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.
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 chains, global 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 Coalition, Citizens Climate Lobby, The 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.