When the World Health Organization first announced that COVID-19 had become a pandemic, once my grief and horror subsided, I began to see the parallels between climate change and COVID.
What are the similarities in how our society is dealing (or not dealing) with the problem and what lessons might we learn from our response?
Let’s start with the similarities:
1. Addressing the problem requires cooperation and action at every level — international, national, state and local cooperation and action.
Climate change is an all hands on deck challenge. We need more people to “go green” in their own lives, more cities to act on climate, more countries to meet the Paris climate agreement goals, and more international cooperation. The pandemic requires the same commitment at every level: more people wearing masks and social distancing, more cities enacting health-based rules, more countries emulating nations like New Zealand, and greater cooperation among countries.
2. Yet the problem is hard to see.
Unlike a burning river or an oil spill, a warming planet is hard to see. We glimpse the consequences when wildfires burn and hurricanes rage or a polar bear collapses on the melting ice. But for most people most of the time, the problem is distant. Similarly, the COVID virus and its consequences, with the very big exceptions of job loss, schools closed and staying home, are nearly invisible to most of us.
3. Still, a majority of the public recognizes the problem and accepts the need for collective action.
The Pew Research Center reports that more than two thirds of Americans believe the federal government should act more aggressively to combat climate change. A majority favor cancelling major events during the pandemic.
4. A vocal minority, though, can intimidate our leaders and make solving the problem more difficult.
In the case of climate change, a minority of Americans, spurred on and amplified by a fossil fuel industry with an obvious interest in business as usual, has persuaded most Republican leaders to deny the reality of climate change or cast doubt on its severity and causes. In the case of the pandemic, the opposition isn’t tied to a specific industry, but is instead another manifestation of both the “economic growth at any cost” paradigm and the “culture war.” The majority of Americans are cautious about our health, yet many of our leaders are too intimidated by the vocal minority to tell us the truth and call for the action we need to bring the pandemic under control.
What are the lessons?
Lesson #1: We are most willing to act quickly when we understand the threat to our own families and loved ones.
Lesson #2: We are most willing to act when we feel that we are all in this together.
Most Americans felt this way about the pandemic in March and April. As that feeling faded, organizing individual and collective action has been more challenging. In countries without a vocal minority of climate deniers and skeptics, organizing action is less challenging.
Lesson #3. We are most willing to act when the story of the problem and the solution makes sense to us and feels urgent.
At first, it was easy to understand that staying at home could flatten the curve, reduce community spread, and bring the virus under control. The patchwork nature of our country’s response, the culture war battles, and the faintness of any light at the end of the tunnel have muddled the story. Fewer people are willing to keep making the sacrifices required to save lives.
Climate change is even more challenging on this front. The scale of the problem is difficult for most people to grasp. No single action will “solve” it. It’s not a sprint. It’s not even a marathon. It’s an ultra-marathon that will span generations.
Lesson #4. When federal action is erratic and underwhelming, state and local governments and other institutions can fill some of the gap.
Imagine how much worse the climate crisis would be if not for bold action on climate by so many of our states, cities and corporate and private institutions thanks in part to our campaigns. Imagine how much worse the COVID crisis would be if not for bold action by states and cities to shut down their economies, ramp up PPE, require masks in public places, and invest in testing and contact tracing.
Lesson #5. Our health and wellbeing (along with the health and wellbeing of the planet) should be our top priorities.
Our country has the capacity to produce more than we need, as we’ve seen during the pandemic, with no shortages (outside of those related to shifting demand and suddenly inadequate distribution systems) of food, shelter, clothing and other essentials. Yet we’re risking thousands of lives to COVID and many more lives to climate change in order to rush people back to jobs producing stuff we largely don’t need.
Lesson #6. We should hope for the best and plan for the worst.
Too many public officials, including but not limited to President Trump, assumed the coronavirus wouldn’t be that bad. Look where that got us. Too many public officials are making the same mistake with climate change.
What other similarities to you see between the COVID crisis and the climate crisis? What other lessons would you add to our list?
President, Environment America; Senior Vice President, The Public Interest Network
As president of Environment America, Wendy is a leading voice for the environment in the United States. She has been quoted in major national, state and local news outlets for nearly 40 years on issues ranging from air pollution to green investing. She is also a senior vice president with The Public Interest Network. She is a founding board member of Green Corps, the field school for environmental organizers, and Green Century Funds, the nation’s first family of fossil fuel free mutual funds. Wendy started with WashPIRG, where she led campaigns to create Washington state’s model toxic waste cleanup program and to stop the nation’s first high-level nuclear waste dump site. She is a 1983 graduate of Whitman College. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and dog and hikes wherever and whenever she can.