Despite all the chaos and suffering caused by COVID-19, there is much to restore our faith in humanity and brighten our day. In my neighborhood at least, more people are out walking and acknowledging each other with a smile and a few words than I ever recall. Kids are even playing outside and clearly enjoying the unstructured time.
There’s something happening indoors, as well. The socializing we’re doing online is not only unprecedented but also wonderfully humanizing. As Elizabeth Renzetti wrote recently in the Globe and Mail, platforms like Zoom and Skype are providing a window onto our normal, disheveled selves, our messy houses, and the general chaos we live in as kids yell and traipse around off camera. It feels good to know that others don’t lead perfect lives, either.
Everywhere, people are responding to the pandemic with love and kindness, be it running errands for others, buying online from local businesses, showing support for local health workers, and some of us even making masks or face shields for hospitals.
Nature, too, seems to be breathing a sigh of relief. Animals are venturing out into places they would typically avoid, including a cougar on the empty streets of Santiago, Chile. In China and India, the smog has lifted, thanks to a 25 percent reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Thousands of deaths from air pollution have been avoided, at least temporarily.
However, this reduction in emissions doesn’t mean much when it comes to the big climate change picture. Concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere remain at historically high levels, and the reductions we are seeing are expected to be short-lived. The bottom line remains the same. We need to reduce emissions by 50 percent this decade.
As climate scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe asked recently, “Will we use this (the pandemic) as an opportunity to rethink our future?” Will the fear and urgency transfer from a fast-moving crisis like COVID-19 to a slower-moving emergency like climate? Will people’s new behaviors around living a less carbon-intense lifestyle result in lasting change? And, most importantly, will governments and corporations find a new zeal in decarbonizing the economy? Yes, it’s difficult to juggle two crises at the same time, but that is the reality we are facing.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. The bailouts, stimulus plans, and employment programs that governments are preparing will determine the shape of our economies for years to come. They will have a huge effect – positive or negative – on carbon emissions.
Lessons from COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has been incredibly instructive. Even if it’s too soon to draw up a definitive list of lessons, here is some of what we’ve learned so far.
- It has exposed the falsehood that governments don’t have the financial means or public support to respond to clear and present danger – an argument often used to delay action on climate.
- It is a reminder that humans are terrible at dealing with future risks. The pandemic has laid bare the failure on the part of governments to invest sufficiently in preparation, even though scientists had warned us for decades that a pandemic was coming. We even had the lessons of SARS.
- The novel coronavirus reveals just how interconnected our world is and that we are not isolated from what happens in other countries. The speed at which the virus has spread is astounding. No country can isolate itself – not from the coronavirus and not from climate change. We are all in this together.
- The pandemic has also exposed the devastating irresponsibility of emasculating government through low taxes, deep cuts to regulations, and privatization of key services. The neo-liberal worldview based on hyper individualism, cut-throat competition, barebones government, and maximization of profits at all costs is largely responsible for the devastation of COVID-19 and for the climate crisis.
- We are seeing the consequences of distrust in science. Even in Canada, many sectors of the population think that experts and scientists are not trustworthy. Hopefully, this pandemic will help engender a new respect for science. Now, scientists are warning us of the likelihood of more pandemics as a result of environmental devastation and warming temperatures. We need look no further than the spread of disease-carrying mosquitoes and the ticks that cause Lyme disease. The net result is an increased danger of being exposed to new pathogens.
COVID-19 vs Climate
Although these two threats have much in common in terms of the devastation they can cause, there are fundamental differences. COVID-19, for example, is unfolding rapidly, and demanding all our attention. It is easy for our brains to conceptualize, and the solutions are relatively simple to identify. The time horizon is one of months or, at most, a couple of years. In other words, the threat is temporary. With this pandemic, shifts in individual behavior make a huge difference, both to society at large and to one’s personal health. What’s more, these behavioral shifts will only need to last as long as it takes to develop a vaccine.
Climate change, on the other hand, unfolds slowly and over decades. For much of the world, the changes it brings about are almost imperceptible and quickly become the new normal. It’s always difficult to point to a single event and say, “That’s climate change.” Beyond events like the Australia wildfires or dying coral reefs, you rarely have the kind of ‘gotcha moment’ that you do with this virus where hundreds die every day. However, for many parts of the world, climate change already means severe floods, rising sea levels, loss of biodiversity, severe heat events, decreased agricultural yields, and mass human migration that could overwhelm existing economies. It’s just a matter of time until these impacts threaten civilization as we know it.
Unlike COVID-19, the causes, impacts, key actors, and preferred solutions regarding climate change are heavily contested. The solutions require much more than changes in personal behavior. Given the scale of the climate problem, it doesn’t matter a great deal if we take fewer flights, telecommute, eat out less, or buy green products. Only through massive government intervention and regulations will we have any hope of reducing greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently.
There is more troubling news for the fight against climate change. Social-distancing requirements mean that climate activism, which to a large degree depends on large public gatherings, will almost certainly retreat from the public eye. International climate talks, like the crucial COP26 where countries are to make more aggressive emission cut pledges, have also been postponed for the foreseeable future.
The future we need
We must use this once in a lifetime opportunity to create a new economy that treats both people and the planet with respect. Relaxing environmental regulations to boost post-pandemic economic recovery would be devastating. We can’t rely on the same market logic that got us into the climate crisis and left us woefully unprepared for COVID-19.
As the nations of the world prepare to stimulate and bail their way out of the coming recession, economic recovery decisions must accelerate innovation and decarbonization. This means funding clean energy and clean transportation. We also need massive government investment in public health and public infrastructure to adapt to the severe weather events that are coming. We need to forge a new social contract that protects and provides for the most vulnerable who will be hit hardest by the climate crisis. This must include livable minimum wages – or even better, a guaranteed annual income.
We also need to think twice about bailing out the oil and gas industry. Inevitably, some money will be going their way, but let’s consider what to ask for in return, namely a halt to further expansion and a gradual shutting down of most of the industry. This means, of course, launching massive retraining programs to assure that workers who are left unemployed can find jobs in new growth areas like green energy.
We must also rethink what a society can look like. This must include a new kind of politics based on a thriving civic life and a new sense of belonging: to neighbours, neighbourhoods and society. It also means protecting democracy through electoral reform and reaching out across divides to find common ground.
What you can do
- Use this time to build networks of solidarity and community. Share your hopes and desires for the future over social media and platforms like Zoom.
- The government of Canada is considering bail-out financing for the fossil-fuel industry. Write to Justin Trudeau and your local MP, with copies to the heads of the NDP, Greens and Bloc Quebecois. Ask them to fund the transition to green energy and transportation and to limit the support given to a dying fossil-fuel industry.
The recovery packages – whatever they look like – will be one of society’s most important decisions ever. We need to use the funds being mobilized to coherently address all these crises at the same time: economic collapse, COVID-19, climate change, inequality, and even democracy. Finally, as American author Rebecca Solnit wrote recently: “When this storm clears, we may, as do people who have survived a serious illness or accident…feel free to pursue change in ways that seemed impossible while the ice of the status quo was locked up. We may have a profoundly different sense of ourselves, our communities, our systems of production and our future.”