Born out of the live animal market in Wuhan, China, the CORONAVIRUS has exploded into an international pandemic with phenomenal ripple effects.
China quarantined millions of people and basically shut down its economy.
Italian leaders grounded flights, suspended mortgage payments, and cleared streets with mandatory lock-downs.
Trump unilaterally banned all travel from European countries.
Swift and drastic action seems to be following in the footsteps of COVID-19
And as someone who spends most of his time grappling with the specter called climate change, I can’t help but notice the stark contrast in the global response between climate change and the coronavirus.
Today, I want to dig into this difference with a simple question: what can we learn from the response to COVID-19 and how can we apply it to climate change?
First of all, the Coronavirus (or COVID-19) is a serious global issue. At the time of writing this, the global death toll has reached over 4,700 and will no doubt continue to rise. In the face of this crisis, the news and social media have gone haywire–exhaustively covering the virus with constant coverage of death tolls and quarantines. Yet in contrast, an environmental problem like air pollution, which has been estimated to cause 4.5-7 million premature deaths every year rarely makes headlines.
So, instead of adding to the barrage of coronavirus coverage, I want to use the global response to COVID-19 as a tool to understand the best approach to spurring immediate climate action, because, let’s face it, if we responded to the threat of climate change the way we have to the coronavirus, we would be well on our way to a zero-carbon future.
Before we can dive into this analysis, however, we must first understand the differences between the two crises. And the starkest contrast between the two has to do with time. While climate change slowly builds–becoming a catastrophic threat over the course of decades, Coronavirus is immediate and right in our face. As a result, climate change research and evidence is more easily called into doubt, making it much harder for global leaders to act confidently and swiftly on environmental issues.
Coronavirus, on the other hand, sprung up quickly, and there’s a very clear connection between cause and effect. We know that it’s a virus that travels through respiratory droplets produced when a person coughs or sneezes. With this knowledge, we are then able to draw a clear line between actions and consequences. We know for sure that actions washing your hands and quarantines will directly hinder the spread of the virus. Climate change, however, is not so simple.
This is due to not only its gradual timeline and scale but also to the successful obfuscation campaigns run by fossil fuel giants like ExxonMobil. At first glance, it seems like there is no direct line between taking action and seeing change.
My fellow researcher, ClimateAdam, put his view on the Coronavirus this way: “I mean climate change certainly is costing lives today, but the link between a particular death and between our emissions is long and tangled. Yes, of course, from one example climate change is making certain extreme weather events more likely, raising the risk of death either directly from that extreme event or indirectly through things that extreme event contributes to, but compare that to this statement: coronavirus has already cost over a thousand lives. That second statement is so much more direct and so is our response to it.”
In short, there are not only more incentives for those with power to stymie climate action than there are to prevent the coronavirus, but we are also more psychologically and structurally equipped to deal with short-term, clear-and-present dangers like Coronavirus, and less able to tackle multi-decade problems like climate change.
Despite these differences, and in some ways because of these differences, there is a lot to learn from how we’ve responded to COVID-19.
One of the big lessons is that there is a very clear connection between emissions rates and the economy. This NASA satellite image shows the steep drop in Nitrogen Dioxide air pollution during the sharp decline in economic activity as a result of China’s rapid and aggressive response to the Coronavirus.
CarbonBrief asserts that China’s coronavirus shutdown temporarily decreased the country’s CO2 emissions by a quarter, which Stanford Professor Marshall Burke predicts might have possibly reduced the number of premature deaths due to air pollution, so much so that China’s overall mortality rate might have decreased in the two months during the height of the coronavirus shutdowns. The point here, as Burke notes, is not that pandemics are good or necessary, it’s instead that there is a large, hidden toll of fossil fuel emissions that is here and now. But to prevent the millions of future deaths caused directly through burning fossil fuels or indirectly through the consequences of a hotter planet, the world needs to act quickly to create rapid and drastic structural change.
The often-quoted Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report asserts that we have until 2030 to make sharp global emission cuts, which many argue is impossible. Luckily, we’ve just seen that it’s not. The Coronavirus definitively shows that collective, large-scale, structural change is feasible in the face of a crisis. And climate change is the biggest crisis of our generation. As Amy Jaffe, director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Energy Security and Climate Change program, puts it, “Suppose you were a policymaker, and you were thinking about what you would do to lower emissions — you just got a pretty good instruction.”
Because of the Coronavirus, countries like Italy have almost done away with travel, many previously busy streets are now free of cars. Workweeks are shortening for some, others are embracing the potential of video chat and messaging software instead of traveling long distances, and some companies have staggered work shifts to reduce traffic. Temporary bike lanes were set up all over New York City, and walking and biking were encouraged over other transportation options.
Of course, the answer to climate change is not to quarantine everyone in their homes, that would be an absolute disaster. The response to the Coronavirus demonstrates that planned economic slowdowns are not only possible but necessary to cut emissions drastically. But this type of fast structural change shows that without robust social safety nets like a clean jobs guarantee, extensive free public transit, or a strong low-carbon low-cost public housing system, degrowth will harm millions.
Climate action propositions like the Green New Deal need to incorporate this type of essential framework in their policy-making because to combat climate change quickly we need a rapid structural transition. A break from the status quo.
But what’s key is that this slowdown doesn’t have to mean job loss, worry, and pain, it can instead mean opportunity, free time, and a more intentional, quality-driven economy. In short, Coronavirus shows us that the rapid emissions reductions called for in the IPCC report are not a pipe dream, they can and are happening. The virus demonstrates that to garner support for this needed action we need to treat climate change like it really is: a crisis.
But it also shows us one more thing: that the needed reduction in emissions through degrowth has to be coupled with strong safety nets like healthcare and childcare for all, to catch those affected by an economy-wide transition to a fossil-fuel-free world. COVID-19 is scary and is affecting the whole world, but if we don’t act in the same way about climate change, the effects of a hotter planet will be much worse.
The Coronavirus response has shown us a path forward, we just need to have the courage to break from the status quo and go down it. My Prayers and thoughts are with you as we sail through this very tough time of COVID-19 Pandemic.
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