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What Will It Take to Mobilize Us to Care About Climate Change the Way We Do About the Coronavirus?

Erin Bunch

Erin BunchApril 13, 2020

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Nearly a month after President Trump declared a national state of emergency because of the coronavirus pandemic, many of us remain sheltering in place to slow the virus’ spread. COVID-19 has threatened our livelihood and, accordingly, triggered a wordwide crisis-mode response. But here’s the thing: This type of behavior shift—one that is quick, significant, and widespread—is notably absent from the alarming, extreme, and imminent truth of climate change. It seems climate change really does, as that viral meme goes, need coronavirus’s publicist.

“The coronavirus is horrible and millions of lives are at risk; it’s caused [16] million people to file for unemployment [in the U.S.]—it’s huge,” says climate psychologist Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD, founder and executive director of The Climate Mobilization advocacy organization and author of Facing the Climate Emergency: Transform Yourself With Truth. “And yet, amazingly, and truly terrifyingly, it is dwarfed by the threat of the climate emergency.”

There’s scientific consensus around the threat of climate change to civilization, and models show that it will lead to staggering death tolls, economic upheaval, and even the breakdown of society itself—so why aren’t we all hashtagging climate-change causes with the same fervor we’re urging our peers to #stayhome? Why hasn’t Instagram created a custom “donation” sticker for climate-change nonprofits as it has for those “helping to fight COVID-19”? And why is there no red-bannered alert when you Google “climate change” the way there is when you search for “coronavirus”? In short, why hasn’t the fact that our house is on fire, well, caught fire? Of course some activists are taking the future of the planet seriously, but in comparison to the way the globe has mobilized to contain the coronavirus, those ringing the climate alarm barely register as a whisper.

The sky is falling—but here’s why our lackluster collective response might not have you appreciating that reality

A toxic stew of politics, corporate corruption, tribalism, and a growing distrust in credentialed experts has obscured, for some, the truth about just how bad the climate crisis is going to be (and in the next 30 years, according to Dr. Klein Salamon). “That’s why people aren’t responding—they’re being told that it’s going to affect poor people in other parts of the world, for example, but not them,” says Dayna Yildirim, a member of the climate emergency mobilization organization Extinction Rebellion America (XRA) launch team. “But there is not going to be any difference ultimately in terms of suffering and death,” she adds of the dismal similarities between the outcomes of climate change and the coronavirus.

“Human beings don’t mobilize quickly unless the threat’s right in front of us.” —Jonathan Logan, member of the Extinction Rebellion America (XRA) launch team

Human psychology plays a role in our muted response to climate change, too; we are not evolved to respond to future threats the same way we’re evolved to respond to immediate threats. “Human beings don’t mobilize quickly unless the threat’s right in front of us,” says Jonathan Logan, a member of the XRA launch team. “With climate change, you don’t see the coral reef every day, or the melting glaciers, or the 80-percent decrease in insects.”

In stark contrast, it’s impossible not to see the effects of the coronavirus when celebrities, then acquaintances, then friends and family members (because now, who among us doesn’t know someone affected by COVID-19?) share positive test results or are rushed to the hospital. And, indeed, it was by asking us to imagine our actions as protective forces for loved ones that leaders were able to finally get people to stay home. (And even that took some time: “Scholars were screaming, ‘This is a problem!’ in January, and yet it took another 40, and even now some states, 60, days to respond,” says Logan.)

Unfortunately, showing a clear connection between our individual behaviors and humanity’s collective well-being isn’t a strategy so easily replicated to spur climate-change action. “You, specifically, polluting less won’t really have any measurable effect in the world,” says Avishek Adhikari, PhD, assistant professor of behavioral neuroscience at UCLA. “It’s only if the population of the world as a whole decreases [pollution]” that we’ll be able to mitigate disaster.

What the emergency response to COVID-19 can teach us about facing down climate change

Until the coronavirus reached pandemic proportions, says Dr. Klein Salamon, we were all operating in “normal mode.” “[In normal mode,] you’re not intensely focused on one threat, and there is a higher focus on personal achievement and enjoyment.” But now, we’ve switched on “emergency mode” to fight COVID-19, and as a result, “I think it’s going to be easier to switch into emergency mode on climate,” she says.

