COVID-19 and Climate Change (Part 2)

PODCAST | ep5 | with Alicia Harley, Rob Paarlberg, and Troy Vettese

COVID-19 radically reduced global productivity, but isn’t that just what we need to combat climate change? Is there such a thing as a silver lining in this pandemic? In Episode 5, we continue the conversation about the relationship between COVID-19 and climate change. 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 #5 (29:21) by clicking the play button below:


The second episode of this two-part podcast series looks more closely at the politics of COVID-19 and climate change and other countries’ efforts to reduce fossil fuel use. 

As mentioned in part 1, 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 stresses that scientists have known about the dangers of close human contact with animals since the1800s and many organizations have urged the reduction of meat consumption for public health reasons. 

Robert Paarlberg elaborates on the origin of the virus, and describes the pandemic’s impact on the African continent. Alicia Harley sees the pandemic as a wake up to advance grassroots momentum generated by the Green New Deal.

Finally, our scholars debate the practicality and caveats of the Green New Deal, and what steps a new Biden Administration can take to address environmental needs from day one.


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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Kathy Molony (00:00):
Welcome to the Epicenter Podcast from the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. I'm your host, Kathleen Maloney, Director of the Weatherhead Scholars Program.

Kathy Molony (00:14):
Today, we're continuing our conversation about the links between COVID-19 and climate change with our scholars, Alicia Harley, Robert Paarlberg, and Troy Vettese.

Kathy Molony (00:26):
Before we begin, I want to invite our listeners to a special event for which Alicia and Rob are co-conveners. It's called 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. It takes place on four consecutive Fridays, beginning February 12th. It's open to the public and you can register at the Weatherhead Center website.

Kathy Molony (00:57):
Let me introduce our scholars. Alicia Harley is a post-doc in the sustainability science program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and lecturer in environmental science and public policy at Harvard College. 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 this year. Troy Vettese is the Mackenzie King fellow with the Weatherhead's Canada program, and has written extensively on animals, energy, and the history of neoliberalism. He has a book coming out in 2022 called Half-Earth Socialism: A Manifesto to Save the Future.

Kathy Molony (01:46):
One subject we touched on last time was the small but measurable improvements in carbon emissions during the economic shutdown caused by the pandemic. Alicia, you pointed out that it's a very small blip in the big picture. Can you say more about that?

Alicia Harley (02:02):
As Rob said, just as much as we may be decreasing greenhouse gas emissions just in this one year, maybe 5%, we've also contracted the global economy by 5% largely through these shutdowns, which were necessary for human health, but will lead to massive human suffering in the form of food insecurity, both globally but also in the United States.

Alicia Harley (02:30):
People that were already close to food insecurity were definitely pushed into it as our incomes declined and as the global economy contracted. So, globally, food insecurity and those at the very margin has doubled from about 135 million to probably 265 million people this year. That's a tremendous, sad impact of the coronavirus that we have to keep in mind as we're talking about its impact on agriculture.

Kathy Molony (03:00):
As Alicia mentioned, the pandemic made it harder for people to feed themselves, yet, ironically, the virus emerged from the very act of acquiring food. Did it not? Rob, did you want to add to this?

Rob Paarlberg (03:14):
Well, I would just point out that this particular virus came from a food system. It came from a traditional market in Wuhan, China. It is a zoonotic disease. The virus probably originated in horseshoe bats and was transmitted possibly to pangolins, which are sold in wet markets in China for their meat and also for their unique scales. The virus then jumped to the human species through that system.

Rob Paarlberg (03:53):
It actually sometimes helps to have modern systems providing biosecurity in meat production and in meat consumption, including bringing food animals that we raise, including poultry and pigs, indoors. The transmission of zoonotic disease is actually reduced when you are raising pigs and poultry in biosecure conditions. This is why the government of the Netherlands last spring commanded that all of its farmers bring their poultry indoors following an outbreak of avian flu in Germany.

Rob Paarlberg (04:36):
I would emphasize the zoonotic disease problem here, and it's one after another. HIV was zoonotic. Probably the virus crossed from chimps into the human population early in the 20th century. Ebola was zoonotic in Africa. MERS, SARS, avian flu, swine flu. These zoonotic diseases all reached the human population because people were looking for food, they were shopping for food, they were hunting food, or they were raising animals that were exposed to high risk animals in the wild. I think we need to reconfigure our understanding of COVID and other pandemics and pathogens as food system problems, more often than we do.

