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Why for COVID and Not For Climate
An inter-generational reflection on Climate Learning from the COVID-19 Crisis
April 24, 2020
By Jorge Daniel Taillant (age 52) and Amelia Murphy (age 20)
Executive Director and Researcher, respectively,
at the Center for Human Rights and Environment
CHRE’s Executive Director and its new Research Intern got together to reflect with their intergenerational perspectives on the dynamics of Climate Change in the context of the COVID 19 global pandemic. Here are the results.
A few months ago, as I (JDT, age 52) was discussing what was needed to address our spiraling-out-of-control climate change with my kids, we talked about the urgent and global need for industries to stop and reconfigure production methods in an effort to reduce pollution. We spoke of politicians needing to earmark billions, and even trillions, of dollars of climate finance to introduce structural change. We spoke of media unifying an effective and impacting message of the need to respond to the climate crisis, and that this message take on the sole and only communicational priority. We talked about people immediately changing their consumption and lifestyle habits in a unified global response to climate change where everyone came together and took the far-reaching and necessary action to save our planetary ecosystem or otherwise face oblivion. Sadly, we ended that conversation, as usual, on seemingly idyllic hopes, realizing (or thinking rather), that this sort of global and unified action of all of society to reverse climate change was simply impossible.
And now we have it.
The response is here. In a matter of months, weeks, days, hours, industries halted production, people stopped what they were doing, habits changed, politicians came up with the money, trillions even, the media unified a message, and the world united. We are suddenly doing what we need to do.
In a matter of days, human habits have drastically changed. We’ve stopped cars and grounded airplanes, bringing vehicular emissions to nearly zero. We stopped spewing smoke into the air from industry and ceased dumping waste into our rivers. Practically overnight, the global hustle and bustle of urban activity suddenly stopped. And the environment likes it. Coyotes are roaming the streets of San Francisco, fish are reappearing in suddenly cleaner bays and rivers through the world, peacocks are roaming Spanish villas and mountaintops are again visible on the horizon lines in otherwise highly polluted cities. We’ve stopped polluting and Nature is happily responding.
But alas, the world’s sudden environmental rebound is not due to our tackling climate change, but rather, due to our unified efforts at stopping the global COVID 19 health pandemic.
What we can affirm from this occasion is that intense and sudden social emergencies (like hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, … and global pandemics it seems) spawn rapid reactive responses. In life or death emergencies, people move, they act and react, they are willing and able to change long-standing imbedded habits, even if merely for a few days to respond to a life-threatening emergency.
Why for COVID and not for CLIMATE?
So, if we are doing it for COVID, why don’t we do it for climate change, which ultimately will impact many more millions if not billions of people than the current global health pandemic? According to the WHO, climate change already kills over 150,000 people annually, nearly 50,000 more people than have died from COVID 19 so far (as of April 14, 2020). In fact, the most conservative estimates from researchers state that air pollution reductions due to the sudden halt of industry have saved at least 20 times the number of lives in China as deaths directly stemming from the virus, and yet no one is stopping economies because of climate change deaths.
What’s more, both crises disproportionately affect similarly vulnerable groups. We know that communities of lower socioeconomic standing that have less access to basic public services like clean water and sanitation, that have lower local air quality and poorer living conditions and infrastructure, that have inadequate health care, are generally the least resilient and most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. We see now that in a global health pandemic such as COVID 19, these same populations are also more vulnerable due to their living conditions and to the basic infrastructure inequities they experience in daily life, particularly in regard to poor living conditions, limited or no sanitation and poor air quality. These communities suffer disproportionately, and in many similar ways, to both the COVID and the climate crisis.
So, why are we so rapidly scrambling today and immediately to stop COVID 19 while not doing the same to detain the climate crisis that we know we have been facing already for many decades. The short answer is fear.
Fear, particularly fear of death, can drive collective action like few other emotions. It’s an innate and instinctive trait. Animals, and humans too, want to survive above all else. It’s pure instinct. Gunshots heard in a crowd make masses suddenly scramble for cover. A building fire or an earthquake that risks building collapse will drive us into the clearing in seconds. A hurricane or an arriving tidal wave will make us run for the hills. And a global pandemic that is highly contagious and that has a high mortality rate for us or for our family will also make us do things we never thought possible. And our reactions to these imminent risks are fast and efficient.
