AAPSS Fellows Examine Economic and Environmental Recovery in COVID-19’s Aftermath

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically reduced human impact on the planet in 2020, providing a unique opportunity to observe the influence of humans on the environment and to consider a number of questions that are essential for effective policy that addresses both the resultant economic crisis and ongoing climate change issues. Three AAPSS Fellows have recently taken a look at the economic and environmental issues at play.

AAPSS Fellow and Moynihan Prize recipient Joseph Stiglitz is co-author of a forthcoming study examining whether COVID-19 fiscal recovery packages accelerate or retard progress on climate change, in an attempt to prevent us from “leaping from the COVID frying pan into the climate fire.” The study notes that as human activity returns to pre-pandemic levels, the positive short-term environmental effects (clearer air and waterways, decreased CO2 emissions) that scientists have observed as a result of the decrease in human activity will cease; concurrently, governments will roll out economic relief plans. Stiglitz’s study surveyed officials from finance ministries, central banks, and other leading organizations in G20 countries and combined the results with a large-scale policy cataloguing effort and review of expansionary fiscal policy literature to understand the policy areas that seem most fruitful for achieving both climate and economic goals.  Stiglitz and his coauthors recommend five policy items, including both clean physical infrastructure investment and investment in education and training, the latter to address immediate unemployment from COVID-19 and structural unemployment from decarbonization.

The COVID-19 Lockdowns: A Window into the Earth System,” co-authored by AAPSS Fellow Margaret Levi, builds on this notion of using fiscal and economic recovery plans to have a positive environmental impact.  The effects of COVID-19 are observed along “two multi-disciplinary cascades”: the effects of the virus on energy, emissions, climate and air quality; and outcomes on poverty, globalization, food, and biodiversity.  Levi and her co-authors assert that COVID-19 is causing governments, communities, and individuals to make historic decisions that reflect underlying preferences for current and future consumption, and they observe that humans are faced now more than ever with the tradeoffs between different types of human activity and individual and collective risk. 

In July, AAPSS Fellow and 2019 Moynihan Prize recipient John Holdren, former co-chair of Obama’s President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, hosted a webcast on behalf of the National Academy of Sciences that highlighted the importance of focusing on climate issues, despite the ongoing pandemic. The webcast, “Thawing Arctic Permafrost: Regional and Global Impacts,” revealed that the Arctic region is increasing in temperature on average 2–3 percent faster than the rest of the world. Arctic warming causes permafrost to melt and release stored carbon and greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, yet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s carbon budget does not take carbon emissions from permafrost or other places in the Arctic into account. “We could see half a meter of sea level rise by 2050, and as much as one to two meters or more by 2100 . . . those kinds of numbers tell us that short-term adaptation measures to cope with a couple of feet of sea level rise are not going to suffice in the longer term,” Holdren concludes.

As the work of these AAPSS Fellows urges us to consider, the pandemic has provided an opportunity for thoughtful policy responses that combine economic and environmental recovery efforts, potentially leading to a turning point in progress on climate change.