COVID-19 and Climate Change (Part 1)

PODCAST | ep4 | with Alicia Harley, Rob Paarlberg, and Troy Vettese

COVID-19 forced radical change on the world, but isn’t that just what we need to combat climate change? The simple concepts of how we use land and how we eat may very well determine the future of our species—and our planet. Three Weatherhead Center scholars guide us through the complex environmental and political systems that constrain efforts for systemic change, and discuss what needs to be done today.

Photo collage of the three guest speakers: Alicia Harley, Robert Paarlberg, and Troy Vettese

Listen to episode #4 (27:02) by clicking the play button below:


The first episode of this two-part podcast series looks at how COVID-19 and climate change are part of the same human-made crisis. 

The lynchpin of these two crises is land—how much of our planet’s surface area is dedicated to raising and growing food for animals. Troy Vettese believes we will not be able to slow down the effects of climate change without giving up meat production, which is something human beings do not need to survive. But how can people be convinced to stop eating meat? 

Robert Paarlberg describes the vast improvements in agricultural output in recent decades and the known methods for protecting humans from animal viruses in the factory farm setting, as witnessed in Europe. Alicia Harley emphasizes the new momentum around climate change politics and demand for plant-based meats, both of which have increased during the pandemic.

What a sustainable society would really look like and whether or not we can get to that goal without drastically changing our economy or our governance is a question of utmost urgency, and our scholars agree major steps must be taken in the next ten years.

Listen to part 2 of COVID-19 and Climate Change.


Kathleen Molony, Director, Weatherhead Scholars Program.


Alicia Harley, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Sustainability Science Program, Harvard Kennedy School; Lecturer in Environmental Science and Public Policy, Harvard College. PhD, Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School. 

Robert L. Paarlberg, Weatherhead Center Associate. Associate, Sustainability Science Program, Harvard Kennedy School; Betty F. Johnson ‘44 Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Department of Political Science, Wellesley College.

Troy Vettese, Weatherhead Center William Lyon Mackenzie King Postdoctoral Fellow, Canada Program. PhD, Department of History, New York University.



Michelle Nicholasen, Editor and Content Producer, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.


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Kathleen Molony (00:07):

Welcome to the Epicenter podcast from the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. I'm your host, Kathleen Molony, Director of the Weatherhead Scholars Program. Today, we're talking about the links between COVID-19 and climate change. On the surface, they seem unrelated, but in fact, are interwoven in fascinating and sobering ways. Our three scholars today see COVID and global warming as a single human made crisis. We're going to talk about how they are interconnected and what a sustainable future might look like.

Kathleen Molony (00:42):

Alicia Harley is a post-doc in the sustainability science program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where she studies agricultural policies and inequality. Robert Paarlberg is an associate in the sustainability science program as well, and professor emeritus of political science at Wellesley College. His new book, Resetting the Table: Straight Talk About the Food We Grow and Eat, will be published early next year. Troy Vettese is the Mackenzie King fellow with the Weatherhead's Canada program, and has written extensively on animals, energy and history of neo-liberalism. He has a book coming out in 2022 called, Half-Earth Socialism: A Manifesto to Save the Future.

Kathleen Molony (01:27):

A warm welcome to all of you in our virtual studio. Let's start with the most obvious link between COVID and the environment. The pandemic shut down economies around the world. And as a result, we saw greenhouse gases plummet in many countries. How much of an impact was it overall? Alicia, I'd like to turn to you first. What do you think?

Alicia Harley (01:51):

We did definitely see greenhouse gas emissions and levels of pollution decline dramatically in the first few weeks and months of the pandemic. People around the world were posting pictures of gorgeous skies. My friends in Calcutta could, for the first time, see across the city, and were excited to show their children a view that they hadn't seen since they were kids themselves. But I think for the most part, those were relatively short-term impacts and greenhouse gas emissions and pollution have certainly rebounded around the world to levels that we were seeing before. And climate change is really this long-term phenomenon. So the short kind of blip, of a few months of less greenhouse gas emissions is not really making up for the massive changes we're seeing caused by climate change, both in terms of massive hurricanes and cyclones around the world and these fires we've been seeing. So I was not as optimistic as many reactionary news articles in the beginning of the pandemic about the environmental benefits we were getting from it.

