earthweal weekly challenge: PANDEMIC AND CLIMATE CHANGE

Tom Toles / Washington Post

There has been a “clear” immediate effect of pandemic on climate change. With economic activity flattened worldwide, highways are emptied, factories are at a standstill, jet traffic lulls. In China alone, carbon emissions were down 25 percent in January—an amount equivalent to half the annual emissions of Britain.

The change is palpable. You can see blue skies in Los Angeles. The waters are clear in Venice. People are outside walking. One researcher at Stanford University estimated that the reduction of air pollution in China alone for two months was enough to save 50,000 people who would have otherwise died prematurely.

That’s a good deal, but it is short-term. The engines will rev up again once the epidemic is under control or a vaccine has been widely administered. The curtain of one crisis will fall, fading into another much more lasting. Meehan Crist writes,

To be clear, the coronavirus pandemic is a tragedy — a human nightmare unspooling in overloaded hospitals and unemployment offices with unnerving speed, barreling toward a horizon darkened by economic disaster and crowded with portents of suffering to come. But this global crisis is also an inflection point for that other global crisis, the slower one with even higher stakes, which remains the backdrop against which modernity now plays out. As the United Nations’ secretary general recently noted, the threat from coronavirus is temporary whereas the threat from heat waves, floods and extreme storms resulting in the loss of human life will remain with us for years.

There are eerie similarities between pandemic and climate change. Infection rates follow an upward spike similar to the upward curve of increasing carbon in the atmosphere. But the time scales are vastly different, one realized in weeks, the other in decades.

As Lawrence Torcello and Michael Mann write, both pandemic and climate change are wicked problems where acting smart is crucial .

As with climate change, understanding the difference between recommendations based on good science and reckless opining or misinforming is critical, and as with climate change, taking appropriate action now will pay future dividends. Likewise, the necessary disruptions to everyday life and the status-quo might not seem so indispensable to those who aren’t directly experiencing the worst impacts of COVID-19 or of climate change. In both cases, however, the reality is that the slower we are to react, the higher the cost will be in death as well as economic loss.

 “Flattening the curve” is the product of collective action in both cases, and the economic impact is equally drastic—plenty of pain up front to minimize long term impacts. And in both cases, doing to little will be far more costly.

Resistance to the actions necessary to resolve both crises are coming from the same quarter, amplified by right-wing media and blessed by leaders struggling for power. (Great clip by The Daily Show titled “Saluting The Heroes of the Pandumbic”) The response from these people to both climate change and now the pandemic is so identical, you have to wonder if the two crises bear a single a truth.  (Of course they do.) Climate scientist Katharine Hayhow tweeted, “The six stages of climate denial are: It’s not real. It’s not us. It’s not that bad. It’s too expensive to fix. Aha, here’s a great solution (that actually does nothing). And—oh no! Now it’s too late. You really should have warned us earlier.” Wait! Is she talking about climate change, or the pandemic?

The Trump administration is racing to roll back environmental regulations and privatize public lands ahead of the upcoming election. Taking advantage of scaled-back pollution enforcement due to the pandemic, the EPA and the Interior Department are racing though deregulation measures—like lifting migratory bird protections and holding oil and gas sales with little or no opportunity for public comment. And just a few days ago, the Trump administration rolled back Obama-era vehicle mileage standards, raising the ceiling on damaging fossil fuel emissions for years to come and gutting one of the United States’ biggest efforts against climate change.

Rebuilding our economic infrastructure is required by both and it will take great leadership and cooperation from every level of government—especially between the parties. (Hissing from the hard right isn’t helping, nor is the “we’ll give everything away for free” from the left.) Certainly the necessity weighs heavily enough to achieve something significant. In the U.S. ten million people filed for unemployment in just two weeks, overwhelming state unemployment offices. Once the big curve is flattened, no one know what jobs there will be to return to; now may be the time for significant investment in green-energy jobs. President Obama had promised them in the wake of the Great Recession, and the Green New Deal was proposed as a way forward into the age of climate change.

It is hoped that there may be habits learned in this short term which could be of great help in addressing the long-term challenges of climate change—reduced long-distance travel, say, or less dependence on automobiles (long-term unemployment will devastate the commute for many.)

