Covid-19 Could Teach Us How to Avoid the Worst Consequences of Climate Change

By Elizabeth Sawin /
Apr 5, 2020
Covid-19 Could Teach Us How to Avoid the Worst Consequences of Climate Change
Image credit: Miroslava Chrienova /Pixabay

A devastating problem crops up.

Not any old problem, but one that grows exponentially.

We can cope with this problem, to some extent, but our coping capacity is finite.

Experts sound the alarm. There is still hope, but we must act quickly before the problem overwhelms our coping capacity.

The actions the experts call for are startling to ordinary people and difficult to implement. They will be disruptive. But more than that, they feel disproportionate to the problem, which is still small. In fact, most things about life seem pretty normal when you just look out the window.

The experts tell us we can’t only respond to what we are experiencing now. We must act decisively so that we move off of the path we are on to a different trajectory altogether, a trajectory where the problem won’t outgrow our ability to cope.

Wherever you are reading this – in a cramped living room swarming with kids sent home from school perhaps, or standing on a balcony in view of your neighbors, or sitting on your couch trying figure out how to pay the rent now that your workplace has closed down – you may be thinking this sounds like the story of COVID-19.

In the COVID-19 story, the problem that grows exponentially is the number of cases of infection. The ability to cope depends upon the number of healthcare workers, hospital beds, masks, and ventilators.

But, substitute another problem into the scaffolding of the story – say, the exponential increase in greenhouse gas emissions – and focus on other abilities to cope, like the ability to withstand sea level rise, stronger storms, floods, fires, droughts, and heatwaves, and you have another story with different specifics but a similar pattern.

That, of course, is the story of global climate change, another exponentially growing problem that threatens to outgrow our coping ability.

In that sense, COVID-19 is like an accelerated version of climate change, where we will move from recognizing the problem to acting on it to looking for lessons learned over a span of months rather than decades.

What might this speeded-up version of climate change teach us about dealing with an existential threat that is growing exponentially?

Act based on where momentum is carrying you, not what a snapshot of the current moment shows. Governors haven’t shut down whole states based on conditions on the ground right now. They’ve been motivated by the projections of where that exponential growth was carrying their communities. Similarly, our climate actions shouldn’t be based on the severity of today’s floods and fires, but instead on the severity of future floods and fires under our current trajectory.

Do not tolerate delays or distortions of information. In some places, leaders delayed action or underplayed concerns. While they delayed, the virus spread, building momentum for the pandemic.  While leaders delay action on climate, fossil fuel infrastructure spreads, building momentum for climate change.

It’s hard to bend the curve, but solidarity makes it easier. Right now we are living through the disruption and discontinuity required to shift an exponential curve that is gaining momentum, and it is difficult, serious work. But we are also witnessing the actions and attitudes that make it easier, perhaps even possible at all.  A young man shops for his elderly neighbor. Donations to food pantries soar. Governments come to each other’s aid and scientists share information.

Act as though we are all in it together, because we are. COVID-19 makes it clear: if you need a whole society to move quickly you need to support everyone through a just and equitable shift. Workers without paid sick leave are unlikely to quarantine. Citizens without health insurance might not opt for virus testing. The designers of the Green New Deal understand this principle of systems change. That’s why their plans to pivot from fossil fuels include provisions for health care, child care, and job training. Far from a ‘wish list of progressive policies,’ these are the enabling conditions that reduce the friction that is a deadweight on change.

Early indications are that the losses from COVID-19 are going to be devastating and measured in terms of human suffering, death, lost opportunity, ruined businesses, and economic desolation. There is nothing good about this global pandemic.

But losses that can’t be fully prevented can still be honored. They can be honored by making meaning out of the experience and by applying lessons learned in ways that could prevent future suffering and loss.

None of us yet know what we are going to lose, personally and collectively, before this pandemic is contained. But each of us can today declare that whatever we learn will not go to waste.

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