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Lessons From COVID-19 to Address the Climate Crisis

Perhaps the COVID-19 experience will wake us to our capacity to demand changes of ourselves, our communities, and local, state, and federal governments.

Students and environmental activists participate in a climate strike in Los Angeles, California on May 24, 2019.

Students and environmental activists participate in a climate strike in Los Angeles, California on May 24, 2019. (Photo: Ronen Tivony / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Last month the Trump administration chose this moment to weaken national auto emissions standards. While swimming hard against a crisis the administration initially scoffed at, they are clearing the way to be ill-prepared for the next. We are so much smarter than that. Here are a few obvious takeaways:

Lesson #1: People respond to near and present danger.

Like the frog acclimating to warming water, the gradual information role out on climate change has inured people to the urgency and deadliness of the threat. In contrast, COVID-19 burst from the TV into our homes within a matter of weeks. The immediacy of COVID-19 is clear and personal. Routes of exposure and methods of minimizing effects are tractable to specific entities and the response of those entities has been rapid and strong. If a university or business decides not to close and one of its people die from COVID-19, that death is on the school or business. Can we make climate change effects similarly accountable? Several oil companies maintained active misinformation campaigns regarding known effects of fossil fuel on climate in the 1950s through 1999, misleading millions into thinking that fossil fuels were far less harmful than they are. Attempts are ongoing to hold entities responsible for climate-related impacts (e.g., floods, hurricanes, wildfires, drought). If such a case were supported, would this accountability galvanize critical entities to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Lesson #2: We can't wait for the federal government to respond.

Had the Trump administration responded in January or even February to the unfolding COVID-19 disaster, many Americans would have been saved. Will we be saying, or can we already say, the same thing about our government's response to climate change (e.g., Katrina, Paradise, etc.)? High praise for our five-county Bay Area for initiating early voluntary quarantine, and for many other local and state leaders for following this radical course. Similarly, bold actions are being taken at regional, state, and local levels to reduce CO2 emissions and expedite our conversion to non-fossil fuel energy (e.g., AB32, C40 cities). The federal government has enormous resources to massively forward any effort; however, citizens, companies, and state and local governments are making the biggest strides to address climate change and, while the federal government will eventually follow, we can't wait. What is done at the local to regional levels now will be critical wind in our sails once the federal government finally moves into action.

Lesson #3: We are all in this together.

Like COVID-19, climate change doesn't care about your race, culture, or gender identity. It does care about your income and associated ability to buffer impacts and respond to direct hits. Allowing COVID-19 to blossom in our homeless and underserved populations increases the threat for everyone. Similarly, climate-related stress on resources will increase local and international strife, impacting global economies and stability. What we do now to protect, mitigate, and treat the vulnerable to the health and economic threats of the COVID-19 crisis could inform or initiate actions to protect and mitigate exposure to climate change impacts. Climate change and COVID-19 affect generations somewhat oppositely. Mortality rates are higher for those infected over 65 and the younger generation is being challenged to restrain their behavior to protect their elders. Conversely, older people are less likely to be alive when the full effects of climate changes are brought to bear. Yet the elders, often occupying positions of power, are being asked to restrain their behavior to protect younger generations. Generations must take care of each other. Protected must take care of the exposed. We are inter-dependent.

Lesson #4: We can force the change.

Large-scale actions are being taken now by the U.S. government to address the immediate threat of COVID-19 . Can we pivot some of these federal structures to aggressively tackle threats of climate change? Technical solutions, such as transitioning our electric grid and producing sustainable batteries, need to be integrated with resolving humanitarian and ecological issues like reducing climate change related threats to vulnerable human and natural communities and ensuring that local extraction-based economies stay healthy and intact through the transition to a green and socio-economically fair economy. Like COVID-19, the impacts of climate change are killing people now and devastating local economies. Like COVID-19, if we wait, the impacts of climate change will worsen and our range of motion to respond will be smaller and more difficult. What if, like the Federal Coronavirus Task Force, we had a federal team of experts with very aggressive amounts of funding to ensure that heroic actions to "bend the CO2 curve" are not hindered for lack of funding or by bureaucratic constraints? Perhaps the COVID-19 experience will wake us to our capacity to demand changes of ourselves, our communities, and local, state, and federal governments to immediately and intelligently address the threats of climate change. Primed from this COVID-19 disaster, we can insist our federal government commit its massive resources to achieving solutions to climate change to save hundreds of millions of lives, our planet, and our fellow species, for current and future generations.

Amy Merrill

Amy Merrill

Amy Merrill lives in Berkeley, California with her family and works for a national NGO to support restoration of rivers and access to clean water for all. She is an ecologist and biogeochemist by training.

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