Kathy Molony (05:28):
Troy, what are your thoughts on this?

Troy Vettese (05:30):
Sure. Yeah, I'll jump in. I think this idea that somehow we can control and predict outbreaks by if only we had factory farming for every single domesticated animal, or if we just had programs that would track emergence of any new zoonosis... If only we had those things, then we would be fine. I think it's analogous to try and control the climate through geoengineering, as in if we just tinker with the atmosphere and spray, I don't know, perhaps [calcium carbonate 00:06:08], spray sulfur, then we can get the thermostat right and we'll be fine. I mean, these systems are just way too complex to manage properly. I think some humility is required to really deal with this problem properly.

Troy Vettese (06:26):
This goes back to the 18th century. Edward Jenner wrote up on his experiments with smallpox, and he begins saying these diseases come because humanity has become too familiar with the animal kingdom. This connection between people and animals, in the end, getting closer and closer is the ultimate cause of the problem. That was clear more than 200 years ago. So, I would disagree with this, "If only we had sufficient management, we would be fine."

Troy Vettese (06:57):
This is not a fringe opinion by a Marxist historian such as myself. Basically, this is an opinion held by many epidemiologists. In the American Public Health Association, they have a longstanding call for a moratorium on factory farming. After the SARS crisis, there was an epidemiologist who said, "We have to confront the ultimate question, which is we have to reduce demand for meat."

Kathy Molony (07:26):
In our last episode, we talked about the need to reduce meat consumption, both to limit human contact with animals and to reclaim our land for cleaner energy production, among other reasons. Now, I want to turn to the question of how to use the lessons from this pandemic to address climate change. Alicia, you have a perspective on India.

Alicia Harley (07:49):
I think the moments where people saw a couple of things... They did see their skies clear from pollution for the first time in a long time and for many people, what could be remembered. That's certainly something that is sticking with the people I know in India as sort of an inspiration to, "Okay, well, how can we solve our air pollution problems in India? What are the problems?"

Alicia Harley (08:15):
When I lived in India just a few years ago, the idea that air pollution was a serious problem, even though the country had some of the worst air pollution in the world, was not on the top of people's minds. Some people actually working in the environmental field told me it wasn't a problem. I think that dialogue has very much shifted and seeing clear skies further shifted it.

Alicia Harley (08:39):
So, the only silver lining in all of this is if you get that political agitation that comes with it, that says, "Well, we clearly can't do what we did during this lockdown to get clear skies, but what else could we do?" I could see that leading somewhere, but it will really require tremendous political social movement, agitation to get there, and it won't just happen automatically.

Kathy Molony (09:04):
Let's look a little bit at what's happening in other parts of the world. Rob, you've spent a lot of your life and career looking at Africa. Can you comment at all on what might be happening in Africa and with governments in Africa?

Rob Paarlberg (09:17):
Something like 40 governments in Africa took measures to close borders, to shut down markets, to close factories. I mean, this was what the World Health Organization would recommend for advanced industrial countries that have generous safety net programs to help those that are suddenly thrown out of work, but it doesn't work well in countries that don't have those systems.

Rob Paarlberg (09:50):
So, there were crises of food availability and people couldn't take a bus to get to the market. When they got there, the market had been closed. People are working in cities in Africa, often as day laborers. They don't have salaries. They don't have labor contracts. They don't get unemployment insurance when they're thrown out of work. They don't have any savings to draw on. It was an urban economic crisis and it turned into a food crisis very, very quickly.

Rob Paarlberg (10:27):
Not just in Africa. Back to India for a second, where maybe yes, they saw a blue sky, but 100 million people in India lost their jobs. Unemployment went from 8% to 31%. In low income regions, this pushes large numbers of people back into destitution, into deep poverty. And so maybe they could see the sky and maybe that could inspire more activists to clean the air, but we even have to be careful there, because while soot from burning coal and fumes from transport diminished, small particulate matter, which is actually more dangerous to human health, by some measures, didn't go down as a result of COVID.

