COVID-19 is a practice run for climate change

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Refrigerated trucks parked outside hospitals, being loaded up with bodies. Nurses wearing garbage bags to protect themselves against a lethal virus. Health systems in crisis in New York, Italy, and Brazil. Gun-carrying protestors overrunning statehouses in the U.S. Nearly one out of five in the American workforce unemployed. The economic future a complete unknown. 

All these things seemed unimaginable, but they are happening right now because of COVID-19. 

Kate Kressmann-Kehoe

In fact, these things were not in fact unimaginable. They were imagined by epidemiologists, and tested in simulations, from which we were to make plans. Yet we were unprepared, because we didn’t listen, and didn’t do the expensive and complicated things needed to at least mitigate the situation. 

When faced with an existential crisis, it’s a hard thing to be both motivated enough to take action and yet not be so frightened that one takes inappropriate action, or worse, be so frightened that one is paralyzed. The challenge is even tougher when the crisis is remote, because ignoring or denying it feels even easier. 

This is true for the COVID-19 epidemic—and it is true for climate change. 

There are four main ways the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change are similar. And if we learn from the first disaster, maybe we can spare ourselves from the worst consequences of the second. 

The parallel that strikes me most viscerally and profoundly about the two threats is their inescapability.  Global warming. Global pandemic. You can’t escape either by traveling. You are at risk no matter where you are. More at risk in some places, and less in others, but both challenges threaten stability in every country. 

The second parallel is the way that both problems evolve—exponentially and sometimes asymptomatically. What this means in a practical sense is that by the time it is indisputable that you have a problem, the problem has become far more difficult (or impossible) to manage. By ignoring epidemiologists’ warnings and the risks posed by early cases of COVID-19, the virus was allowed to spread and become a much larger problem. By the time environmental changes become so extreme that everyone agrees that climate change is a problem, we won’t be able to turn it around in our lifetimes. 

The third parallel is that the pandemic and climate change are both threat multipliers: They amplify existing problems and bring previously hidden vulnerabilities to the surface. COVID-19 is wreaking havoc not just in the restaurant industry, but in the education system, pharmaceutical supply chainsglobal scientific research and more. It is highlighting economic inequities and racism, from the lack of the option to work from home, to higher death rates.

Climate change cuts even deeper, since it also disrupts the natural systems on which we are entirely dependent. It is a national security risk even when we ourselves don’t face famine. Droughts in one country displace refugees, who cause political disruption and a rise in nationalist violence in others. Natural and societal systems are deeply intertwined. As one of the founders of Earth Day put it, “We depend on six inches of soil and the fact that it rains now and then.”  

The final parallel is the difficulty of communication. The impacts of both these challenges are almost inexpressible. To describe them urgently is to be called alarmist. To describe them calmly is to be ignored. 

And that brings me back to the original challenge: How do we incite a response to an existential crisis when it is still early enough that we can actually do something about it? 

The COVID-19 pandemic took only weeks to balloon into a global crisis. 

Right now, for climate change, we are probably in the same place we were for COVID-19 just before the first New York cases were reported. It’s too late to escape the impacts, but if we pull together, we can still do a lot to protect ourselves and mitigate the damage. 

A good place to start is with a policy such as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, which puts a price on carbon. And Rochester has an abundance of resources for those who want to take climate action: Rochester People’s Climate CoalitionCitizens Climate LobbyThe Pachamama Alliance/Project Drawdown, the REMADE Institute, to name just a few. 

I hope that we can look at the difference in outcomes between those who prepared for COVID-19 and those who didn’t, and take that as a call to immediate action on climate change. 

Kate Kressmann-Kehoe is a filmmaker who co-produced the documentary COMFORT ZONE about the effects of climate change in Western New York. She also volunteers with Citizens Climate Lobby, a bipartisan volunteer organization. All Rochester Beacon coronavirus articles are collected here.

