What COVID-19 Can Teach Us About Ourselves—and Our Response to Climate Change
We are capable. As we continue to grapple with our response to COVID-19 and its aftermath on our lives and the global economy, could there be a silver lining pointing to our ability as a society to be more resilient than we had previously suspected? We have all rapidly adjusted our lives to new social distancing guidelines, new ways of working at home and navigating our personal and professional lives. One of the notable things COVID-19 has revealed about humans is our deep capacity to respond individually and collectively in the face of a global crisis.
As we face the growing risk of another major threat to society—a deepening climate change crisis—it is worth considering what COVID-19 might tell us about our ability to confront climate change, the largest global crisis any of us has ever faced.
Difficult as it may be to comprehend at this challenging moment, the estimated social and economic impacts of COVID-19 pale in comparison to those expected of climate change. We don’t always hear the roar of climate change because its effects will be felt over the next several decades. While COVID-19 is wreaking havoc quickly across the globe, many suspect we’ll be on the path of recovery by year’s end. Not so with climate change.
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“As we face the growing risk of another major threat to society—a deepening climate change crisis—it is worth considering what COVID-19 might tell us about our ability to confront climate change.”
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Climate change is here to stay. Just ask any Australian caught in the recent wildfires—or Texan that survived last year’s floods or Californian that lived through mudslides and wildfires; the climate crisis is real and increasingly severe. No short term measures like social distancing will end the climate threat. We need large-scale economic and social change, and we need to invest in solutions and take action now.
One obvious question, then, is what we, as individuals, can do in the face of the daunting climate crisis. Individual behavior actually makes a difference. Our response to COVID-19 in just the recent weeks can inspire those of us looking for answers and ways to contribute to climate change solutions.
Here are four reasons why every human can have a positive impact on the climate crisis:
1. We are capable of embracing our interconnection.
What happens in Wuhan, China affects Tulsa, Oklahoma and Modagishu, Somalia. For the first time in generations all of us, all 7.7 billion of us, are singularly focused on the same issue. COVID-19 has sparked greater recognition of our global interdependency—and hence the need for a global response. Historian Yuval Harari in response to COVID-19 reminded readers how connection builds empathy during times of crisis. “You can have bitter arguments with your siblings for years, but when some emergency occurs, you suddenly discover a hidden reservoir of trust and amity, and you rush to help one another.”
So what might our reinforced sense of connection mean for climate change?
A core challenge to addressing climate change over the last several decades has been a reluctance to recognize that climate change will affect everyone, everywhere, at some point in time. Whether it be floods or wildfires, water scarcity or an influx of refugees, every region and its inhabitants will be affected, one way or another. While Germany may not come to mind as particularly prone to climate change impacts, a climate change-related drought in Syria triggered civil strife, leading to forced migration into Europe which in turn led to far-right extremism in Germany. Likewise, sea level rise and extreme heat in the US southeast will increasingly trigger displacement, exacerbating poverty, homelessness and the need for a stronger support system.
Like COVID-19, climate change knows no boundaries and will affect all populations. If we take Harari’s lesson to heart, the next step is for all of us to recognize that we’re in this together, find our hidden reservoir of amity, and collaborate on solutions.
2. Change is hard, but maybe not as hard as we thought.
Another widely held belief for why we don’t respond more quickly to the urgency of the climate crisis is that adopting new habits is hard. Yes, behavior change can be a difficult and lengthy process—but in the span of just several weeks our response to COVID-19 is helping us all re-imagine what the future might look like in terms of how we work and communicate. “We’ve seen that governments can act, and people can change their behavior, in a very short amount of time,” says May Boeve, executive director of the climate advocacy group 350.org. “And that’s exactly what the climate movement has been asking governments and people to do for years.”
Many who have been lucky enough to keep their jobs in the age of COVID-19 have happily discovered that working from home every once in a while was not so bad after all. While it may not be optimal every day post-COVID-19, occasionally working from home enables people to attend to house chores and spend more time with loved ones. What’s more, they’re not commuting, saving them time and money while generating fewer greenhouse gas emissions. And while we’ve all encountered some of the technical limits of our telephony as we switched en masse to videoconferencing, this change in particular has unleashed unprecedented and radical collaboration and knowledge transfer across time zones. Virtual conferences mean less air flight and hence fewer emissions.
When we all do finally emerge from our homestays once COVID-19 eases up, we can choose to go back to the old normal, or we can choose a new normal incorporating some of what we’ve tried out with COVID-19, perhaps work-at-home Fridays and some virtual conferences. It would be a new normal that’s better for us, and better for the planet.
3. Nature is capable of regenerating—if we step off her toes.
In West Los Angeles, residents are seeing the other side of the bay for the first time in years: the infamous smog lifted in just two weeks of lockdown. New York’s carbon monoxide emissions dropped 50 percent in days, while in Chinese cities carbon dioxide emissions dropped 25%. The effects are tangible: during the crisis, residents of Hubei enjoyed a 21% increase in “good quality air days.” When humans reduce pressure on the environment, the Earth has an incredibly powerful capacity to rebound. The positive implications are multifold: fewer chronic respiratory problems, cleaner water, and fewer premature deaths, not to mention abundant healthier nature to enjoy. We should be careful of celebrating too soon, however, as historic data suggests that following economic recessions, emissions rebound when the recovery process is poorly designed and careless with respect to climate change.
The difference this time is that we can still choose to incorporate climate change into our recovery strategies. If government stimulus packages include green infrastructure incentives and emissions reductions for airlines and other industries, and private investment bolsters clean technology and nature-based solutions, climate change can spur economic activity that pulls us out of the COVID-19 economic slump. It has the potential to unfurl decades of economic growth with new jobs, new industries, and opportunities for greater wealth distribution, not to mention lower emissions.
As we recover from COVID-19, let’s bear in mind that nature is our ally in addressing climate change. If we do our part of re-designing our economic system to incorporate more green jobs and green infrastructure while reducing the demands we make on the environment, nature will do its part of rebounding at astounding rates.
4. Our individual actions matter—and can have a tangible impact.
Over the past several weeks we’ve all taken to heart the message that if you stay at home, you are preventing the spread of the COVID-19 virus and you are contributing to the broader effort of slowing further transmission. You are widely recognized to be part of the solution. With climate change, we’ve held on to a fallacy for many years that an individual action makes no difference in the big picture. A friend may say, “I like using a plastic straw with my soda, one more doesn’t make a difference.” But even the small choices you make matter and can make a difference on the climate. Just like every person staying home is part of the COVID-19 solution, every person choosing to use a reusable bag at the grocery store rather than a plastic bag, or bike instead of drive, is choosing to be part of the climate change solution. You can, too, and it won’t be nearly as hard as social distancing! To break the inertia, in our next article we’ll share 9 ways you can take action on climate change — through measuring your carbon footprint, eating less carbon intensive food, buying green fashion, offsetting your emissions, and more — and we’ll provide you with resources to get started right away.
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“Even the small choices you make matter and can make a difference on the climate.”
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If there is a bright side to the COVID-19 crisis it is this: COVID-19 has shown us that we are capable of cooperating through greater interconnection, quickly shifting our habits, and easing up on our demands on nature so we can allow it to regenerate. And every one of these changes triggers a tangible impact. Let’s take this opportunity to learn from our capacity to adapt to crises like COVID-19 and transition to a new normal that is better for people and our planet.
Stay tuned for a follow up article highlighting nine simple actions just about anyone can take to become part of the climate change solution. Every small step counts.