Rob Paarlberg (11:20):
So, I think we have to be very careful. Looking for a silver lining in the COVID crisis is extremely difficult, and trying to find an environmental silver lining is a part of that difficulty.

Kathy Molony (11:39):
In the US, even before the pandemic, the Green New Deal was on the table as a package of steps that should be taken by the federal government to get us out of fossil fuels, among other goals. It has caused a lot of controversy. It's been attacked and called a socialist agenda, yet as a grassroots effort, some say it's energized the environmental movement in the US. Do you think it could be a framework for guiding the next administration?

Rob Paarlberg (12:07):
What I don't like about the Green New Deal is that it does not endorse the single most obvious policy step we could take to reduce the burning of fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and that's a carbon tax. And that's not neoliberal. The carbon tax is a tax. It's coercive. It's intended to change behavior against the preferences of the profit-making marketplace. I would put in a carbon tax. I wouldn't do it overnight at a high rate. I would gradually phase it in.

Rob Paarlberg (12:40):
Moving quickly isn't the secret either. You have to move slowly and steadily for these things to be socially acceptable. I would use the carbon tax to drive up fossil fuel prices. What I don't like about the current crisis is that the shutdown lowered fossil fuel prices. The price of oil briefly was negative. That's a huge incentive to burn too much fossil fuel. So, I would ramp up fossil fuel prices with a carbon tax, and I would invest the proceeds in research and development so we can have tomorrow's much better non-fossil energy sources, rather than today's insufficient, intermittent wind and solar technologies.

Rob Paarlberg (13:21):
We're making a big mistake trying to deploy more wind and solar when it's only intermittent. We've been subsidizing it for more than a decade. We only get 7% of our electricity from wind and only 2% from solar. My goodness. We need innovation. We need tomorrow's new technologies for energy and for reducing the energy intensity of production systems. We don't need to be deploying more of yesterday's technologies.

Alicia Harley (13:51):
Rob, while I agree with you that attacks on fossil fuels in whatever form or a cap and trade system is, from a PhD trained at the Kennedy School, the most efficient and beautiful system to tackle climate change. It just hasn't happened. It's been on the table for decades, but it's been politically untenable.

Alicia Harley (14:17):
The fact that the language around the Green New Deal has been able to penetrate society and excite a grassroots movement, I don't think you can ignore that. Does that mean at one point we don't need a cap and trade or some kind of fossil fuel tax? Probably, but let's not dismiss the political and grassroots excitement around a more just way of approaching this, just because it's not the most efficient way.

Alicia Harley (14:46):
Hopefully, at some point in the future, the two camps can marry or find a way to get along, but I find it unnerving when us sitting here in academia critique a movement that's been very grassroots just because it isn't what we see as the most efficient or elegant way to address climate change.

Kathy Molony (15:09):
Troy, you've written about externalities are the costs imposed on the environment from industry. How do you see the Green New Deal addressing this problem? Should a carbon tax be part of the solution?

Troy Vettese (15:20):
I would say definitely, you're right that a carbon tax is not neoliberal. I mean, it's Pigouvian or neo-classical. Comes from Arthur Pigou's work in 1920 based on externality. And that's exactly what the neoliberals hate is the externality idea because it assumes that the government can better price a cost than the market can. My dissertation's mainly about neoliberal critiques of externality. Those solutions have been cap and trade and a few other things.

Troy Vettese (15:47):
I would say what's interesting with the neoliberals, and you have to give them credit, is that they're very original and they're very diverse in their thinking. They're willing to borrow from the enemies. They're willing to start from scratch to come up with new concepts. And unfortunately, you can't say that about the left.

Troy Vettese (16:05):
Even the Green New Deal is basically warmed up Keynesianism. I mean, Keynesianism of the fifties and sixties and seventies failed for a reason. One has to really think, what would something new look like? And again, work in that regard has not been done, unfortunately. And I would say that even a Pigouvian tax like a carbon tax might be nice, but I would agree with Alicia, they haven't been carried out. I think at this point, if you really think we only have 10 years to act, you would need some major government interventions, kind of command and control scale action to really get out of carbon and really reduce our emissions by half in 10 years.

Kathy Molony (16:47):
What can a Biden administration do?

