Coronavirus and Climate Activism: Five Common Lessons

The pandemic is a testing ground for how to address the climate crisis, and vice-versa.
By Nadia Colburn /
Apr 6, 2020
Coronavirus and Climate Activism: Five Common Lessons
Explosion of the corona, August 31 2012. | Flickr/Originalwana via Wikipedia. CC BY 2.0.

No one wants to think of one crisis in the middle of another, but it’s exactly now, when we see first hand how quickly things can change, that it’s time to think about crisis preparedness in general. As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, the work of climate activists can help us respond to this moment - just as this moment is a critical learning period for future climate crises.

A recent New York Times headline expresses what climate activists know all too well: “Before Virus Outbreak, a Cascade of Warnings Went Unheeded.” And because we don’t heed such warnings we’ll see increasing large-scale social crises: pandemics; mass displacements due to flooding, fires and droughts; social upheaval; and economic fallout. All these are more likely in an age of climate change and ecological breakdown.

This pandemic reminds us that life can change quickly in almost unimaginable ways.

But climate activists, who have been thinking about how to prepare for and help prevent or mitigate such moments, can provide much valuable guidance. The four “demands” of Extinction Rebellion, the network of volunteer activists I joined last year, are useful principles for addressing coronavirus - or any crisis. Think of them as “pillars” that can guide us to a safer future.

1) Tell the truth.

The first necessary ingredient in addressing any situation successfully is to tell the truth. Because China’s authoritarian government withheld information about the truth of the outbreak of the new virus in Wuhan, the outbreak was not contained from the start.

Similarly, at every stage of the virus’s development, denialism has put us at more risk - as we’ve seen in both Italy and the US. The Trump administration’s denial and downright obstruction of the truth about both the coronavirus and the climate and ecological crisis puts us all in grave danger.

Politicians, business leaders and citizens cannot be experts in subjects like pandemics and ecological breakdown. Scientists are. We must listen to scientists, report on their findings, and follow their lead.

2) Act now.

As we have seen with coronavirus, crises can develop suddenly, and if we’re not prepared from the start we’re at greater risk. The more pro-active countries have been with coronavirus, the less damage they’ve seen. Singapore, which started preparing for the COVID crisis in early January, has had very few deaths, though it’s right next to China.

By contrast, in 2018, Trump cut funding for the US Center for Disease Control (CDC). His argument was that as long as there wasn’t an active pandemic, CDC workers were superfluous. To save money, in other words, he prioritized business “efficiency” over social resilience; he failed to act in the present to prepare for the future. As a result, America was dangerously ill prepared.

But even in our belated and hurried response to COVID-19 we can prepare for future crises. This is a unique moment when government will be pouring money into the economy, and the scientific consensus is clear: we must act on the climate and ecological crisis today.

Rather than re-investing in fossil fuel infrastructure like airlines or road-widening, we should be transitioning to green energy, transportation and green agriculture. We have only a few years, at most, to be able to keep global temperatures from spiking above two degrees of warming - a level whose feedback loops will fundamentally alter life on earth. Our time is running out.

3) Move beyond partisan politics.

The coronavirus infects Republicans, Democrats, Liberals, Conservatives and Socialists alike. It knows no international or state boundaries. To address the pandemic - just like the climate crisis - we must come together across party and national lines. We must listen to scientists who are the experts, whose knowledge does not adhere to partisan divides. And we must move beyond the bottlenecks that such politics can create so that government can take the necessary action.

As we have seen with both the pandemic and the climate crisis, individual action alone is insufficient to address the situation. Only large-scale government direction is able to create the kinds of changes we need.

The danger, however, is that such action will curtail individual freedoms and lead to authoritarian forms of government. The other challenge is that, because people are mistrustful of government and especially mistrustful of the “other side,” the swift, necessary actions we need get snarled up in congress or parliament.

To address this concern, Extinction Rebellion is calling for a Citizen’s Assembly to oversee important decisions and take responsibility for actions on climate and ecological issues. Like a jury, such assemblies would be made up of randomly-chosen citizens with decision-making powers.

We need truly democratic systems to oversee our government’s actions and instill trust again in government itself. With citizen’s assemblies, we can be more confident that power won’t be abused.

4) Focus on a just transition.

The coronavirus pandemic makes clear that in a crisis, the most vulnerable are at the greatest risk. The pandemic exposes the deep insecurities that are built into American life -a highly-inequitable healthcare system, for example; the 58% of Americans who have less than $1000 in savings; and no sick leave for families. In short, there is hardly any safety net, and as coronavirus threatens to send us into a massive economic depression, our response has to consider those who are most in need.

Similarly, the most vulnerable are on the front lines of the climate crisis. We must prepare now for a just transition to protect people from the devastating physical and economic effects of climate and ecological breakdown. We need policies like the Green New Deal that put workers, people of color and poor people front and center - not big corporations

5) Build regenerative cultures.

The aim of these four pillars is ‘regenerative culture,’ meaning a culture that prioritizes humanity and ecosystems over profit, and one that is that is democratic and life-affirming, joyful and non-hierarchical.

We do have the capacity as societies to take care of one another through such a culture. Though this pandemic has often been mishandled, it also displays our ability to work together and make individual sacrifices for the common good. It shows we can radically alter our habits and behavior. This is important, inspiring and encouraging.

Satellite images over China and the US show pollution clearing as a result of the economic slowdown induced by Covid-19. What will it take for us to realize that in order to prevent even greater catastrophes, we need to keep the skies clear in the future?

The coronavirus, real in itself, is also a testing ground for the climate crisis, just as the climate crisis helps us understand what’s needed to address the pandemic.

With its hurricanes and fires and droughts, summer will be upon us before we know it. This pandemic is showing how little resilience we have as a society, and how quickly we can all be at mortal risk. So let’s use the coronavirus crisis as a wake-up call to create a more resilient and life-affirming culture.

This pandemic shows us how ordinary life can be disrupted. As the climate scientist James Hanson has written “The climate system is capable of abrupt changes and surprises. Once [this] occurs it can be difficult or impossible to reverse the...change.”

Therefore we must tell the truth, act now, move beyond partisan politics, and mobilize a just transition both for today’s crisis and tomorrow's. The death toll from the climate emergency threatens to be exponentially greater than that from even the worst-case scenario of the coronavirus. Now is the moment to act.

I want to be able to tell my grandchildren that we paid attention and made the changes that were necessary for their future.

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