So, what’s the difference? Climate change is far worse for us as a planetary society than this pandemic, and yet, we are direly slow to react to the escalating climate crisis, or at least, we don’t seem to think or feel that it is so urgent that we should stop everything to deal with it (even though we should do just that). We are not even close to achieving the social mobilization, the habit changes, the industrial mitigation and structural change, the policy changes, the reduction of emissions, or to obtaining the climate finance we need to reverse climate change trends.
In terms of finance to adapt our economies, we need about 2 trillion dollars per year at a global scale through the year 2050 to keep the world to a 1.5 degree increase in temperature, which would help us avoid irreversible tipping points for the climate. The United States alone allocated that very amount to the COVID response through recent stimulus packages approved by Congress, and that decision happened in about 2 weeks! The financing for COVID has since tripled in the following 2 or 3 weeks, but it seems we can’t get that for the Earth in a whole year?
What’s wrong with us? As a society, we don’t fear climate change, or at least we don’t fear it enough to quickly prioritize actions to do something about it. The second factor driving the response (or lack of response), after fear, is time.
Let’s use a few analogies to help understand the intricate relationship between fear and time in the COVID and climate crisis respectively.
We can think of climate change like a bullet about to leave a gun aimed for our head. If it were a real gun and a real bullet, we’d react immediately and try to run for cover. But the climate change bullet is a bullet that won’t immediately kill us, and we know it. It will take time for it to reach us, maybe a decade, or several decades, or even a century. We might not even be around when it hits, and instead of killing us, it will kill our children or our grandchildren, or someone else’s children, which makes the climate change bullet less frightening to us. Others have used the frog in a pot with hot water analogy to understand climate change responses. A frog thrown into a pot with boiling water will immediately try to jump out because it realizes that life depends on it now (that’s the COVID crisis), but if the frog is placed in the pot with the water cold and then the fire is turned on, the frog will stay in the pot, enjoying the warming water, until eventually it dies (that’s like our response to the climate crisis).
So, while avoiding immediate death is instinctual and we all react to it quickly, time gives the benefit of thought and the ability of procrastination and in this case, reaction to fear depends more on the instantaneous emotion present (or not present) than about instinct. As a result, in the climate crisis, our fear factor is affected by the time factor and our subsequent instinctual urgency to react even though we realize we may eventually die, is greatly diminished. We are the frog in the pot of cold but warming water.
While we may agree that climate change is serious or even deadly, we also know that climate change is something in evolution, it’s progressive, with a much longer time horizon than a speeding bullet about to leave the gun pointed at us. Slowly boiling water buys us time and the luxury of putting off difficult decisions until a later date (the policies, the finance, the habit changes, etc.).
The COVID bullet has left the chamber, the water is boiling now, and society is demanding immediate action from elected officials. Politicians feel urgency to act both out of fear for themselves and their families, as well as from the social and political pressure that is exerted by their constituencies. Combined with the fact that political actions and reactions happen within short-term electoral and administrative cycles (2-4 years), you get the response we are seeing from political leaders: quick decisions, directives, programs, action, and financing.
On the other hand, the climate bullet might kill you (or your descendants) in say 50, or 100 or even 1,000 years; the water in the pot seems nice and cool for the moment, and while it’s going to kill you some day, maybe, you’re willing to enjoy the waters for a while—no need to jump out just yet. Climate impacts, or at least their immediate consequences, for the most part, are not happening within electoral cycles, and hence, the option for political leaders to procrastinate or let some other politician, in the future, take the necessary and difficult action, is much more amenable and tolerable by society.
People more generally are also not feeling the “immediate” climate burn. Yes, there are some who are beginning to get it. If you live in Maldives and your home and entire country will soon be underwater maybe in the next few years or decades, you are already reacting, and looking for a place to live. If you live in the Florida Keys or even in Miami where heavy rains flood your neighborhoods and may not leave for a while (or ever) you’re all of a sudden looking at Zillow to see if your home is declining in value, and you’re maybe looking for an exit opportunity in the property market. You may also be waiting and expecting your local government to help you out and calling on your politicians to start planning and taking action now.