Rob Paarlberg (16:51):
The Trump administration has spent most of the last four years undoing the environmental regulations that were set in place during the eight years of the previous Obama administration. If President Biden can be as successful in undoing the harm of the Trump administration, then we'll be at least back to 2016 and we can make progress from there.

Alicia Harley (17:19):
I mean, I think we're all on the same page that we need to get back to 2016, but we really need to do so much more than that. In the primary, all of the candidates went pretty hard on creating robust climate plans, and a lot of them had their origin in Jay Inslee's campaign. As we know, his campaign was all about solving climate change, but Kamala Harris really emphasized environmental justice. Now, as we've gone into the general election, things have become more centered and you don't see, from my perspective, hopeful statements about what needs to be done about the environment.

Alicia Harley (18:02):
In my optimism, I do hope that Biden sees that this really is a last chance to do something about climate change and that if he doesn't, he will be remembered as the president who did not step up to the historic moment and take that opportunity.

Alicia Harley (18:22):
In terms of concrete things, there's all sorts of things he can do, from the way the electricity is regulated to vehicle emissions and even to agriculture, but actually on agriculture, I want to add a note of caution. There is so much excitement around soil, carbon sequestration, and what agriculture can do to actually pull carbon out of the atmosphere. That is true to some extent, to the extent that soil carbon sequestration has co-benefits like reducing pollution, increasing yields. That's great, but there's also now a huge agricultural lobby behind getting money for giving farmers subsidies when they sequester carbon.

Alicia Harley (19:10):
Whenever a big business gets involved and gets excited about something, I get a little bit suspicious. I worry that we could waste a lot of money subsidizing carbon sequestration and soil without very good, verified metrics that it's actually doing us any good on the climate fight. It could be another boondoggle for agriculture subsidies. So, we have to be very, very careful how we design ag-climate policy going forward in a Biden administration.

Kathy Molony (19:42):

Troy Vettese (19:45):
I'm awfully pessimistic about Biden because he won't ban fracking. He won't embrace the Green New Deal. These are pretty minor, pretty tepid policies, and they're still too far left in the United States. So, there's no basis for hope, of course. Right?

Troy Vettese (20:04):
But I think the bigger thing about the animal question that's so interesting is that lots of centrists, they want to say, "Oh, trust the scientists. Believe the science," and all that, but when it comes to animals, they don't, right? They won't listen to epidemiologists. They won't listen to the IPCC. They'll say, "Oh, we'll listen to The Breakthrough Institute and think about some way to get out of this."

Troy Vettese (20:28):
The whole thing about soul regeneration is ridiculous, to be honest. I mean, this is taken seriously, and I don't want to sound, again, like an angry vegan, because vegans are also terrible often, and they are not political enough and they are utilitarian and they don't think about class and they're obviously very tone deaf on disability rights and lots of other things. But there needs to be a way to politicize this issue because there is really good science to think that we have to take this seriously, and it's just no movement on this. And again, if you have 10 years left, then we're really doomed, Biden or not.

Kathy Molony (21:10):
When it comes to weaning off fossil fuels and investing in renewable energy, what can we learn from other countries?

Rob Paarlberg (21:18):
My other complaint about the Green New Deal is that it doesn't leave a path open for nuclear power, which is a good way to generate electricity without so many greenhouse gas emissions. If you look at the experience of Germany, which has sworn off of nuclear power, versus France, which continues to embrace nuclear power, France is doing a far better job in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Why isn't that a natural experiment that we can learn from?

Rob Paarlberg (21:54):
I don't understand why accidents with power reactors that were designed in 1960 and accidents that didn't produce anything like the devastation we're going to see from climate change... How can that make nuclear power such a taboo subject for half a century? I hope the environmental movement, if they're serious about climate change, gets into a more serious conversation about nuclear power.

Alicia Harley (22:32):
This is a frequent Thanksgiving family dinner conversation, too, in my household. And I guess I play the middle line here. I agree with you that climate change is going to bring such devastation that we certainly shouldn't be prioritizing getting out of nuclear in the near term, and we should be exploring how it can help us transition to cleaner energy systems, perhaps. But I think the comparison of Germany and France that people often make on nuclear... And of course, Germany decided, after what they saw in Fukushima in Japan, to quickly transition out of fossil fuels and they use their massive subsidy program, not to... I mean, to transition, excuse me. Germany decided to transition out of nuclear. And they used, what some might call, a grass roots movement to transition to wind and solar, not to replace carbon but to replace nuclear.