Kathleen Molony (03:08):


Rob Paarlberg (03:09):

At the peak of the global lockdowns last spring, global CO2 emissions did decrease by as much as 17%. but the lockdowns couldn't continue. In environmental terms, they were completely unsustainable. And so we lifted them and transportation picked up again and economic activity picked up again and now the projection is for 2020 overall, we may get only a 5% reduction in CO2 emissions and that's well below what would be needed to contain further warming. We need 7.6% reductions year after year throughout the current decade to keep the warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. And we've proved that the economic cost of doing that with lockdowns is totally unacceptable.

Kathleen Molony (04:09):

Troy, would you like to add something?

Troy Vettese (04:13):

Well, I have a couple of thoughts about this. I think first of all, I'm a bit wary of when people talk about COVID and they try to use it as an analogy for climate change, because I think it's more helpful to think about really there being a single environmental crisis. That crisis is definitely related to fossil fuel emissions, but also has to do with land change. And land change and agriculture are a huge part of this discussion and they're connected for causing both problems. The more you have a deforestation and the movement into formerly wild areas, the more animals you raise for meat and dairy production and all that, the more likely you're going to have epidemics. And we've seen this within the last 30 years with expansion of the factory farm system across the world.

Troy Vettese (05:03):

And the second thing would be, I think we could learn a lot from this, as in what would the scale of emission reduction be to really solve the crisis? And we can see it. We can kind of imagine what seven and a half percent reductions would look like. But obviously, this is not a good way to go about it. And similarly, we can see that there is a connection between epidemics of this larger crisis. But I think that message isn't getting out. Although there was a big decrease in emission reductions in many countries, land use change actually exploded in a few countries, such as Brazil or Indonesia and Cambodia. And lots of governments were taking advantage of the crisis to really raise a lot of rainforest. I think we need this bigger frame to talk about this problem.

Kathleen Molony (05:58):

Let's talk about land use then. It's a complicated system. We know about agriculture and deforestation. The fewer trees, the more carbon in the atmosphere. The more human contact with animals, the more diseases emerge. And then there's energy production. How do these pieces fit together?

Troy Vettese (06:15):

So land use is a real problem especially if you are shifting away from fossil fuels and that is related to the problem of power density. Power density is a metric that Vaclav Smil, this energy theorist in Manitoba has come up with, and that is how much land is necessary for energy production for various fields. And that is the amount of Watts per square meter. And so fossil fuels are extremely power dense, as in, you can have up to 10,000 Watts per square meter in a very productive oil deposit or coal mine. For renewables, it's going to be a lot less. If you're going to be in foggy Berlin, it's going to be around two or four Watts per square meter. Even the best solar power is probably between 10 and 20. It's not ever going to be 100 or 1,000, right? That means you're going to need a lot more land for renewables. He calculates a country like Germany or the UK, they would need to cover the whole country with renewables to really make up enough energy. So you need energy cuts to make that feasible.

Troy Vettese (07:23):

The other thing would be about the extinction crisis, which again is rarely discussed. People are acting as if this is like a minor problem, rather than something of geological importance. This has only happened five times before, but half of all species will go extinct the way things are going by the end of the century. So begin to imagine if we rewild half the earth, which means tripling the amount of protected areas, we'll sequester a lot of carbon, which again, makes our lives a lot easier. We'll fight off epidemics. But the only way to do that, to get that much land, is to give up meat because meat and the livestock industry is the largest single use of land in the world. It's four billion hectares just for pasture and more for feed crops. So you need to put the pieces together, like how do we have space for renewables, for rewilding, and for some form of natural geoengineering to sequester carbon. And the lad problem makes the connections between these environmental problems much clearer.

