How Coronavirus and Climate Change Show the Limits of Globalization

The streets of Beijing are empty on February 10, 2020, as residents attempt to avoid catching the Wuhan coronavirus.
The streets of Beijing are empty on February 10, 2020, as residents attempt to avoid catching the Wuhan coronavirus.
Photo: Getty

Over the past few decades, the world has become connected in unprecedented ways. And in 2020, we’re living with those impacts in full force.

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The most in-your-face example is COVID-19, which has spread with alarming speed to 26 countries, killed nearly 1,800, and led to widespread quarantines as health authorities struggle to contain the outbreak. The World Health Organization has declared it a global health emergency, and the coronavirus has the potential to become a pandemic. The hyper-connectivity of the world is partly why as a cruise ship and flights with infected passengers have allowed the virus to spread.

The virus could also affect the global economy, including even slightly cutting China’s greenhouse gas emissions. While the climate impacts are a tiny footnote in the story of coronavirus, the virus’ spread and the way the climate crisis has grown both make a compelling case for everything that’s wrong with globalization—and where we need to start fixing things if we want humanity to thrive in the 21st century.

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Countries now depend on one another for basically everything. And their economies are connected by tourism, manufactured goods, and services. Oil and gas are shipped around the world, fueling the economy and driving our climate into an unsteady state. When disaster strikes in one place, the impacts can ripple around the globe. We can see that today with the coronavirus outbreak and the risk of a global economic slowdown. And we can see it every day with climate change. Burning dirty coal in India impacts glaciers melting in the Antarctic because greenhouse gas emissions are a global problem even if they come from local sources.

These emissions have also shot up as a result of the globalized economy. International shipping contributed an estimated billion tons of greenhouse gases between 2007 and 2012. Maritime routes are key to the transportation system that allows goods to move from one country to another, worsening the climate crisis. Even the goods themselves are part of the problem. Though China is the largest emitter globally, a large portion of its emissions are due to goods made there and exported globally. In essence, countries like the U.S. and European Union members have outsourced some of their emissions to China.

At the heart of all this is, well, people. As convenient as globalization may be in driving down the prices of consumer goods for the Global North, it’s hurting many people in the Global South, where poor working conditions and wages allow companies to keep the price of goods like T-shirts or headphones so low. Unfortunately, those same people are left to carry a disproportionate burden from climate change despite having contributed very little to the problem themselves. These same vulnerable populations are most at risk if deadly viruses such as COVID-19 reach their communities because their governments are less equipped to contain such outbreaks.

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Thanks to globalization, people can’t ignore what’s happening across the world either. We’re connected by the atmosphere, the movement of goods and people, and public health. Benjamin Hale, a philosophy and environmental studies associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Earther that globalization “has made these problems apparent to us in a way that they wouldn’t have otherwise been.”

On the flip side of that, globalization has connected us all in a way people decades ago might’ve never imagined. And that is also fuel for the environmental movement and finding solutions to the current mess we’re in. As 350.org founder Bill McKibben told Earther, globalization has made it possible for people around the world to connect and build the case for transformative change in ways that were previously unimaginable. This type of movement has the potential to alter the economic system that is threatening our well-being and the planet’s.

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There’s still value in the local, of course. Distributed energy systems like rooftop or community solar, for example, have the potential to loosen the grip of utility monopolies. And for disenfranchised communities, there’s a huge potential for local green manufacturing. That being said, globalization is necessary, especially when it comes to supporting those most hurt by the impacts of climate.

“Countries like the U.S. have dramatically upset the climate of the planet, and so it’s wrong for them to then bar the door and say, ‘We’re not letting in those people who have to leave their homes because they can no longer grow food where they live,’” McKibben told Earther.

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So while the coronavirus outbreak and the climate crisis show what can happen with globalization gone wrong, there are still ways to leverage global society for ways that are beneficial and even necessary. The climate crisis and COVID-19 are shocks showing the risks we face, but the world shouldn’t need such a scare to change its ways. There are signs like China’s major investments in renewables or recent decisions by major financial firms to curtail their fossil fuel investments that the globalized economy may already be shifting, but it’s nowhere close to done yet.

“Big money is globalized,” McKibben said. “We have to make people power globalized, too.”

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Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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DISCUSSION

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Even solar is global - regardless where PV panels are racked. The supply chain of PV panels from soup to nuts is pretty much from Asia to the rest of the world.

There’s still value in the local, of course. Distributed energy systems like rooftop or community solar, for example, have the potential to loosen the grip of utility monopolies. And for disenfranchised communities, there’s a huge potential for local green manufacturing. That being said, globalization is necessary, especially when it comes to supporting those most hurt by the impacts of climate.

Hand racking solar panels on roofs or the ground is good work, if you’re young and healthy. However, I’m guessing some young environmental activists aren’t going to be too welcoming of a polysilicon processing plant located in the community. A PV panel or glass tile plant, like Tesla’s Buffalo plant? Probably, so I’ll assume yes. Raw material mining, milling and processing is usually messy.

Who makes PV panels? Not US to any appreciable level anymore. China’s got the lion’s share.

How about an overly simplified supply chain figure? This picture isn’t equal to 1,000 words, but it at least shows the steps.

The report from NREL

Expanding the Photovoltaic Supply Chain in the United States: Opportunities and Challenges

The world is ramping up solar nicely, which US may be left behind. US is losing leadership in solar R&D and deployment. Here’s a recent report on global solar starting to go apeshit. The paper won’t be made available for free until May.

Terawatt-Scale Photovoltaics: Transform Global Energy

https://www.osti.gov/biblio/1545001-terawatt-scale-photovoltaics-transform-global-energy