Most people don’t have the climate change gun to their head, and don’t see that a climate change bullet is coming, or if they do, they don’t think it will hit for now and so, they procrastinate. People respond to emergencies when the emergencies are visibly upon them—when death is near. You don’t hunker down for a hurricane until the hurricane is visibly hours away. You don’t run from your building until the walls start to shake from the earthquake. You don’t leave your home because of a flood until the water starts rising in your neighborhood and maybe even then until it’s actually inside of your living room. We procrastinate.
The sort of social, political, governmental and industrial response that we need to address climate change is of the same massive character that we are seeing as a response to COVID 19, in fact, it is more urgent and more existential, and yet we don’t get it.
Can we learn something from the COVID 19 response that all of us are living about how to re-embark on our path to address climate change once we move on from the pandemic?
Climate activists have been trying to create narratives about the climate crisis to mobilize people to act. They’ve tried to crank up the “fear” gauge to get us to react like a frog thrown into boiling water—with little results. Our society has been trying to drum up environmental awareness since we coined terms like “sustainable development” in the 1980s. Narratives on climate change awareness are much more recent (since Al Gore started touring the world with his PowerPoint presentation about climate change trends, in the mid 2000s), but in the end, we have made little progress in getting the world to change course quickly and effectively.
We have mostly gotten past the barrier of climate change denial (although some that deny science still exist). And we have reached some global consensus on what needs to be done to reverse trends (e.g. commitments to reduce emissions in the Paris Agreement, switching to renewable energies, reducing dependency on fossil fuels, changing habits, etc.).
The problem is that it’s been much more difficult moving from theory to practice. Changing collective habits to avoid climate tipping points is a hard task. The clock is ticking and hope that we will be on time before it’s too late is dwindling. And while much of society may be on-board with the need to change (thanks largely to ubiquitous social media telling us so), we have seen roadblock after roadblock from the public and private sectors to get things moving quickly.
In contrast, finance and political action to address COVID 19 is moving and it’s moving fast. We have seen a response to COVID that environmentalists and for that matter, most of society, thought was impossible. In a matter of days, we’ve completely changed systems and habits previously thought unchangeable. And while it would be harsh and inappropriate to speak of this tragedy as an opportunity, what the response to COVID has done, possibly most importantly, is shown us and proven what we are capable of massive social, political and economic change, in the face of an existential crisis, something that most of an older generation of people and environmentalists advocating for addressing climate change thought impossible.
For the younger of the two co-authors of this article (A.M., age 20), this crisis may simply be a blip in my timeline, in an era where the volatility of social crisis may become the norm and where living with a social pandemic or other climate emergencies like wildfires or massive sea-level rise and flooding may be a recurring fact of life.
What we both agree on as we set out to write this article is that our generations see this crisis quite differently. The older generation (and now I am back, JDT age 52), largely to blame for much of current climate change trends, is scrambling to address the problem we’ve caused. The bullet has fired, and it is moving fast towards us. We’ve seen the deterioration and recognize that we are on the edge of collapse. COVID is the materialization and confirmation of our global fragility. We have been dreading our planetary collapse and now, here it is, in the form of a global health pandemic.
For the younger generation, (back to A.M age 20) we see this crisis quite differently. While staying home on a computer seems novel to the Boomers, it’s not so different for us in Generation Z. We point optimistically to the rebound of nature, to the coyotes in San Francisco, and to the blue-green waters of Venice as a sign that we can dream of a cleaner world, cleaner than the one we are inheriting. We can suddenly see the magnificent Himalayas from some of the world’s most polluted cities. Change is possible.
The unique position of a younger mind is the capacity to worry less about the tragedy of the past, and think more about the opportunities of the future.
While the views of what got us into this crisis and our vision of hope on how we might get out of it may be fundamentally different, the underlying response we need is in fact not generational, it is value-based. And the values that determine how we respond, are generally shared amongst people, whoever they are.