13 thoughts on “COVID-19 is a practice run for climate change

  1. No one “overran” a statehouse. Protesters acted within the boundaries of the law, and were temperature screened prior to entry. Stop getting your info from Huffington Post

    • Pictures don’t lie. Protester screaming directly into a policeman‘s face. Assault rifles slung over the shoulders of protesters behind second-floor balustrades looking down. There is no purpose for this other than intimidation.

  2. Unfortunately, there are other ways in which our response to Covid-19 has parallels with climate change. One is the way in which the left wing is using it as an excuse to run roughshod over individual liberty in the name of saving the world. (Those who professed fear that Trump would become a dictator, which never came close to happening, are cheering authoritarian governors claiming unprecedented, unilateral control over economic and daily life.)

    Another is the way in which one-size-fits-all solutions are being pushed, as communities and activities with little risk are being lumped in with high risk situations.

    Another is the way in which models have had wildly varying degrees of success in predicting what would happen in the real world. (Two million Covid-19 deaths in the U.S.? The end of human life on the planet?) Loud demands to follow the “science” ignore that models are predictions, not facts, and cannot be more reliable than the data and assumptions used. They can be useful, but we need to recognize their limitations and not treat them as Delphic oracles.

    Another is the way that the dictum, “Never let a crisis go to waste,” is being used, with programs to mitigate the crisis being hijacked to indulge pre-existing policy preferences. (Much of the “Green New Deal” has little or nothing to do with climate change.)

    Another is the way in which the economic and collateral consequences of actions are ignored; saving lives from this particular danger is the only acceptable purpose, and any mention of costs is shouted down, as if there is an endless supply of resources to draw from and there are no other dangers to worry about.

    I’m not denying the dangers of either situation (though I do think the dangers have been exaggerated by some true believers). But we need to be more honest and fair about balancing the risks and benefits of what we’re going to do to deal with these and the various other important matters facing our society.

    • Kelvin, as a 30 year practicing environmental industry professional who has studied climate science for almost 20 years, I congratulate you on the brilliant and accurate comparison.

      Well done. Apparently, people in your geography need to hear from more thoughtful citizens like yourself.

  3. Excellent and informative article . The question is will our politics and information systems allow science and facts to decide elections and policy before it’s too late to address such issues .
    I believe that a functioning democracy requires a majority of citizens to at least agree on basic facts . A global pandemic that has killed over 80,000 people in two months still cannot sell scientific truth to a large portion of our people or the people they elect . The age of the Internet , with it’s promise of expanding free speech and the marketplace of ideas , has for too many trafficked in nationalism , racism , disinformation , and out right lies . It has done so too often at the expense of real ideas and real journalism . This is why we should support news and articles from the Beacon and real journalism .

    • Excellent point: “It has done so too often at the expense of real ideas and real journalism . This is why we should support news and articles from the Beacon and real journalism .”

  4. This piece is good in that it suggests we get started on the climate change problem. The solution presented is also great. To help us understand why that is the best solution, we should understand that the reason we use so much fossil carbon is because we are not paying for the pollution created when we use it. By adding a fee that increases, we can reach a point where the price for fossil carbon will hold the use to a level where the world is sustainable.

  5. Spot on. Thank you. The inequity and injustice laid bare by this pandemic is just simply atrocious and unconscionable, unacceptable. For example, the people whose health is most compromised by fossil fuel (and other pollution) are more mortally endangered by COVID-19; these people also tend to be the ones that are “frontline” service workers that have to go to work and don’t have the option to quarantine–thus, they are not only more at risk, but more exposed.

  6. The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (referred to in the original piece) is uniquely designed to address the climate conundrum in ways that can be bipartisan in their appeal. It tramples on no liberties, doesn’t invoke the heavy hand of government and depends on the free market to sort out which alternatives to fossil fuels are the most compelling. I urge conservatives interested in the issue to give it a look as a potentially much more palatable alternative to the Green New Deal.

  7. Folks, please don’t fall for this.

    The neo-environmental movement uses energy and environmental policy as their back-door means of achieving what they cannot achieve at voting booths.

