Covid Lockdowns and Climate Change

Lockdowns offer crucial lessons for climate change and the spending crisis.

Covid Lockdowns and Climate Change

By: George Noga – October 18, 2020

The Covid lockdowns reinforce invaluable lessons about human nature and economics that bear directly on climate change, the environment and the spending crisis. Humans are willing to endure only so much inconvenience and hardship, even for a pandemic that is immediate and deadly. There is no way people will put up with decades of painful sacrifice, especially to avert threats that are distant and uncertain.

Lockdown Lessons for Climate Change

The lockdowns proved that we humans have very limited tolerance for sacrifices like those required to reduce carbon emissions. The lockdowns showed, in terms everyone now comprehends, the pain required to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. With the whole world locked down, CO2 emissions are only 8% lower than 2019. To limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, we would need identical lockdowns every year for a decade. Moreover, the rebound effect described infra makes that impossible.

As painful as it was, the 8% drop in emissions during the lockdowns had no effect on climate change. Scientists estimate the effect to be less than one five-hundredth of one degree Fahrenheit – because the drop was for one year only. Nobel Laureate William Nordhaus calculated that to reduce temperature rise to 1.5 degrees requires a 16% per year drop in GDP. Nordhaus also determined that the cost of failure to meet the target is 1% of GDP through 2050, rising to 4% by 2100. Cutting GDP 16% for the next 30 years to ameliorate a problem that costs only 1% of GDP is green lunacy.

Human capacity for sacrifice, even when facing mortal danger, is limited.

The economic devastation is unsustainable and governments are racing to reopen their economies. Indonesia’s economics minister said, “We cannot continue a lockdown. There will be more people hungry and they will become angry.” Mexico’s president said, “We must find a new normal; the well-being of the people depends on it.” The Prime Minister of Pakistan tweeted, “In our lockdown we did not consider the consequences for wage earners and laborers, all of whom face poverty and hunger. May Allah forgive us.” Even if governments attempted to continue the lockdowns, the people would take matters into their own hands. This was already happening in the United States as people are experiencing increasing signs of lockdown fatigue.


Climate activists and progressive politicians want to achieve global net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Once again, the coronavirus lockdowns demonstrate the economic devastation and human misery this would cause. To achieve net zero by 2050 would require lockdowns the size of 2020 every year and increasing each year for the next 30 years. Meanwhile, progressives and green activists waste trillions on pork-laden, ineffective, feel-good measures like electric cars, windmills, bio fuels and solar panels.

But wait. It gets worse due to an economic precept few know about called the rebound effect. As noted supra, the lockdowns lowered CO2 by 8% primarily due to less energy use from driving, flying and travel. This saved people lots of money. Research shows that the money thus saved is spent later on goods and services that have an even bigger carbon footprint. This rebound effect totally negates all the benefit from the original 8% carbon reduction. Therefore, to reduce net emissions we must not only lockdown the economy every year, we also must eliminate the rebound effect.

Lockdown Lessons for the Spending Crisis

The spending crisis mirrors carbon reduction. To get the Debt/GDP ratio back to a sustainable level requires great pain for a prolonged period. As we have shown in prior blog posts, it would be necessary to cut spending (including on entitlements) by at least 20% per year for over a decade. This would create a level of pain and suffering comparable to over 10 years of Covid lockdowns. In short, it is impossible.

Two Critical and Unavoidable Conclusions

The Covid induced lockdowns and the human response to them clearly reveal the ultimate outcome of the climate change and spending crises. For climate change, we will muddle along for a time, as we are now, wasting trillions on feel-good but ineffective measures. Ultimately however, it will become clear to even the greenest progressive that we must adapt to climate change rather than try to mitigate it. As for the spending crisis, we also will muddle along for a time – perhaps making some token attempts to forestall the crisis. But the crisis will come; it is inevitable.

Human nature is unchanging throughout the ages; it has once again revealed itself to us thanks to the Covid lockdowns. It reminded us that we humans are incapable of painful and sustained sacrifice, even to avert disaster. And the band played on!

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