Over the past two months, many of us have struggled with how to think about climate change during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the pandemic has not changed the physics of climate change or in any way reduced the seriousness of the climate crisis, being in the midst of a fast moving threat like COVID-19 can make it more difficult to pay attention to a slow moving disaster like climate change.
We know the impacts of climate change are going to be serious, and – if left unabated – the climate crisis will result in tens of millions of lives lost. But because those deaths will be spread over the next 50 plus years, it’s easier to ignore the seriousness of climate change in the midst of the current pandemic. With that in mind, here’s a guide to thinking about climate change in the age of coronavirus:
1. If you can’t think about it, don’t. This is a global pandemic, but we’re all experiencing it differently. Some of us have loved ones who are sick or have passed away, while others have stayed healthy. Some people are still working their normal jobs at home, while others are risking their health to ensure essential services such as healthcare, food, and utilities are uninterrupted. Some of us are no longer working and are worried about paying bills and putting food on the table. If you’re not in a good place, it's okay to focus on the day-to-day and take a break from thinking about the future.
2. Communities at higher risk from climate impacts are also at higher risk from COVID-19. In any disaster, low income communities are the most vulnerable. In the case of coronavirus, people in these communities often cannot afford to shelter-in-place and many of them have additional risk factors such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and limited access to healthcare. Early data also suggests that communities of color suffer from higher infection and mortality. It is becoming clear that even small increases in air pollution where people live can dramatically increase mortality from COVID-19 and low income and minority communities are more likely to be located in areas with high air pollution. The vast majority of this air pollution is created through the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels, which leads to climate change.
3. The individuals and organizations destroying the environment aren’t slowing down. For most of us, disasters are times to put aside our differences and work together to help solve the urgent problem at hand. Unfortunately, those who find value in exploiting our natural resources for short-term gain do not share this sentiment. While much of the world is focused on addressing the pandemic, fossil fuel companies and some government agencies are taking advantage of the chaos and moving forward with changes and regulations that will be with us for years to come. The EPA has relaxed pollution regulations, while land management agencies are increasing access to public lands for fossil fuel extraction. Some of this is happening right in our backyard: a Bureau of Land Management drilling plan for the North Fork Valley around Paonia opens up massive amounts of land to oil and gas development threatening local food production. Several states have made it illegal to protest fossil fuel infrastructure, meanwhile fossil fuel companies in the US and Canada are using the pandemic as an opportunity to push through the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. For a full list of the climate policies being propagated during the pandemic, see Drilled News. For a list of how fossil fuel companies are trying to profit during this crisis, see #NoBigOilBailout.
4. All crises are connected. A crisis doesn’t happen in a vacuum. While the impacts of the climate crisis will be spread out over time, we also know that these changes are already being felt. Climate change is impacting extreme weather events, and some of the worst natural disasters have been made more severe because of climate change. As we head into the summer season, we need to prepare for hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires amidst a pandemic. Read more about climate disasters and the coronavirus pandemic from ProPublica.
5. Coronavirus is not good for the environment and it won’t save us from climate change. You’ve probably seen the pictures of smog free cities and likely read stories about decreases in carbon dioxide emissions because of stay-at-home orders. As comforting as these pictures are, country-wide lockdowns are not a sustainable environmental solution. Eventually, restrictions will be lifted and when that happens emissions will quickly rebound and smog will return. Additionally, while lockdowns have temporarily slowed emissions, they have also slowed or stopped the construction of renewables. We need a comprehensive climate plan to address climate change, not a virus.
6. The decisions we make over the next few months will have impacts for decades to come. So far, Congress has approved almost $3 trillion in spending to address the coronavirus pandemic. Much of this funding has been directed towards corporations, small businesses, and individuals with the goal of helping them weather the national shutdown. Whenever the economy begins to reopen, it is likely that there will be additional spending with the goal of getting people back to work. These funds could be used to help drive the energy transition, or they could be used for fossil fuel infrastructure that will lock in emissions for years to come.
Disasters reframe how we look at the world. Whether it's the loss of a loved one, a hurricane, or a pandemic, in each case we find our field of vision narrowing. During a disaster, we focus on what’s right in front of us, making it from day-to-day, and we stop thinking long-term. Disasters also bring out the best and worst in our species. At our best, we are helping our neighbors and making sure the most vulnerable among us are cared for. At our worst, we work to profit off of other people’s misfortune.
During any disaster, whether it’s climate change or coronavirus, we need to work to support the most vulnerable among us. If we are able to, we have a responsibility to help and guard against those, such as fossil fuel companies, trying to take advantage of the chaos. Disasters are times of great change. And as we look forward, it is more important than ever that we move our society in a more sustainable direction. The choices we make in the next few months will help shape the climate crisis. Will it be a disaster orders of magnitude larger than the coronavirus pandemic, or will it be a story of how we came together to collectively build a more sustainable future?
~ Adam McCurdy, ACES Forest & Climate Director