Canada can manage the risks of reopening while pursuing growth and prosperity

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Appeared in the Financial Post, June 2, 2020
Canada can manage the risks of reopening while pursuing growth and prosperity

Some commentators, searching for a parallel between COVID-19 and climate change, argue that the pandemic and lockdown show what we’re capable of, if only we apply the same determination to the climate. This ruinous lockdown has thus provided a glimpse of what climate campaigners want our future to look like—permanently.

They point to outlier model projections and overheated doomsday warnings as justification. But in reality, since the Second World War we’ve never subjected ourselves to a global shutdown like the current one because it was never credibly warranted, certainly not in response to mainstream assessments of climate change.

In the case of COVID-19, however, the mainstream warnings were credible and the crisis was real. It is a contrast with climate, not a parallel. The real parallel is that reopening the economy means facing and managing downside risks while pursuing growth and prosperity, which for 200 years has been the modern world’s formula for progress.

There’s still no vaccine and no treatment for COVID-19. This means we will be building economic activity in an environment with large known benefits and large potential costs that must be carefully monitored and mitigated. Sound familiar? It is, in miniature, the modern history of the world, in particular the story of fossil fuels.

Some time in the early 1800s the technology became available to harness energy from the combustion of petroleum products and coal to provide abundant, inexpensive forms of heat, light and mechanical power. The downside was the release of local air contaminants and carbon dioxide, the latter which is not a pollutant in the usual sense but accumulates globally and can affect the climate.

When most economies around the world made the decision to harness fossil fuels they knew about the potential benefits and costs. They all knew, because they could observe from their own experience (and the experience of others) the local air pollution effects. The potential climatic warming effect of carbon dioxide was understood by the late-1800s. They also knew that safe, inexpensive and reliable energy was extremely valuable and pivotal to making sustained economic progress.

Thus, facing an opportunity to embark on a path of growth with both enormous potential benefits and considerable downside risks that would need to be carefully monitored and mitigated, every country around the world chose to “open.” They chose to harness the energy, manage and mitigate the downside risks, and enjoy what turned out to be net economic and social benefits beyond the wildest expectations of anyone who had lived in previous generations.

Along the way, many of the downside risks were mitigated to the point that they are hardly noticeable anymore. In wealthy countries such as Canada our air pollution levels are very low, our vehicle fleets and industries are very clean in their operations, and the days of Victorian-style soot and smog are long gone.

Meanwhile, global atmospheric CO2 levels have accumulated at the bottom end of the ranges projected ever since the 1970s, and however much the climatic changes of the past century can be attributed to greenhouse gases, they haven’t prevented tremendous increases in human well-being. Instead, we have used some of our gains in wealth to engineer dramatic declines in climate- and weather disaster-related vulnerability.

Now, on a much more compressed timetable, we’re witnessing the same dynamic, the same weighing of pluses and minuses, monitoring the risks while pursuing economic gains and, ultimately, recognizing that we’re better off going for growth. It will be better to mitigate the negative consequences of COVID in an economy that’s reliably generating prosperity and well-being than to achieve somewhat reduced infection rates at a cost of widespread long-lasting poverty and destitution.

In the same way, the world was right to embrace fossil fuels. If we could go back in time to the beginning of that process and teach them everything we have since learned, including about pollution and the small climatic changes of the 20th century, it would only reinforce the original decision. The gains have far outweighed the costs. This is not the same as saying there have been no costs, although that would be a smaller error than the current fashion of saying there have been no benefits.

Clearly, it’s futile to search for a risk-free, cost-free world that somehow also provides jobs and prosperity. This was true during the world’s original embrace of fossil fuels and it remains true today and in the post-COVID reopening. That’s the real parallel between climate change and this pandemic.

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