner to become a solar panel installer. At the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka noted:
“I would ask each of you: does your plan for fighting climate change ask more from sick, retired coal miners than it does from you and your family? If it does, then you need to think again…. But simply demanding that plants, industries and projects be stopped or shut down, with no plan for the people who are put out of work…no call for shared sacrifice…and no dialogue or solidarity with those whose lives and communities are dependent on carbon-based fuels…that poisons the well politically and slows meaningful action on climate policy.”
Until recently, the climate movement focused predominantly on emission reductions and neglected the concerns of individuals Trumka was referring to. “Just transition” policies are an important course correction in this regard. The Green New Deal has talked about it. Further, new alliances between blue-collar workers and environmental groups such as the BlueGreen Alliance and the Labor Network for Sustainability have emerged, which support just transition policies.
To conclude, because COVID-19 problems remain severe, public opposition to social distancing policies is muted. Deference to scientific expertise is visible. Though not without detractors, the words of Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci carry a lot of weight. Indeed, President Trump was compelled to walk back on his “Reopen by Easter” pronouncement. But as the crisis prolongs, social distancing policies will probably begin to face a political backlash. “Cure is worse than the disease” argument could find a more receptive audience and direct public anger towards scientific experts.
Compounding the public restlessness will be the looming November elections. “Just containment” policies could provide the political cushion to continue social distancing beyond Memorial Day, May 25, and deprive populists of the pretext to blame economic hardships on scientists and public health experts.