Coronavirus has shown us why we haven’t acted on climate change
The response was incredible.
Borders closed. Flights grounded. Billions of people ordered to stay at home.
It was something almost unthinkable, that the world could be put on hold at the expense of the global economy in an effort to save the lives of vulnerable people everywhere. Yet we did it.
Amidst all the strict and unprecedented measures, a popular meme began circulating: “Climate change should hire coronavirus’ publicist!”
Comments and responses to this meme were, to say the least, varied. People threw in their two cents, which ranged from angry attacks on human beings (as if they weren’t a part of our species) to denial of the dangers of climate change to full-blown conspiracies about why governments were entering lockdown. The most common response, however, was agreement that climate change is a problem — and governments should react as strongly as they did to COVID to stop the impending doom that is facing our planet.
But it’s not that simple.
CoV-SARS-19, the virus that causes COVID-19, is a discrete event — you can’t see the virus but you can see its effects, measured in numbers, and it has the potential to kill you or people close to you in the short-term. This is why the response has been so swift compared with the response to climate change: it affects the human body, not the environment. You can die from it; the direct cause can be pinpointed to a virus, and the way to ensure you don’t die from it is to not get it in the first place. Climate change, on the other hand, affects the environment and the effects slowly develop over years — in some cases, they happen so gradually you can’t feel them, you can only see them from comparing detailed measurements.
A virus is a cliff, with a drop off point and a ledge to avoid. Climate change is a hill, with a gradual downward acceleration that will be nearly impossible to stop once it reaches a certain speed.
The Cliff Analogy
COVID has a very visible cliff ledge, which has led to unprecedented actions by governments and companies around the world. The pace of change at the height of the pandemic was remarkable — daily news updates were no longer valid as restrictions and closures were changing by the hour.
Climate change is slow, and the response has been even slower. Even when things happen — like they have been with droughts, hurricane intensity, and sea-level rise — people are slow to act because there is no intrinsically-felt threat. A four-centimeter rise in the Atlantic sea-level won’t kill you like a virus potentially could. Yes, we know (or, at least those not in denial know) how these changes will lead to more deaths in the future. But that doesn’t have the same impact as something that can kill you or your loved ones right now, in front of your eyes.
The Permanence Issue
We’ve seen what it has taken to slow the virus with a virtual shutdown of the world. In order to stem climate change at our current capacity, it would take even more drastic measures.
In the end, climate change will claim more lives than COVID-19, but it won’t be a point source like the virus. It will be cross-boundary, complex interactions with non-point source causes.
COVID-19 has the novel coronavirus at the source of the suffering. You can point to it, at least metaphorically, and you can avoid its attack on the body by not catching it.
Climate change is so much more complex and difficult to avoid. And unlike with the measures put in place to stop the virus, the shutdown would be permanent, given that we don’t have enough alternate energy sources to adequately supply our demand.
Think about that for a minute.
The Travel Problem
Partial shutdown of domestic travel and full shutdown of virtually all international travel has greatly impacted lives.
Imagine if flights were grounded permanently rather than indefinitely. That’s what it would require to stop all aviation-related carbon emissions.
And that’s not even taking into consideration a shutdown of trucking and shipping, both of which have much higher global carbon footprints than air travel. Electric vehicles that aren’t charged on renewable or carbon-free electricity would be out too. That essentially leaves places like Norway and Manitoba, or others with substantial hydro or similar carbon-free electricity resources, to provide electricity for transport vehicles. Even then, the vehicles themselves would no longer be manufactured as that would require fossil fuels.
It’s really a deep rabbit hole when you really look at how everything is interconnected and how much we rely on oil for everyday life.
Imagine not being able to order anything that isn’t local. No food that can’t be grown in your region, no products that aren’t manufactured nearby. None of it. Now, think about all the jobs that would be lost in the travel, transportation, and food industries. We are talking about a completely different way of life, something alien to nearly everyone living in the 21st Century.
While some might be in favour of only buying local and be fine with not travelling by air, I fear that it would have a more problematic effect than simply eschewing convenience. It would take away our ability to explore and to experience different cultures — and I worry that it would affect us further by eliminating space travel and the accompanying advances that it brings to society, in all its forms.
Personally, I think ceasing to explore is more dangerous to human beings than climate change — and I think climate change is extremely dangerous.
That’s how important I think it is for us to look out to the stars and experience new places.
The Economic Problem
The economy is headed for the worst recession since the Great Depression — maybe even greater.
If we were to cut carbon emissions to zero at our current state it would be much, much worse.
Maybe the shutdown has shown that we are capable of adapting — or maybe it’s going to make people fear more. Given that there were protests and riots to open up the economy after less than two months on a partial lockdown in the United States, I would lean more towards the latter.
But only time will tell. This will either show that we are capable of weathering a storm of drastic hindrances to travel, the economy, and our personal lives — or it will lead to more protectionist policies and an even worse response to climate change as governments try to resurrect economies.
We will see. And to be honest, I don’t know which route will be better for human life, at least in the short term. In the long term, we need to change or a warming climate will cause worse problems than the virus at its peak.
But we need to address this challenge without subjecting the populace to an eternal lockdown.
The key is putting our money and effort into better technologies and better practices that will get rid of the carbon without getting rid of our standard of living or quality of life.
In the end, we might not need coronavirus’ publicist
Fortunately, though our reaction to climate change has been much less stark than it was to this deadly viral threat, the pandemic itself may be pushing urgency on climate action.
We may be forced to change our habits, divest from fossil fuels, and come up with new solutions in the process.
In fact, I wrote an accompanying article to this one explaining how the new normal won’t be a return to normal — it will be better.
I only hope that, unlike most of my predictions, this one is right.
That would be nice.