Climate Emergency! Millions at Risk! Quick, Call an Economist!

Kit Knightly at Off-Guardian asks: “Is a Climate Lockdown on the Horizon?” The question is provoked by a “report” by Mariana Mazzucato, professor of economics at University College, London entitled “Avoiding a Climate Lockdown.”  As Knightly astutely observes:

The text of the report itself is actually quite craftily constructed. It doesn’t outright argue forclimate lockdowns, but instead discusses ways “we” can prevent them. This cleverly creates a veneer of arguing against them, whilst actually pushing the a prioriassumptions that any so-called “climate lockdowns” would a) be necessary and b) be effective. Neither of which has ever been established. 

Knightly quotes the report:

As COVID-19 spread […] governments introduced lockdowns in order to prevent a public-health emergency from spinning out of control. In the near future, the world may need to resort to lockdowns again – this time to tackle a climate emergency […] To avoid such a scenario, we must overhaul our economic structures and do capitalism differently […] Under a “climate lockdown,” governments would limit private-vehicle use, ban consumption of red meat, and impose extreme energy-saving measures, while fossil-fuel companies would have to stop drilling.

and comments:

As for forcing fossil fuel companies to stop drilling, that is drenched in the sort of ignorance of practicality that only exists in the academic world. Supposing we can switch to entirely rely on renewables for energy, we still wouldn’t be able to stop drilling for fossil fuels. Oil isn’t just used as fuel, it’s also needed to lubricate engines and manufacture chemicals and plastics. Plastics used in the manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels, for example. Coal isn’t just needed for power stations, but also to make steel. Steel which is vital to pretty much everything humans do in the modern world.

It reminds me of a Victoria Wood sketch from the 1980s, where an upper-middle class woman remarks, upon meeting a coal miner, I suppose we don’t really need coal, now we’ve got electricity.”

Do read Knightly’s excellent article, plus the 300+ comments (all from people who should be Cliscep readers, or Notalotofpeopleknowthat readers, or Bishop Hill readers, but whose names were unfamiliar to me. We should all get out of our silos a bit more.)

So who is professor Mazzucato and what is she saying? No difficulty finding out about her. She has a wikipaedia article and a website which links to her articles at the Guardian, New York Times, New Republic, Time, etc. Climate Depot usefully reproduces her Time article here, in which she predicted in 2020 “how we fixed the global economy by 2023.”

A new concept of a Healthy Green Deal emerged, in which climate targets and well-being targets were seen as complementary and required both supply- and demand-side policies. The concept of “social infrastructure” became as important as physical infrastructure. For the energy transition, this meant focusing on a future of mobility strategy and creating an ambitious platform for public transportation, cycling paths, pedestrian pathways and new ways to stimulate healthy living. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti successfully turned one lane of the 405 freeway into a bicycle lane and broke ground in late 2022 on a zero-carbon underground metro system, free at the point of use.

That’s it. Cycle paths and a free metro system in LA by 2023 and the global economy will be up and running – at about ten miles an hour if your lungs are in good shape. Meanwhile, China is investing trillions in a high speed rail network across three continents. Professor Mazzucato lists her influences as Keynes and Schumpeter. Maybe she should read something written more recently than the 1930s…

Her website also lists upcoming talks. For the month of June she’s billed at the Trento Festival Economia, the Brasilia Desirable Tomorrows, the Amundi World Investment Forum, the Institute of Development Studies, the Cambridge Union (in conversation with Professor Noam Chomsky – unfortunately rescheduled – should be fun) the Caribbean Development Bank, the European Investment Bank, the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum, and the Annual Meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

She is Professor of the Economics of Innovation and Public Value and Founding Director in the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at University College London. She was a member of the UK Labour Party’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2015 to 2016, and has also served on South Africa’s Presidential Economic Council, helped set up and design a new Scottish National Investment Bank, and has just been appointed to chair the World Health Organisation’s Council on the Economics of Health for All.

Don’t think that she’s been overlooked in Europe:

In 2018, European Commissioner Carlos Moedas announced an ambitious €100bn research and innovation programme for the next EU budgets – with the work of Professor Mariana Mazzucato and her ‘mission-oriented’ framework a core part of the programme. Known as ‘Horizon Europe’, the proposal aims to keep the EU at the forefront of global research and innovation, building on the success of the previous programme, Horizon 2020. 

Having your ideas at the core of a €100 billion European Union programme is quite a lift to the ego, I should think. By coincidence that’s the sum that the developed world has failed to deliver to the developing nations to help them face up to climate change. For Europe has other matters on its Horizon at the moment, like – er – Europe.

So what does Mazzucato have to say about climate change? In the “Avoiding Lockdown” paper highlighted by Knightly, published in October 2020 by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (who else?) she says:

In the near future, the world may need to resort to lockdowns again – this time to tackle a climate emergency. Shifting Arctic ice, raging wildfires in western US states and elsewhere, and methane leaks in the North Sea are all warning signs that we are approaching a tipping point on climate change, when protecting the future of civilization will require dramatic interventions. 

