During the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, I shared a meme that was making the rounds on Instagram: “Climate change needs coronavirus’ publicist.” While I’m sure some interpreted the statement as a flippant response to the global health crisis, it holds a poignant message beyond its tongue-in-cheek face value. While coronavirus – and COVID-19, the disease it causes – has turned our daily reality into a dystopian nightmare, the pandemic also throws our failure to respond adequately to the climate crisis into painfully high relief.
At the time of writing, the World Health Organization had reported over two million cases of COVID-19 and more than 130,000 deaths worldwide. The virus poses a dangerous threat to our society’s health and economy. Though thousands will become gravely ill or succumb to the illness, many of us will be asymptomatic as we do our part to protect the vulnerable and practice social distancing, clinging to the comfort that the earliest projected date for a vaccine is within a year (but there are no guarantees on that timeline).
There is no vaccine for the effects of climate change, however, and we’re nearing the point where a cure will be impossible. While poor, developing countries will be hit soonest – and hardest – the impact will eventually be felt by all of us. Every year, we’re seeing more of the catastrophic effects of global warming, including deadly wildfires from Australia to California, rising tides in South Asia and profound biodiversity loss in the Amazon. The Paris Agreement set the target of limiting a temperature increase to 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels to prevent the worst potential effects of global warming. The 2018 report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at the current rate, we’ll hit this threshold by 2030. If we breach it, extreme temperatures, unprecedented coastal flooding and drought, and decimated ecosystems will result, with a high probability of “runaway” or irreversible climate change. The World Health Organization also estimates that there will be approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress. Our planet is in a state of emergency.
Despite significant strides made within Canada to tackle the issue – including our commitment to the Paris Agreement and ambitious provincial plans like CleanBC and TransformTO – federal policy makers haven’t done quite enough to make sure we achieve these goals. Neither has the public at large. During the pandemic, however, we’ve witnessed major systemic changes occur seemingly overnight. Provincial governments have been forced to declare states of emergency, which allows them to regulate activities considered to be in violation of public health warnings, and they’ve been able to draw upon vast monetary resources to try to address job loss, such as the federal government’s emergency aid bill. These are not easy decisions to make, and the loss some are already suffering is brutal, but the government took necessary action to save lives, even if those choices weren’t popular.
Unfortunately, it’s hard for us to respond to climate change with the same urgency. “There’s an acuteness to coronavirus, a single identifiable cause and an immediate economic cost that we don’t see with climate change,” says Jiaying Zhao, a professor in the psychology department and in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. “We experience a physical, emotional and psychological distance from climate change, and that distance is a barrier to behaviour change.”
Our failure to perceive climate change as a serious imminent threat will cost us. Even though we may not see the worst effects of climate change in the next couple of decades, our children’s future is bleak, and we don’t have much time left to act. When the coronavirus pandemic is over, our collective psyche may be weary and wounded, but we’ll have witnessed the power of our united action. In our effort to stop the spread of coronavirus and find a vaccine, we’ve seen a renewed recognition of the importance of relying on science. (Climate change is not a hoax, folks.) We’re also learning how important prevention is when dealing with a global crisis. If we had a pandemic plan in place, we may have been quicker to react and quell the virus in its nascent stage. “As the impacts of climate change start to hit our communities on a more frequent basis with greater severity, it’s going to be much more difficult to kick these problems down the road,” says Adam Olsen, interim leader of the B.C. Green Party. “But then we’re dealing with them as emergencies rather than in a thoughtful, pragmatic way.”
We need leaders who advocate for climate action with policy changes that drastically cut carbon emissions and invest in clean, renewable energy – and we need them to do it now. The fiscal stimulus plans that will address a decimated economy post-COVID present that opportunity. “If we’re making investments for expending taxpayer money, let’s put it in industries that are going to exist 30 years from now rather than in industries that are heavy emitters and are in their sunset,” says Olsen. We also need to hold leadership accountable for emission-reduction goals with legislation like the Climate Change Accountability Amendment Act, just as I’m sure we’ll all be watching to make sure the government delivers on coronavirus emergency aid.
In addition to top-down change, some of the greatest lifestyle causes of greenhouse gas emissions can be mitigated with individual adjustments. During this pandemic, we’ve demonstrated our ability to act for the collective good, and we can use this same power to boost climate action. “There are three personal choices that quickly cut greenhouse gas emissions: being car-, flight- and meat-free,” says Kimberly Nicholas, a sustainability scientist at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS) in Sweden. A 2017 study by LUCSUS also shows that having one less child also helps. Through social distancing and avoiding non-essential travel during the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve already inadvertently helped the planet, with reduced emissions in China and India and clearer waterways in Venice, Italy. Individuals can continue this progress by retiring their frequent-flyer status (or, at the very least, buying carbon offsets before boarding a plane), eating more plant-based meals and shopping for locally made or second-hand clothes. Businesses can help by encouraging employees to work from home more often or powering their offices with renewable energy.
These sacrifices may be inconvenient and difficult, much like staying at home has been, but they’re necessary, and now we’ve proven that we’re capable of making them when the stakes are high. Maybe, in the end, coronavirus is actually climate change’s publicist – issuing a call to save not only the most vulnerable populations among us but also the future of all life on earth.
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