Matthew Ballew chooses his words carefully. As a deadly pandemic disables the world’s economies and confines people in their homes (if they have them), he worries about coming off tone-deaf or worse as he coldly assesses the upside of an international crisis that, as of this writing, has already claimed more than 13,000 lives.
At the same time, as a social psychologist and climate communications expert, he can’t help thinking about the parallels between the immediate health emergency that is COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and the longer-term catastrophe of global temperature rise.
“I think right now we have to be careful how we frame it,” says Ballew, a postdoctoral associate with Yale University’s Climate Change Communication program, a collaboration with George Mason University. “But I do think there’s an opportunity to make the connection between what’s going on now and the actions that we need to take for the climate crisis.”
Since the first case of novel coronavirus was diagnosed four months ago in Hubei province, China, the mishandling of COVID-19 has unfolded just as the response to global warming has, only at a faster clip.
Since the first case of novel coronavirus was diagnosed four months ago in Hubei province, China, the mishandling of COVID-19 has unfolded just as the response to global warming has, only at a faster clip. First, denial: A Chinese leader persecuted early truth-tellers; a star cable news host claimed the disease was nothing but a politically motivated hoax, just as President Donald Trump himself dismissed warnings of climate catastrophe as a “Chinese hoax.”
A week after Trump made that statement—six weeks after the first domestic case was diagnosed in Snohomish County, Washington—the Covid Tracking Project counted 118 confirmed cases in the U.S. Three weeks later, there were close to 18,000.
Now the COVID-19 crisis offers a preview of what’s to come. Over the past three years, the administration has dismantled the protective public health apparatus that might have stood in the way of the pandemic’s spread across the country, just as it’s undone clean air laws and fuel standards that could slow the warming of the planet. Health workers have been left unequipped to make diagnoses, let alone care for the sick and the dying. Volunteers craft masks in their home sewing rooms. Engineers have fired up 3D printers to produce ventilators. People-finder site turns into the coronavirus tracker in the community
And lawmakers, even those otherwise dedicated to parsimonious cruelty, have been scrambling to reassemble what they’ve torn apart, writing up multibillion-dollar relief and stimulus packages to save both lives and the economy. In those bills, they grudgingly propose what they refused to consider before: diagnostic tests for the uninsured, more generous medical care for people living in poverty, sick pay for workers, maybe even some sort of universal basic income.
A group of environmental and social justice organizations, 221 of them at the moment and growing, have made plain, in a list of “Five Principles for Just COVID-19 Relief,” what that stimulus should do: Rescue not corporations, but people and the planet.
“This crisis is transforming our social, political and economic landscape,” says Adrien Salazar, Senior Campaign Strategist for Climate Equity with Demos, a nonprofit that works to protect democracy in the U.S. “And that means things are possible in this moment that weren’t possible before.”
Like Ballew, Salazar understands that “things are very raw for people right now.” But people are also paying attention to government and science in a way they haven’t in a long time.
They are seeing, says Ballew, “how one small change in a system can have a huge effect on the rest of the world.”
Like the proverbial butterfly in Borneo, an event that began with one person in one country triggered a global cascade of impacts to economies, public health systems, social trust and political ideologies. That cascade can also run in reverse, Ballew says. It presents an opportunity, as the world we know falls to pieces around us, to open up a conversation about how we’ll put it all back together.
“People talk about a post-9/11 world,” Salazar says, “that nothing was the same after that. I think that’s what we’re going through right now. Everything – from how we relate to government to how we run our economy – is very likely to change.”
In a 2008 paper called “The Politics of Climate Change,” British sociologist Anthony Giddens asked whether “the democratic penchant for partisanship and short-termism . . . [could] be replaced by long-termism and a consensus-based policy agenda.”
Kristina Dahl, a climate scientist with the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, calls that “the million-dollar question.” With COVID-19, “The consequences were immediate, so it was natural to take swift and aggressive action.” People have sacrificed their freedom and businesses have let go of profits, “because we were facing the possibility of lost lives.”
Climate, by contrast, is slow and abstract. The worst effects show up far from where most people live; the closer-to-home effects creep up on us over time.
But the lessons are the same. “The warning signs were there for coronavirus,” Dahl says. “These same flags [about a pandemic] had been raised before, even prior to the outbreak in China. And yet we still saw the Trump administration sidelining the science, preventing federal scientists from speaking openly on this issue, and preventing accurate information from reaching the public as quickly as it needed to.”
Similarly, “Scientists have been communicating the same message about the threats of climate change for longer than 20 years,” Dahl says, without a transition from inertia to urgency.
“I do hope that the general public is able to make the connection and say, ‘Okay, I’m listening to the scientists now, and seeing how we need to take action to stop the loss of life and livelihoods climate change is projected to bring.’”
We don’t even need to project: Entire villages have already been forced to move to make room for rising seas; respiratory illnesses, both chronic and viral, have increased in incidence and severity. Epidemiologists warn that a hotter Earth fosters more vector-borne diseases, the kind that often turn lethal when they make the leap from animal to human.
“What’s true of this current public health crisis is true of the climate crisis,” Adrien Salazar says. There comes a time when “there are certain facts that we can no longer deny.”
Forty-six percent of respondents to a Yale survey on climate attitudes said “they have personally experienced the effects of global warming.” Seventy-two percent say they’re sure warming is happening. Maybe science will matter when the November election rolls around.
“We have an anti-science administration in the White House right now,” Salazar says. “And this crisis has been a slap in their face.”
Judith Lewis Mernit
Capital & Main