Rob Paarlberg (08:23):

I would jump in there because I agree that land use, especially in agriculture is a key component of conventional environmental protection and also climate change. But I'm not so pessimistic about what innovative modern farming practices can provide here. If you look at corn production in the United States, we are producing five times as much corn as we did in 1940, on 20% less land. Modern agricultural practices reduce dramatically the requirement for agricultural land. And we're also using less energy. For every bushel of corn produced we're using, compared to 1980, today we're using 41% less energy and emitting 31% less fossil fuel.

Rob Paarlberg (09:24):

We've improved the genetics of corn. We have developed new techniques for very precise variable rate application of inputs where we're reducing water use, precise variable rate irrigation systems. We're not increasing fertilizer use in crops in the United States today. Production is up 40% since 1980, but fertilizer use is essentially flat. Insecticide use in US agriculture today is 80% lower than it was in 1973. So we're moving toward a less resource intensive agricultural system based upon investments in science and innovation. Where the greatest damage is being done to the natural environment from agriculture is in Africa, where continuous expansion of unimproved low yield farming is leading to a massive deforestation, the plowing up of fragile lands and sloping lands, habitat loss. It's a disaster. Crop yields in Africa are sometimes only 20% as high as they are in industrial countries. And that increases dramatically the amount of land they have to clear to stay ahead of population growth. It's called eco-modernism, but I think there's a pathway based upon investments in science and innovation to reducing the resource intensity of our production systems.

Alicia Harley (11:05):

Rob, I absolutely agree with you that investments in science and technology are critical to improving the agricultural system. But I think that analysis ignores the fact that there's a big question as to why we need all this corn, right? And what about our food system has caused us to grow so much corn or feel we needed to grow so much corn so efficiently. And obviously we know a lot of the answer to that. Part of it is about our insistence on eating so much beef. And then of course, also the way we use corn for fuel.

Alicia Harley (11:46):

So we'd certainly need to ensure that we're growing enough calories for everyone on as little land as possible and leaving as much land available for wildlife as we possibly can, and rewilding areas. But I think bringing this back to the discussion of COVID, what we saw in the US is that the food system we have exacerbated the problem of COVID because the incredibly unhealthy kind of lifestyle that so many Americans lead based on what cheap available calories are there has led to 49% of the people in hospitalized because of COVID have hypertension, have diabetes.

Alicia Harley (12:31):

So I think this also needs to remind us that we really need a different food system. And maybe, I seem to be the person that's always finding some little hope for optimism, but during this pandemic, both CSA is community supported agricultural, local agriculture, flourished. And this could also be just a little blip, like dolphins in the canals in Venice, but it could also be a shift towards more healthy, local agriculture, especially if we find policies to support it. And even the alternative meat industries also flourished during coronavirus, during the pandemic. Partly out of what Troy describes, people made this link between eating meat and the roots of the pandemic and the link between agriculture and future pandemics and shifted. And the stock prices of Beyond Burger and Impossible meats, they all went up dramatically over the course of the pandemic.

Troy Vettese (13:36):

I would just stress again to Rob that no matter how efficient meat has become since the mid 20th century, it's never going to compete with legumes. It's still going to have a much, much larger footprint in terms of the amount of land needed for meat. And one way to think about this again, is if you divide up the whole world into say what we use the world for, be it a barren land for desert or glaciers, or for cities and all that, cities make up 1% of the world's surface, agriculture for human consumption is only 7%. And then 27% is used just for animal agriculture. It's huge, huge, huge.

Troy Vettese (14:18):

And to think that the US could actually sustainably raise enough fodder for all the animals that are reared and slaughtered here is preposterous. I think if every cow is pasture raised in the United States, you need four times more land. It's just impossible. And I think the idea to ask people to give up meat, or at least to seriously reduce it is somehow too draconian a suggestion. Just shows how unserious the environmental movement is. Again, this is a fairly small thing to get us on the way to a sustainable society. Even if you don't care about animal ethics, this should be done for reasons of epidemiology and for the climate crisis.

Kathleen Molony (15:02):

What do you think Rob? Is agricultural efficiency enough to get us out of this problem?

