coronavirus covid 19 climate change lessons
Image Credit: Chad Davis, CC (BY-SA 2.0)

For the past month I’ve been doing something that would have been impossible for me to even imagine before the coronavirus set it: I cycle to errands during rush hour. Typically, the streets between me and my destinations would be choked with smoggy cars and grumpy drivers. Since the cycling infrastructure in my city isn’t the best, trying to cycle among those bumper-to-bumper cars is something only the most absurdly brazen would ever attempt. Under normal conditions I, too, would have gotten in my smog maker and ventured onto the resentment-filled streets with the rest, but the dramatic reduction in car traffic due to social distancing meant that the roads have been more friendly to all modes of transport.

My errand rides have gotten me thinking about all the change that has occurred in our world in such a dramatically short period of time. Chiefly, that the world was faced with the COVID-19 crisis and responded with swift and serious action. It draws both a contrast to, and some valuable lessons for, the way we are (not) responding to another ongoing crisis: climate change. To address climate change, we need a popular movement. We need people, en masse, demanding action. We need decisive action and we need people to hold governments the world over accountable when they fail to act.

That level of response is exactly what we’ve seen since the coronavirus became an international pandemic. The response to COVID-19 has been swift, decisive, and with the backing of popular demand. People around the globe broadly recognize the threat, acknowledge its severity, and have demanded systemic change. As this is exactly the reaction we should have to the climate crisis, this pandemic provides some lessons we should pause and recognize.  

People and Governments are Completely Capable of Dramatic Responses to Serious Crises

Governments the world over have shown that they are capable taking painful but necessary steps today in order to limit future negative outcomes; authorities gave orders that resulted in short term economic pain for the promise of better long-term prospects. Through lockdowns and restrictions on business operations, entire economies have been rearranged in a matter of weeks to limit the virus’ toll. The government of the United States, beset with the most extreme partisanship in a generation, managed to pull together a $2 Trillion USD financial aid package, the largest in that country’s history, in just two days.

Stores were shuttered. Restaurants scrambled to provide take out and delivery options. Businesses got creative in establishing safe ways of making sales. Individuals also radically altered their actions in response to the crisis. People adopted social isolation protocols and wearing facemasks, without being legally required to in some cases, in the hopes that their individuals’ actions would collectively add up to large, systemic changes. What’s more, failure to follow those guidelines was often met with social ire; we are all in this crisis together and everyone must do their part out of obligation to everyone else.

People Want to Hear from Doctors, Scientists, and Other Experts

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, people have been keen to hear from doctors and scientists on the front lines; those with expertise on the subject. Media outlets have been scrambling to find available medical professionals to comment on what they’re seeing firsthand. In the US, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the immunologist who has headed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease for over 20 years, became a trusted voice across the political spectrum. Similarly, in China, people have been more likely to seek information not from their government, but from a weightlifting, straight-shooting pulmonologist named Dr. Zhong Nanshan.

It’s a reaction that most climate experts can only dream of. Even when directly related to a story, news media generally fails to bring up the climate crisis at all, let alone invite qualified experts on to talk about the issue. Many feel that even broaching the topic is controversial or political and so avoid their duty to pass on relevant information about current events (due largely to a campaign by fossil fuel interests to paint it as such).

The result is that climate issues often goes undiscussed and people go unexposed to key concepts about a crisis that stands to take more lives than Coronavirus ever could. While it’s likely that the acuteness and rapid time frame of COVID-19 is helping to focus more attention on it, we need just as much attention given to climate communicators as we are currently (and rightfully) giving to medical experts.

We Aren’t the Issue, Our Economic Systems Are

Perhaps the most intriguing climate lesson to take away from this is that humans are not inherently the problem; our economic systems of production and consumption are. The good news? We can change our systems.

In fact, we did just that in just a few weeks as a response to Coronavirus. Those of us who could worked from home. We shopped closer to home, and only when we needed to. We reassessed what purchases were really worth the inherent risk of going out.

Clearly, the emergency nature of these changes and the human and economic toll that it entailed is not desirable. But, non-the-less, our economic systems are much more malleable than we give them credit for. We’ve proven as much.

For instance, with less vehicles on roads, people all over the world have been witnessing positive environmental changes cleaner air, fresher water, and quieter neighborhoods. Notorious for its dirty air, Los Angeles was briefly declared to have the cleanest air in the world on April 5th. Not to be outdone, the seemingly permanent smog over New Delhi gave way to blue skies as people there stay home.

Noticing improved air quality, stronger communities, more exercise, and more importance placed on food, 91% of Britons polled by YouGov didn’t want life to return exactly to the way it was before lockdown. This global crisis has helped people glimpse another reality; one that is better for ourselves, our communities, and our environment.

The enforcement of stay at home orders has made many with the option to work from home realize that this could be more permanent arrangement. Workers can be just as productive from home and only need travel to offices if in person meetings are required. People have been investing their former commuting time back into their family, personal projects, and exercise routines. Cutting commuting time both leads to happier, healthier individuals as well as a healthier local environment.

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It’s been promising to see the broad social consensus that dramatic actions to limit the spread of COVID-19 are both important will prove to be positive. As compiled in this excellent comic by Randall Munroe, more Americans trust local health officials than enjoy apple pie; more approve of stay-at-home orders than approve of kittens. The coronavirus pandemic has shown that our societies are still capable of recognizing collective threats and reacting in ways that prioritize long term outcomes even if it means short term pain. We have shown that we can and will reorganize our economic and social systems for the collective good. If ever there was a transferable lesson from this crisis to climate change, it is this: We aren’t giving ourselves enough credit.

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