The pandemic comes at an awful time for the oil and gas industry as oil prices have been depressed due to a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia; the plunging demand for gas due to people staying at home has put the industry in survival mode. Rates of return for oil and gas projects have slumped from 20 percent to about 6, making sustainable energy projects much more attractive. Will the industry bounce back with the resumption of business, or will this finally push the industry into a retreat that will finally give the climate a chance to recover?

Let us not think climate change has been shelved in any significant way except for our awareness. What we experience in the climate this year is largely the product of increased carbon emissions twenty years ago. The Great Barrier Reef off Australia is being further devastated by the third major bleaching event in the past five years. The Gulf of Mexico is three degrees above normal, spelling intensified thunderstorm and hurricane activity for the region. And where the pandemic has kept people indoors and off the streets, clearing skies and waters, it has hurt climate change progress in other ways. And crucial UN climate talks scheduled in Glasgow for November have been delayed a year due to the coronavirus. We might be focused elsewhere, but the crisis has not at all.

Many things to think about.

For this challenge, write about pandemic and climate change together.

  • How are the two issues similar, how do they differ?
  • What if pandemic is an accelerated petri dish for understanding the arc of climate change?
  • What have you learned about self-sacrifice for a longer common good in the pandemic, and how has that changed your perspective on climate change?
  • Where do the two blossom, how do they bleed?
  • Has the public’s attention to the climate change crisis been enhanced or diminished by pandemic, or both?
  • Is pandemic a synecdoche of climate change, where a part represents the whole? Does it serve as a lens for seeing better the grander sweep?
  • Does the dramatic uptick of human mortality in pandemic help us understand the extinction cascade of so many species caused by climate change?
  • A recent challenge looked at the weird mosh-pit of timescales caused by climate change—where geologic ages have become entangled with human days—is this another example?
  • Does the accelerated drama of pandemic and the possibilities of human intervention for good show us how the same is possible with climate change?
  • What of a collective refusal of fossil-fuel living, learned by necessity during pandemic, continued in order to flatten the curve of carbon emissions?

Much to write about!

—Brendan

10 thoughts on “earthweal weekly challenge: PANDEMIC AND CLIMATE CHANGE

  1. Excellently penned, Brendan, as always. The two things are hand in hand for sure, but focus is on the immediate threat right now, which delays action on the underlying, and longer-term one. Until we find a more sustainable way to operate than capitalism, not enough change will happen. Even Trudeau is fixed in place when it comes to the oilsands, against all environmental and economic sense. Man camps that have the disease are still operating and they fly in 600 new victims every two weeks. Capitalism remains blind to its cost to the earth. A switch to clean energy would employ people across the country, but governments seem to only know the same old way to go forward. My best hope for my friends south of the border is that you elect someone else as soon as humanly possible. What I am watching is nearly tipping me over the edge of what I can handle. It is going to cost so many innocent lives. And still, his henchmen keep their eyes hooded, smile their nervous smiles, stay silent. Oh my God. I will never understand it. Stay safe. Great prompt!

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    • Thanks Sherry – what is evident is that pandemic and climate change are forcing the confines of a very different response than business as usual — neither has really made enough surface effect, but one senses it’s all washing away at the roots. We can only hope & pray for big enough waves.

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  2. I ducked under your prompt, Brendan, putting it in my head but trying to think and breath through it. What if I never heard the words pandemic and climate change? I started writing as if an animal, then accepted being a human animal, and then this emerged. Be gentle with me. I’ll take it down if you want, but true to the inspiration, here I am.

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  3. I cant wait to read it. Oddly, I wrote today in the voice of an animal, too……….my prompt at Toads today, to speak in the voice of another. Going to read you now.

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  4. I cant wait to read it. Oddly, I wrote today in the voice of an animal, too……….my prompt at Toads today, to speak in the voice of another. Going to read you now.

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  5. In British Columbia, we are flattening the curve, the only province to do so so far. This is because of the calm quiet leadership of Dr Bonnie, our provincial health representtive who has guided us clearly, calmly, humbly, every day, keeping us feeling reassured and focussed. She is now a hero to all of us. Heroes arise in the most unexpected places when we need them.

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