Before the corona virus epidemic, I was a climate change pessimist. I’m a bit more hopeful now, and that might seem strange. But consider: We’ve gone in a very short time from “It’s just another flu” to social distancing. People are actually working hard at solving this one crisis. Maybe that experience is transferable to a crisis that is similar. Anyway, today I’m thinking about what we can learn from corona. We’re still sleeping through the climate crisis, but corona shows us we can wake up.
Invisible crises, denial, and science
Analogies are always similarities in difference. Of course, corona and climate are very different, but there are several similarities. Consider, first, two ways each of them hides from clear view: in their invisible causes and in their ambiguous effects.
For causes we have a virus, which only a powerful microscope can detect, and invisible greenhouse gases. Only science can tell us what a greenhouse gas even is and that they’re building up in the atmosphere.
Even more confusing to the unaided senses are the effects of that corona virus and those greenhouse gases. The one hides among cases of the common flu; we ordinary people can’t tell the difference. The other gets lost among the vagaries of weather and unreliable memory: “Weird weather we’re having, but I remember a storm in 1936 that….” Again only science, with statistical analysis of measurements across time and around the world, can tell us what’s real.
It’s not hard to understand why people react initially to either case of bad news by denying the science. This is a major similarity between corona epidemic and climate change. But now we can also see a huge difference, with a glimmer of hope to it.
Trusting the corona science
People had reasons not to believe what medical researchers were saying about corona. For one, Fox News and that network’s favorite leader Donald Trump were denying the science, and social media added its measure of confusion. Another was our experience of flu-type illnesses. One virus more or less didn’t seem to make much difference.
People had reasons not to believe what science was saying about global warming too. Some of the same voices as above in the media and national leadership were denying it. Oil companies denied their own research. The lure of profits from the new technologies of fracking and ocean bed drilling proved too strong. Conservative media and, of course, social media amplified the voices of denial, doubt, and confusion while ignoring the strong, growing science consensus.
Suddenly what had been a similarity between corona and climate went poles apart. In a week or two, what I’d call a critical mass of people became believers in the corona epidemic. That hasn’t happened with climate change. I’d like to speculate on the reason for the difference.
It can’t be the strength of the science. Among actual scientists the evidence that climate change is real, human-caused, and seriously disruptive is overwhelming. It can’t be that the corona epidemic has become so much more visible than climate change. Climate change actually has been pretty visible for decades. Of course, only science can tell us that it really is climate change that we are seeing. But the same is true for corona. Not the climbing death count; that’s obvious enough. But only science can tell us how dangerous this virus is and how difficult to deal with.
A critical mass of people now believes the science concerning corona, but not yet for climate change.
The pace of change
One special factor makes the corona epidemic different. That factor is speed. The virus is moving fast. Every potential voice of denial or doubt has to reckon with the speed with which this crisis can contradict them. Climate change, on the other hand, at a pace that involves decades rather than weeks, is safe for denialists. In corona’s case, denials quieted down pretty soon. On climate they’re still going strong.
Climate change’s is slow gradual pace and the fact that the worst it does is either far away or far in the future make it easy to deny. Nevertheless, I find some hope in the way people are responding to the challenge of corona. It’s like a practice run for climate change, the biggest challenge this generation will probably ever face.
Our “World War II moment”
I’m not quite old enough to remember World War II, but growing up I heard stories about how family members sacrificed to meet that challenge. Talking about global warming, I sometimes use that as an analogy today: If we could beat Hitler and Hirohito back then, we can beat climate change today. It might mean sacrifice but we did sacrifice once before. It felt like talking to a deaf person. I had to wonder if “sacrifice” had somehow dropped out of the dictionary.
Suddenly I’m hearing the same comparison that I used with corona. “This is our generation’s World War II moment,” a radio commentator says. Even the President is calling for sacrifice. And the corona epidemic is demanding a huge commitment—probably more than the most ambitious plans to address global worming would.
Leadership and hope
I hate to call leadership what we see from a president who first denied the science and still sows confusion every time he speaks. Still, he has at least made a pretense at leading. Meanwhile, across the country and around the world other leaders are stepping up.
People are not sacrificing on their own. They sacrifice when they are asked and required to, when they know they are not alone, and when they trust. Here in southern, rural Minnesota, even with no confirmed cases, we are following the example of places where corona has hit hard. Solidarity is an amazing thing.
Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si, his environment encyclical: “We require a new and universal solidarity.” We have gotten past skepticism and into solidarity on the corona epidemic. The right kind of leadership can spark the same movement on climate.
For more connections between epidemic and climate see this list of fact and opinion articles in The Conversation: “Coronavirus should give us hope that we are able to tackle the climate crisis.”
Image credit: LAist via Google Images