Rob Paarlberg (15:07):

I would agree with that the problem is the growth that's continuing in meat consumption around the world, and it is going to continue. The projection is that a livestock herds in Asia, by 2050, will be 20% larger, and an Africa they'll be 180% larger. As income and urbanization increase, meat demands will continue to increase. I worry that it's the increased number of animals we're going to be producing rather than the way we produce them that should be the target. We should be looking not at bringing animals indoors or not. We know from Europe's experience that you can safely and humanely raise animals indoors. Europe has much tighter regulations on animal feeding operations than the United States. And these are safe and humane systems.

Rob Paarlberg (16:13):

I worry that if we tried to produce all of the animals we're producing in Europe and North America today, and Europe produces twice as many pigs as the United States, if we tried to produce all of those animals using traditional pasture and barnyard methods, the health problems and the environmental problems would just explode. So we have to reduce the number of animals we're raising. I think that's far more urgent than altering the way in which they're being raised in today's advanced industrial countries.

Kathleen Molony (16:44):

We hear a lot of buzz about imitation meats. Are there some viable options out there?

Rob Paarlberg (16:50):

I would go back at this point to Alicia's comment about plant-based imitation meats. I also want to reduce meat consumption, especially red meat consumption. And yet, it's hard to imagine doing that in societies that are not authoritarian, and I'd like to avoid that as well. One promising pathway is plant-based imitation meats. Modern science, at the molecular level, can now do a very convincing job of imitating the taste and the texture of animal sourced foods. We developed imitation fur for the fashion industry. We have imitation leather for the shoe industry. And we're now developing imitation eggs, imitation milk. Plant-based milk is now 13% of the fluid milk market.

Rob Paarlberg (17:47):

So we're now going to do the same thing for meat, and I think it's a wonderful challenge. And I think science is up to the task. I wish, years back to a complaint about some new food movement types, now they don't like a plant-based imitation meats. Michael Pollan Doesn't like them, Mark Bittman doesn't like them, Anna Lappé pay doesn't like them because they're processed, they're based on modern technologies, they're produced by profit-making corporations, they're not traditional. It offends the ethos of the new food movement. And I wish they'd pay a little more attention to the problems that it could solve.

Alicia Harley (18:32):

Well, I don't think the whole environmental movement is anti new alternative meats. As a lifelong vegetarian, I have to say that I've found some joy in getting to consume a Beyond Burger. I don't like Impossible Burger, but Beyond Burger is just amazing. But I think one pushback along those lines you hear often, Rob, is that it might not be healthy. Right? And I don't eat a Beyond Burger because I think it's going to make me healthy. I try to eat a diet full of vegetables for that. But we all want some ice cream once in a while. And so I get to have a burger these days when I'm craving one.

Alicia Harley (19:18):

But I think at the same time, we absolutely need to solve the obesity and nutrition crisis in our country and around the world. So saying, "Oh, let's just transition this amount of meat consumption that we do now to new science-based meats that are not grown out in the pasture or in feedlots," as the answer isn't it. It needs to be a little bit of both. We need to reduce our overall meat consumption and get on healthier dietary pathways and then have a little bit of alternative meat for a treat.

Troy Vettese (19:52):

To just think now we'll have fake meats, things will be fine, that's misunderstanding why people eat meat. You already have seitan, or you already have tofu, things that taste pretty good, don't have much environmental impact, are cheap. People don't want to eat them. People eat meat because they're trying to signal their class and gender status. Right? And I don't think some lab grown the thing is going to change how people approach that. And it won't be enough, even if it costs a penny a pound. So I think we need politics to solve this problem.

Kathleen Molony (20:26):

But actually getting people to stop eating meat seems like a daunting proposition. Rob intimated that it might only work on an authoritarian level. What do you think it would take to get meat out of our diets?

Troy Vettese (20:38):

I would say the problem is that you have a society where the decisions for where investment goes is directed by the market, is directed by something that no one is really in charge of. Everyone is facing imperatives of competition and profit maximization. And therefore, you can't take other things into consideration. You can't think about, okay, can we do something that's unprofitable such as let's say, abolishing the meat industry, or I'd say getting rid of the fossil fuel industry and destroy trillions of dollars worth of value, right? We need to do that, but we can't because we are in a capitalist society. So if you try to imagine, where does a non-capitalist society look like? That's one way to start.

