State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


What Coronavirus and Climate Change Have in Common

people wearing bags and masks over their faces
Photo: Pexels

The climate crisis is typically uncontested in its position as the most flagrantly ignored crisis of our species, but last week, in the U.S. at least, the coronavirus pandemic has taken the cake.

As a climate scientist, I am choking on the obvious analogy here. Both crises start with experts issuing warnings about big invisible monsters and end with catastrophic consequences that are nearly unstoppable by the time they can be seen and felt.

Along the way, the purveyors of information are hurdled through a disorienting character arc, taking them from liars and public enemies to benevolent prophets to “our only hope,” sometimes all within a week. Throw in poor government leadership, stripped research funding, and populations fleeing vulnerable areas and we’ve got ourselves a nearly circular Venn diagram of plot points.

Relentless messaging from public health and infectious disease experts, which was initially criticized as false and exaggerated, has now shown to be true, even conservative in its original urgency. Yet, even as the pandemic’s impacts unfurl nationally, too many of us seem to compromise best public health practices for the maintenance of our daily routine (said callously by and to those with the privilege of choice in whether or not to adhere — for many, the realities of life in this country offer no option to not work or move around).

Working remotely while still going out to eat feels like the equivalent of sipping from a reusable straw on a carbon-gushing airplane. I guess technically something is being done, but it isn’t solving the real problem.

Every bit of pandemic skepticism or quarantine flippancy that falls from the lips of pundits, friends, and our president triggers an already-tired link to my own work in climate adaptation and communication. Denial followed by an acquiescence to science and then, an alarmed scramble to follow old advice is a both familiar and foreshadowing sequence.

Cue parallels between the rising tide turned full tsunami of coronavirus cases and (ahem) the actual rising sea. The bump in cancelled events, remote working, unemployment, empty public spaces, closed schools, slammed hospitals, and deaths feels like a spooky preview for a flick we’re about to have to watch over and over.

So much climate messaging calls for people to imagine a world full of unprecedented changes and act now to stop them; but the very nature of unprecedented changes means there is no memory or experience which we can graft an understanding onto. Will this pandemic change that?

Will watching much of the world do its best to come to a screeching halt in a matter of weeks give us an idea of how promptly and radically we need to change our lifestyles to address a global problem? Will the cascade of effects on both actual people and our ways of life make real what is at stake?

Elva Bennet is a senior research staff assistant at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University. 

A version of this post was originally published on Medium

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