She doesn’t provide any reference to back up this extraordinary claim, though elsewhere in the report she links generously. For example, she backs up her next claim, that:

Many think of the climate crisis as distinct from the health and economic crises caused by the pandemic. But the three crises – and their solutions – are interconnected

with links to a March 2020 article titled “Capitalism’s Triple Crisis” by Mariana Mazzucato, and to a June 2020 UCL briefing paper “A Green Economic Renewal from the Covid-19 Crisis” also by Mariana Mazzucato

in which she says: 

…the climate emergency rages on. 

and:

Global heating entails large systemic risks, including natural catastrophes, forced climate migration and biodiversity disruptions, that must be mitigated to avoid social and economic chaos. 

and:

…well, that’s about all Mariana has to say about climate. In the next sentence she’s off on another tack:

COVID-19 is itself a consequence of environmental degradation: one recent study dubbed it “the disease of the Anthropocene.” 

Now that claim is referenced – to this article from the Elsevier Public Health Emergency Collection, which after a quick overview of AIDS, SARS, Ebola and MERS, claims that:

Human activity is increasingly disruptively transforming the earth’s natural habitats and ecosystems by intensely altering the patterns and mechanisms of interaction between species and facilitating the transmission of infectious diseases across species and to humans. A study published in 2014 estimated that by 2050, 25 million kilometers of new roads would be built and that 9 out of 10 would occur in developing countries, including many regions that maintain exceptional biodiversity and vital ecosystem services.

What’s the biggest threat to public health, according to Mazzucato’s source? You guessed right. Roads. Particularly roads in poor countries. Yuck. Nasty, tarmacky things. Who needs roads when you’ve got airports to fly in and out of? 

The Elsevier article continues with this unreferenced claim:

In the case of COVID-19, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed that the virus causing the outbreak of COVID 19 in Wuhan came from wild animals, whose meat was sold at the Hankou’s market in Wuhan, in which about 120 animals of 75 different species were marketed, some of them alive, such as puppies of wolves, salamanders, crocodiles, scorpions, rats, squirrels, foxes, civets and turtles. The first group of patients with SARS-CoV 2 in Wuhan were mostly traders in that market.

I didn’t know that. It should surely make identifying the guilty crossover species a doddle. Just ask the first patients: “What’s your best selling line? Wolf puppyburgers, salamander kebab, or civet de civet?”

But the clincher for establishing that “COVID-19 is a paradigmatic example of an Anthropocene disease” is this:

John Vidal, in a recent article, has cogently pointed out the link between COVID-19 and planetary health (Vidal, 2020)

Yes, that’s John Vidal, Guardian Environment Editor, the man who can write an eyewitness account of climate change in East Africa from the aircraft window on a flight to Pretoria. When an economist needs scientific backup for evidence that entirely unrelated crises are related, in order to justify plans to spend billions or trillions of Euros on a Healthy Green New Deal and lockdown anyone and anything standing in her way, she naturally turns to a scientific paper which gets its ideas from a Guardian journalist, who had this particular brainwave on a visit to the great Minkebe forest in northern Gabon – in 2004 – and wrote it up in Scientific American in April 2020. 

Mayibout 2 is not a healthy place. The 150 or so people who live in the village […] in northern Gabon, are used to occasional bouts of diseases such as malaria, dengue, yellow fever and sleeping sickness. Mostly they shrug them off. But in January 1996, Ebola, a deadly virus then barely known to humans, unexpectedly spilled out of the forest in a wave of small epidemics. The disease killed 21 of 37 villagers who were reported to have been infected, including a number who had carried, skinned, chopped or eaten a chimpanzee from the nearby forest. 

Only a decade or two ago it was widely thought that tropical forests and intact natural environments teeming with exotic wildlife threatened humans by harboring the viruses and pathogens that lead to new diseases in humans like Ebola, HIV and dengue. But a number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases like COVID-19, the viral disease that emerged in China in December 2019, to arise—with profound health and economic impacts in rich and poor countries alike. In fact, a new discipline, planetary health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections among the well-being of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems. 

Is it possible, then, that it was human activity, such as road building, mining, hunting and logging, that triggered the Ebola epidemics in Mayibout 2 and elsewhere in the 1990s and that is unleashing new terrors today? 

So, while medical science, common sense, consumer preferences, and the advice of millions of overworked underfunded African health workers all say: “If you don’t want to catch Ebola, lay off the half cooked chimpanzee,” the Guardian, Scientific American and the London University professor who gives economic advice to the Labour Party and helped create a Scottish development bank say: “Don’t mine, log, and build roads in poor countries rich in biodiversity.”

Give them roads, and the next thing you know there’ll be a Kentucky Fried Chimp in every layby.

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June 15, 2021 at 09:08AM

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