by Bob Leonard
I think so. Look how quickly society has changed over the last two weeks. What would it look like if the world responded to our climate crisis with a similar sense of urgency?
We have a big problem – and it’s not the pandemic or our climate crisis. Those are symptoms. It’s how we run our society, conduct business and measure well-being. Ignoring biodiversity loss, ecosystem health and human welfare, in favor of a constantly rising stock market, is wrong. The economic system that we use to run our planet is the cause of our current situation… unless we make drastic changes, it’s only going to get worse.
Stock markets have crashed, and the world is close to a financial meltdown. Businesses will go bankrupt (except those “too big to fail”) and millions of jobs will be lost. This is frustrating, but Covid-19 is echoing what we’ve been saying: deregulated capitalism and our consumer societies are not sustainable. The economic reforms that should be implemented in response to the upcoming financial crisis will also help us address our climate crisis.
Covid-19 is Nature tapping us on the shoulder, saying enough is enough — if you don’t stop valuing money over the ecosystem, I’ll shut the whole thing down. If we don’t change, at some point we will receive a collective swift kick in the ass.
We’ve seen that governments can act quickly and decisively, and people can change the way they live. That’s exactly what the climate movement has been asking for years. Covid-19 has shown us that it’s possible to do… and we always knew it was possible. It’s a question of whether there is political will for rapid change.
Covid-19 is changing lifestyles. Environmental activists have been running flight shame movements for a while, but have not been as successful as the pandemic in convincing travelers to give up flying. Major conferences are cancelled around the world. Our meetings occur on Skype and Zoom. Businesses are asking their employees to work from home. Schools are closed and universities are forced to teach online. Even climate activists are now running their protests online. This is an unprecedented opportunity for societies to explore the quality of virtual interactions, foregoing travel and face to face meetings. Some of these changes won’t be reversed once the Covid-19 crisis is over because they are cost effective and convenient.
This pandemic highlights the necessity of actions by individuals. Individual actions as simple as washing hands have been framed as making a crucial difference. Our struggle with our climate crisis also requires individual actions by billions of people. When governments grok that Covid-19 has woken the people, and that we won’t stand for inaction any longer, governments (and corporations) will take the necessary steps.
Governments will come up with the funds to build the infrastructure needed to fully roll out renewable energy. We’ve seen that they can magically produce trillions of dollars quickly when they want to. Renewable energy is already inexpensive and will only drop in price (the sun doesn’t send a bill), but the regulatory systems to enable mass adoption of clean energy require substantial government investment.
There are similarities between the pandemic and our climate crisis… in both cases, the scientific community is offering clear warnings about what to do. Both involve public health. Climate change is already killing people in extreme weather events; it’s also exacerbating food and water shortages, and it will displace hundreds of millions of people. The same pollutants that contribute heavily to our climate crisis also cause air pollution that kills millions of people every year.
Covid-19 is providing an opportunity for scientists to earn the trust of the public in an era of conspiracy theories and disinformation. We have seen how a disdain for scientific facts has greatly amplified the threat of the pandemic. While many don’t want to make the changes that scientists tell us we must, people are now more likely to trust the advice coming from climate scientists and take appropriate actions.
It’s only recently that the media has begun to cover our climate crisis in a meaningful way. That is a direct response to the level of interest expressed by the people. Ratings are everything. The pandemic has temporarily pushed our climate crisis from the headlines. The clear and present danger of Covid-19 is taking precedence. We are seeing 7/24 coverage of the virus across multiple media platforms, which is generating awareness and driving public concern.
According to a recent study by Media Matters, news shows on the major networks in the U.S. aired only 238 minutes of climate crisis coverage in 2019, which was a significant increase over 2018, but still made up only 0.7% of overall nightly broadcasts and the Sunday morning news shows. Once Covid-19 is in the rearview mirror, if it has woken us up (and I believe it will), people will express an interest in climate along with many other societal woes including income inequality, social justice, healthcare for all, etc. Media outlets will respond with increasing coverage.
Covid-19 is producing an enforced experiment in behavioral change, as increasing numbers work from home and reduce travel (environmentally friendly practices). Many people are finding out what it feels like to live a low carbon lifestyle… not because they planned it that way, but because the virus has forced it on them. They are learning that shopping as a hobby and constant consumption are not normal behaviors. And they are learning that life is OK without them. Hopefully this episode will reset their expectations, so that when things go back to normal, they will continue to get by with less.
I’ve experienced the need for social distancing, sequestering and isolation… but I haven’t been lonely. To the contrary, social media has enabled interactions with old friends and new, and long lost relatives from all over the world. And that part is key. We can communicate with almost every other person on the planet instantly. In addition to people in Australia, Canada and the UK (who obviously speak English), I’ve been in touch with people all over western Europe, in the Slavic countries and Japan. Fortunately, for me, they also speak English as a second (or third) language. I have to believe there’s a phone app in the works that will soon translate between languages on the fly. I’m sure I’m not the only one having these experiences. The virus has shown us that we are a global tribe… one people, with the same vulnerabilities to illness, the same needs for food and water (and toilet paper), and the same desire for interaction.
We can’t address our climate crisis on a cooperative basis unless we believe in the interdependence of all nations. COVID-19 is providing proof of our interconnectedness and interdependence. A disease outbreak in China has turned into the biggest domestic challenge of governments around the world, regardless of their economic, military or political might. The pandemic has taught us that fighting a global crisis in an interconnected world requires cooperation among nations, and that decisions made within each country have global implications.
The pandemic will continue to take lives and hurt the world’s economy, overshadowing climate discussions for a while. But this common enemy of all nations has the potential to help us effectively address our climate crisis by teaching us new lessons and forcing changes needed for the survival of humanity and most of the other species sharing Spaceship Earth. Let’s heed Covid-19’s tap on the shoulder and avoid that collective swift kick in the ass.