What we’ve learned from the response to the COVID crisis, that is extremely important for us to deal with our climate crisis, is that as a society, we care and that when we have to respond to save our lives, we do. It’s not just fear that drives us, it’s fear of losing what we most care about and love. Whether we are 82, 62, 42 or 22, or even 12, we care about our families and our well-being. We have all seen most of what we consider “normal” in our lives stalled, stopped, drastically withered away and/or placed at great risk (school, work, friends, family members, and nearly all other aspects of life). The COVID crisis has taken hold of everything, showing us, teaching us perhaps, just how fragile we are.
We’ve seen the damage our global vulnerability can cause for us and for the way of life we once thought unchangeable. We have seen our parents and teachers, our doctors, our children and delivery people, our supermarket workers, our police, our paramedics, face great danger and insecurity, and yet work to protect us.
And so, as a group and as a society, because we have to, we stay home, we change our habits, we close our economy, all in order to protect our families, our neighbors, and ourselves. As we devise new policies and actions to move out of COVID and back into our “normal lives”, we must keep in mind that we are immersed in a reigning climate crisis that thus far, we have been unwilling to change for. But thankfully the COVID crisis has shown us that we can change.
Our task is not to crank up the fear gauge and make people terrified of the certain-destructive future of climate change, but that we all stop for a moment to value more what we care about most deeply. The COVID 19 pandemic has given us a window to look through, to show us our faults, to show us our errors, and our fragility, but also to show us our strength as a family, a global family that can and must have hope that we can change.
As policy makers move forward, the goal should not be to simply rebound to our pre-COVID norms, but to progress towards a better normal. And while better is subjective, we can all agree that it means improved health and safety for ourselves, our loved ones, and the most vulnerable populations. Air quality is a key variable. The worse your air is, the higher the likelihood that your population suffers from chronic respiratory illness and the higher your vulnerability as a community to pandemics like COVID. Here COVID and climate have a common vulnerability zone. Public officials and policy makers must consider how to prepare for the next wave of disease, through clean air and pollution policies and programs that are good for pandemic prevention and preparation, but also good for climate.
Economically, we must reopen economies and be sensitive to job creation, but not simply any jobs. By transitioning economic resources from high carbon intensive resources to more climate-friendly ones, we can create jobs in recycling, reforestation, nature conservation, water management and, waste reduction, and environmental risk management, and promote renewable energies instead of ones dependent on fossil fuels, all while making our economies more resilient and more climate friendly. In the post-Depression era of the 1930s, millions of jobs in the US were created simply to plant trees! It was a fast and easy way to create jobs in a post recession/depression market, while also doing something significant for our environment.
Most of us aren’t policy makers or public officials. We’re mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, business owners, essential workers, teachers, and more. What can we do in our daily lives to help achieve the change we need to address climate change? Firstly, we can use our time now to pause and reflect; reflect on whether or not we want to return to the pre-COVID norms, on how our footprints have changed. We can also think about what we want from our political leaders and make sure that we demand from them (manifested through elections but also in being more active and engaged in pre-election policy discussions).
While in lockdown, we saw our planet and environment improve all over the world. Let’s try to capture that! Can you waste less? Eat out less? Use less plastic? Drive less? What can we do, and more importantly, what can you do after this is all over to lessen our impacts on the environment? While we’re all at home, working, studying, and shopping remotely, we can consider how to maintain our tele-habits and reduced emissions after COVID. Maybe you can continue eating at home more often, source your food locally, speak to your boss about continuing to work remotely (even just sometimes), or take a class online instead of on campus. As businesses, can you reduce waste or work to reduce emissions in your day-to-day operations by having employees continue to work remotely? Can you rethink your 5, or 10-year plans to shift away from fossil fuels and into renewables?
At the end of the day, what is asked of us all is to refuse to sacrifice our futures and future generations for the temporary comforts of the old normal. Instead of going back to the way things used to be, can’t we take this opportunity to strive for a better normal? What’s most important about our experience of the last few months is that we have learned we can change, we can make that new and better normal happen, and the best thing is that in the end, it’s your choice!