The international response to COVID-19 stands in stark contrast to our slow, half-hearted response to the climate crisis. The reasons for the difference in our responses are clear: COVID-19 is a crisis playing out over the course of days rather than decades. Humans respond better to urgent threats than slow-moving ones and there has been no organized interest group as powerful and determined as the fossil fuel industry to sow doubt about the virus’s existence and intentionally block and delay efforts to address it.
But how we have responded to these two crises up until now is less important than how we respond to these two crises moving forward. And while it may feel like the coronavirus is encouraging us to drive ourselves apart through social distancing, we should instead use it as an opportunity to bring us closer together and leverage that unity to help address the climate crisis. But we can do that only if we learn the right lessons.
Once the peak of the global pandemic has passed, the global community should maintain some of the measures implemented to manage the coronavirus to help mitigate the climate crisis. With so much of the global workforce now ordered to work from home to help flatten the curve, companies should implement telecommuting as a long-term strategy. Transportation is now the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Any reduction in the amount of traffic on the roads will aid the climate and probably enhance worker satisfaction, especially in Boston where traffic is considered the worst in the country.
Telecommuting can also reduce the need for non-essential travel. We now have an abundance of digital tools that let employees work from home without sacrificing productivity and allow people to exchange ideas across states and even continents without having to leave their desks. If we think embracing these alternatives is the moral thing to do to combat the coronavirus, then it is also the moral thing to do to combat the climate crisis. Just last summer, over 70 major American medical groups including the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association, and the American Lung Association, called climate change “the greatest public health emergency of the 21st century.” A recent New England Journal of Medicine article points out that over 6 million people already die annually from fossil fuel-related air pollution and that “climate change could force more than 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030.” Surely, that’s worth avoiding, too?
And yes, people should reconsider their individual travel plans. Before the coronavirus, we would hop on airplanes to visit places like the Great Barrier Reef or the Amazon on vacation, even though the very act of flying there helps contribute to their extinction because of a warming world. If we can maintain social distance from each other to save us from the coronavirus, we can maintain social distance from the world’s natural treasures to help save them from the climate crisis.
These are questions for individuals and businesses to consider, but ultimately, it is the government’s response that matters most. And thus far, on both counts, the US government’s response has been lacking.
With the spread of the coronavirus, we are seeing with greater clarity how interconnected we all are, and how, when systems are designed to benefit some and not others, everyone suffers. If the US economy ensured paid sick time for hourly workers, restaurant employees, and those in the gig economy, the entire country would benefit from having a healthier population. If our health care system provided Medicare for All, everyone would benefit, not only those denied affordable care.
Americans will be well-positioned if we remember these lessons as we look to aggressively address the climate crisis. If we make public transportation free and accessible, everyone — even people who drive to work regardless — would benefit from the reduced pollution and reduced traffic congestion. If we invest in net-zero affordable housing, everyone — including those living in mansions — would benefit from the decreased transportation pollution and stronger social resilience that affordable housing provides.
We will succeed in tackling the coronavirus only if we invest in and protect everyone. And we will succeed in tackling the climate crisis only if we invest in and protect everyone. If we do not support developing countries in both transitioning off of fossil fuels and dealing with climate impacts, we will be overwhelmed with climate refugees — regardless of the height of any walls we build and we need to start absorbing a lot more now regardless. If we do not address the many failings in our economic systems to protect marginalized and vulnerable populations now, we will see those systems collapse for everyone in the face of extreme heat, wildfires, super storms, and crop failures.
There’s still much to learn from our response to the coronavirus, but we should aim to move forward on the other side of this pandemic with the right lessons rather than going back to flawed and failing systems.
Craig S. Altemose is the executive director of Better Future Project, which builds the climate movement through its programs 350 Massachusetts, Divest Ed, and Communities Responding to Extreme Weather.
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