This Earth Day, the pollution reduction caused by the coronavirus pandemic is nothing to celebrate.
Some radical environmentalists are glorifying the suffering and death caused by the pandemic, calling the coronavirus the “cure” for what plagues the planet — us. Even Pope Francis suggested the virus might be nature’s attempt to strike back at humanity: “Nature never forgives.”
How callous our society has become to rejoice at human suffering. Since economies have ground to a halt worldwide, concentrations of pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide have declined by as much as half. While this might sound like good news, it’s anything but.
The virus that causes COVID-19 has caused financial devastation for countless families. Businesses have shuttered, and millions have lost their jobs and their paychecks through no fault of their own. For the estimated 58% of people with less than $1,000 in savings, this pandemic means real hardship. They’re less likely to be able to buy the food and medicine they need and to pay essential bills.
We should all strive to be good stewards of the environment and the resources our planet is blessed with — but when pollution cuts come at the hands of government-mandated shutdowns and at the cost of human lives and livelihoods, they represent a pyrrhic victory at best.
The progress of economies around the world shows that environmental quality and economic prosperity go hand in hand — they are allies, not enemies. It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in action. In poor and developing nations, finding adequate food and shelter consumes every moment of day-to-day life. Once those basic needs have been met, people experience the freedom to invest their time and talents in higher pursuits, from art to social good to preserving nature’s beauty. Numerous studies show that once GDP per capita reaches a certain threshold, pollution begins to plummet.
Human well-being is essential to responsible care for the environment, not the other way around. The best long-term solution for our environment is to promote freedom and economic growth.
Though you wouldn’t know it from the media’s doomsday headlines, America is a champion of environmental protection: We’re a world leader in clean air and water. When I share this fact with audiences from high school science students to members of Congress, the response is usually something along the lines of “Pfft.” Unfortunately, it’s one of the best-kept secrets in political spheres.
Over the last 50 years, the United States has dramatically reduced emissions of the six key pollutants that harm human health. Lead, ozone, carbon monoxide, and other harmful airborne substances have declined by 74% — all while our economy, population, vehicle miles traveled, and energy consumption have skyrocketed. Our cities are no longer shrouded by smog and toxic fumes, despite our dramatic growth.
In fact, we’re the only highly populated nation to meet the World Health Organization’s standards for safe air. Of developed countries, only Canada and Australia have cleaner air. It’s worth noting, however, that both of their economies are considerably smaller — smaller than the state of Texas’s economy alone.
Despite being a global economic powerhouse, America has reduced most air pollutants so much that they’re now near natural levels. The media and biased scientists play all manner of statistical games to convince you that we’re in grave danger, but the facts don’t support the doomsday narrative.
Our unprecedented environmental successes came not at the hands of big-government programs or stifling economic growth, but rather through a careful balance of reasonable, predictable regulations and free market innovation.
The prosperity afforded by our energy resources has also been critical. Without energy to provide for our physical needs — heating and cooling our homes, cooking our food, shipping our medicine, and providing clean, running water — scientific experimentation would be nearly impossible. When mined, transported, and used properly, fossil fuels are a friend of environmental progress.
They’ve allowed entrepreneurial thinkers the freedom and flexibility to invent baghouses to trap particulate matter at coal plants, selective catalytic reduction for nitrogen oxides, and catalytic converters for vehicles. These advances have spread from America across the globe, though some countries, such as China, sadly still resist clean coal technology and other environmental improvements.
Energy gives us the freedom and flexibility to pursue new ventures. And it has paid off.
As we celebrate the beauty of our natural environment on Earth Day, let’s remember that environmental quality doesn’t have to come at the expense of our freedom. Once the coronavirus crisis is behind us, our economy will boom once again — and that’s a good thing, for humanity and for the planet.
This commentary originally appeared in the Washington Examiner on April 22, 2020.