    The coronavirus lockdown brought about by fear mongering is the exact same play book as they intend to use on “climate change”. Kressman-Kehoe’s article title doesn’t even pretend to hide it: “Covid-19 is a practice run for climate change”. They have become so emboldened in the face of AOC’s Green New Deal and TDS that they no longer try to hide it.

    Be forewarned – the same bad actors in favor of lockdowns under the auspices of “saving lives” are the same bad actors in favor of controlling energy under the auspices of “saving humanity and the planet”. They use the same fear mongering tactics. Their real motive is to shut down capitalism, industrialization, economic growth, and freedom, all while appearing to be altruistic and “green”.

    Please see Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans (now more than 4 million views on YouTube). As usual, Moore has it completely wrong on capitalism, industrialization, economic growth, and Constitutional Republic form of government.

    But on spinning green crucifixes (wind), sun catchers (solar) and forest incineration (“biomass”), he has it 100% correct. The sunlight he shines on these “alternative energy” technologies helps explain my comments above.

    • OK, let’s talk about motivation. What motivates climate change activists? Money? Power? Adulation of the masses? I don’t think so! My main motivation is that the prospect of global climate catastrophe scares the bejeesus out of me. What motivates climate change denial? The prospect that trillions (with a T) of dollars worth of fossil fuels will be left in the ground, where no one can make a profit off of them. This is why the fossil fuel stakeholders spend millions of dollars financing climate change denial organizations. If you really want to suss out motivation, follow the money.

      • We all find it easy to put the best possible spin on our own motives and the worst possible on our opponents. I think the vast majority of both sides aren’t evil or corrupt. Being afraid for the fate of the planet is a legitimate concern. So is being afraid for one’s livelihood or way of life. That doesn’t, however, tell us whether the concern is accurately placed, or whether the methods proposed for dealing with it are valid.

        Our governmental system is premised on a bias toward liberty, and a reluctance to impose actions on an unwilling citizenry. The considered opinion of the Founders of our country, and of most citizens in the intervening years, is that human flourishing is best supported by such a structure. It’s not purely libertarian, much less anarchic, but coercive government action is viewed as a less desirable option than allowing the free choices of individuals to order societal activity. Sometimes free choices have to be limited because of cumulative effects, but an overpowerful government is viewed as dangerous precisely because it is so difficult to oppose; if it is commandeered, we can find ourselves unable to regain what we lose.

        And that’s what climate skeptics I know fear, even more than loss of income. They see grand projects like the Green New Deal, which are premised on government being the solution to all our problems, and which lack any concept of restraint of power. They know that historically, it is far easier to expand government power than to reduce it; with rare exceptions, it’s a ratchet. Even if the true believers on climate have good intentions, they know what road good intentions can pave. They see an increasingly disconnected overclass wanting to organize everything according to what they feel is best, with little consideration for, or even understanding of, those who think differently, who have a different concept of what makes a good life. The overclass despises the “deplorables” (the word that probably cost Hillary the election); is it any wonder that the antipathy and distrust are returned?

  8. Thank you all for your comments. The disagreements here underline the importance of bipartisan problem-solving for the problem of climate change — no one group has a monopoly on the very best solutions, because all the solutions involve tradeoffs and complexity.
    It too late not to have major effects. The atmosphere is like an oil tanker — it changes direction and speed only extremely slowly. It’s past time to stop arguing whether climate change is real (alas it very much is), and start working in a meaningful and rigorous way on mitigation (reducing emissions) and adaptation (preparing for the effects that are already baked into the system).
    The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act is a bipartisan policy that is an excellent first step. This policy will reduce America’s emissions by at least 40% in the first 12 years. It is grounded in basic economic free market theory — if you want less of something, make it more expensive. It corrects the basic market failure of the externality of the damage caused by greenhouse gas emissions, by putting a price on them. It doesn’t make government bigger — in fact it pauses some regulations. And, because the wealthy use so much more energy, the majority of Americans will get more back in dividend than their costs will go up. (And those whose costs do go up, will see very small increases, percentage-wise).

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