Troy Vettese (21:22):

Another way would be, if you draw on the IPCC's work, you could see giving up meat is important to rewild, they say as much as three billion hectares, that's three times the size of the United States. That could sequester as much carbon as 30% as current emissions right now. It would ease the way to a transition quickly. And it's a relatively small industry and it's producing something that we don't need. If people are serious about this, that's one thing they should be stressing. And also, we do a lot to create a cordon sanitaire between humanity and wild animals to reduce the risk of epidemics. So that's one big thing.

Troy Vettese (22:03):

The other thing would be imagining deep cuts in energy consumption, especially amongst rich countries. There's a Swiss institute in Zurich, and they push for the 2000-watt society. So right now, an average American or Canadian uses around 12,000 or 13,000 Watts and average Indian is around 1000. And the idea is the whole world converges on 2000. So obviously that means drastic cuts for rich people or the middle-class in many industrial nations. But I think once you begin imagining, okay, we're going to live in a society with passive housing and perhaps many fewer cars and less meat and less industrialized agriculture, and maybe that means more urban farming for everyone, this is the kind of stuff you have to imagine. I think in reading the IPCC reports, it's helpful to realize what you need to do, but they have no sense of politics. There's no sense of a critique of what are the structural constraints in the capitalist society. That's what we have to imagine right now.

Kathleen Molony (23:02):

So what would a sustainable society really look like? It seems like we have a long way to go.

Troy Vettese (23:08):

What would a real solution to this crisis look like? And that would mean some kind of a planned economy to get us off carbon and to rewild certain areas and to share that burden equally across the almost eight billion people in the world. And to really recognize that, unless we do that quickly, there are going to be more pandemics and it's going to be more crises. And I think we can't even imagine what that real lasting solution would look like. And that's a real failure, the imagination for critics of neo-liberalism.

Alicia Harley (23:45):

I agree with a lot of what Troy is saying here. I work in the field of sustainability science. And despite the fact that I think of myself as a pessimist than my normal daily mood, I realize that to be in this field, you actually have to be an optimist because you're saying, I believe I'm spending my career working in a field where we say we believe a sustainable future is possible. So if not, what's the point. And I think that what Troy says here is really interesting about needing better visions of the future and alternative visions of the future that can drive change. And there is increasing literature in sustainability science that really supports this idea, that imaginaries of the future or imagined futures are what we need to actually shift development pathways to have a transformation.

Alicia Harley (24:38):

And in the US and the discussion of a Green New Deal around the world, there are people agitating for a very, very drastically different looking futures. And so that's the other thing I see happening in this pandemic. I think people realize we just have to get through this pandemic, but that this is likely, as Troy said, to be one of many terrible crises that will shock our current system over the course of the next century. And if we don't do something drastic, things are just going to look a lot worse and people will further sink into poverty. So I see also some signs, maybe, of a hope that the dramatism of this crisis has given political support to some, what would have been a year ago, very radical environmental ideas that are now much more mainstream in the democratic platform, or in government in political discourse in the US. So I think that has gone hand in hand. It's not that COVID is leading to a better environment in any way, but that we have a broader discourse around what needs to be done for sustainability.

Kathleen Molony (25:59):

This has been a fascinating conversation that we definitely need to continue. Join us for part two of this discussion in our next episode. I want to thank our scholars, Alicia Harley, Rob Paarlberg and Troy Vettese. You can find links to their terrific work on our website, where you can also register for our February event, Global Food+ 2021. This special online event features 40 speed talks on Boston area research at the nexus of food, agriculture, health, environment and society, and should not be missed. Thank you so much for listening. If you've enjoyed our podcast, please subscribe to Epicenter on your listening platform. I'm Kathleen Molony, signing off from the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, a research center at Harvard University that promotes interdisciplinary conversations, just like this. See you next time.