Alicia Harley (23:34):
But at the same time, they catalyzed a huge investment in alternative technologies that are paying dividends around the world today. So, I don't think we can just dismiss out of hand that just because Germany wasn't as focused on fossil fuels as they were on getting rid of nuclear, that didn't have longterm greenhouse gas, climate change benefits. I don't think we would be moving the cost curve on solar and wind nearly as quickly had Germany not made these early investments.

Alicia Harley (24:06):
So, I'm right in the middle. I do see the benefit, at least in the short term, of not completely phasing out nuclear, but I also get the argument that it is a dangerous technology. Over the course of centuries, it's certainly probably not a game that I want the world to be part of.

Kathy Molony (24:27):
Getting back to COVID-19, the pandemic has certainly made us all step back and think about the interplay of systems that we rely on to sustain our lifestyles. Food, transportation, clean air. Does it take a crisis like COVID to make us aware of the fragility of these systems?

Troy Vettese (24:46):
People often talk about SARS-CoV-2 as if it's some kind of bolt for the blue, or this is a timeless thing that has happened throughout human history. You kind of shrug and bear it. And I think we have to really remember the epidemiologists. They look at human history and they say, you have the first 10,000 years... First of all, you have pretty much no disease that is contagious and infectious amongst hunting and gathering humans, and then suddenly you have the rise of agriculture. Then you have all these bugs emerging, such as influenza and leprosy and so forth. And then you have these 10,000 years of suffering. And then you have someone like Jenner and this revolution in 18th and 19th century medicine that leads to vaccines and leads to treatment and leads to antibiotics.

Troy Vettese (25:37):
So, you have this period of around 150 years where you're actually rolling back, turning the tide on disease. And then since the 1970s, with this explosion of factory farms and deforestation across the world, and then increase in meat consumption, then you're getting more and more disease. These diseases, as Rob pointed out, they actually may date back to early in the century, but they don't become sustained in the human population until around the 1970s.

Troy Vettese (26:08):
And then suddenly you have everyone being quite worried about disease. I mean, you can look back to the sixties and early seventies. People are saying, "Oh, in fact, the era of infectious disease is over. If you're a student, don't study this." And then suddenly you have an explosion in zoonotics. So, I think we have to really imagine that things are getting much worse and the rate of new zoonoses emerging is increasing. And I think we should be scared.

Troy Vettese (26:33):
And again, we should be politicizing meat consumption. You're saying it's authoritarian to make people reckon with the cost of meat consumption, but I think this is political, like anything else. I think this idea that, "Oh, we can't ask people to do anything," is the reason why the environmental movement is so feeble in the first place. Basically you're saying, "Maybe we'll have a Green New Deal. Maybe we'll have electric cars and some renewables, but your life won't change." I think it's just childish to really see the crisis that we're in and to imagine that life won't change drastically. It's going to change no matter what. Either we're going to have geoengineering and climate emergencies and climate refugees and more epidemics, or we're going to have to really change how we live, as in this can't really go on.

Kathy Molony (27:21):
Again, the COVID crisis forces us to look at so many issues at the same time. We've talked about the relationship between humans, animals, and disease, all of which are exacerbated by how we use land and feed ourselves, which directly impacts the health of our planet and the need for serious politics. It seems like each of these issues is worthy of a separate discussion.

Alicia Harley (27:45):
And at the same time, they can't all be dealt with separately because they're all completely intertwined. I think that in the beginning of the crisis when people thought there were simple answers about COVID and the environment was precisely the problem, as they did not see COVID and the environmental crisis evolve in this complex, adaptive system with lags and nonlinearities. So, maybe understanding the complexity is a good thing to come out of this.

Kathy Molony (28:23):
So much to take in as we consider pandemics and climate change as part of a single human-made crisis. Let's keep this conversation going outside of this podcast. Enormous thanks to 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 Global Food+ 2021.

Kathy Molony (28:47):
And thank you for listening. If you've enjoyed our podcast, please subscribe to Epicenter on your favorite listening platform. This is Kathleen Maloney signing off from the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, a research center at Harvard University that promotes interdisciplinary conversations, just like this.