Jason West, PhD, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of North Carolina, similarly thinks we can now take cues from the ways we quickly implemented relief efforts against the pandemic in order to mobilize against climate change. “There was a $2 trillion aid package put together very quickly for the coronavirus,” he says. “Our experience with the coronavirus shows that rapid transitions are doable when people are motivated to do them and the government is sending the right messages.”

“Our experience with the coronavirus shows that rapid transitions are doable when people are motivated to do them and the government is sending the right messages.” —Jason West, PhD, professor of environmental sciences

Another lesson Paul N. Edwards, PhD, director of the Program for Science, Technology, and Society at Stanford University, hopes we glean from the response to this pandemic is that paying attention to credentialed experts (hello, Dr. Fauci) is mission critical. In recent years, distrust in these professionals has increased, as evidenced by everything from anti-vaccination movements to jade-egg fervor and anti-fluoridation beliefs to climate change denialism. “It’s been a terrible loss to our whole civilization, the increasing distrust of doctors, scientists, and the people who spend their lives trying to figure out exactly what’s happening with the least amount of interference from their own emotions and opinions,” he says. “Science is the best way we have to create objective knowledge, and we’ve drifted into a world where anecdotes and feelings matter more than that. So, we need to get back to where we once were on that score.”

To this end, the projection models we’ve been leaning on in order to take action regarding the pandemic—the ones that convinced President Trump to change his tune on the danger we face—exist for climate change, too. And the trajectory of climate change follows a similarly exponentially-accelerated curve as the pandemic. After weeks of looking at these models focused on COVID-19, Dr. Edwards hopes we’ll have a newfound understanding of and respect for their value, as they may pertain to climate. “The modeling for the climate crisis is much [more accurate] than the modeling for the coronavirus, too,” he says; climate change models have existed for decades. Ideally, a newfound understanding of what a curve is, and how action can flatten it, will propel a greater percentage of us into emergency action designed to do just that.

Plus, this crisis has given us some blatant examples of the consequences of denying experts’ advice. “The longer countries waited [to take action on the coronavirus], the more pain they had, the more death, and the more economic cost,” says Logan. “It’s a perfect model for what we’re facing with the climate, but larger.”

This challenging moment in time has also proven how much we can accomplish when we come together. “For the first time, every human being on the planet has had something in common to work on,” Logan says. “Climate change is like that—it really is everybody’s issue.” This moment of crisis has given us a chance to pause and reevaluate what really matters, too. “Just the understanding with the coronavirus that we can’t allow things like convenience or the desire to go about our lives to be prioritized over the need to protect human life and non-human life is applicable to how we approach the climate emergency,” agrees Dr. Klein Salamon.

On a more practical level, adds Dr. West, this experience might have us rethinking some pre-coronavirus behaviors that were not exactly helping to mitigate climate change. “The solution to climate change isn’t to have everybody stay home all the time, but this crisis is helping us ask questions about why do we do things,” he says. For example, “how important is it for us to fly across the country for in-person meetings?”

Ring the alarm

While being conscientious about such individual behaviors is important, all the experts interviewed for this piece reiterated something that might be reassuring to hear: The onus for combatting climate change is not actually on the individual in the sense you might think it is as you peruse zero-waste Instagram accounts and debate how much of a pain in the ass it would be to switch to an electric car. “The solution to climate change ultimately is not going to be people sacrificing,” says Dr. West. “It’s policies that put a clean energy infrastructure in place.”

In other words, our collective fate is in the hands of our governments. But that doesn’t, by any stretch, mean you’re off the hook. In fact, all we need to do in order to “experience the collapse of civilization” is revert to our normal habits. “Just as we would love to go a park or a friend’s house right now but won’t because we don’t want to unwittingly infect others with the coronavirus, we likewise need to put on our big-girl pants when it comes to combatting climate change and get uncomfortable,” says Dr. Klein Salamon. That means making noise and visually representing the invisible threat that climate change presents, which is the very purpose of XRA, the Climate Mobilization, and other such protest organizations. “It’s all about organizing,” Dr. Klein Salamon says. “What we really need is a social movement that totally changes our politics and our government. The system we’ve grown up in is fundamentally broken because it’s killing us, or, at least, letting us die. In order to change that, we all need to step up and take responsibility for that change.”

And since our brains are not wired to diverge from the herd, we’ll need to access the strength to do so—or else the herd will run off the cliff. “Humans evaluate risks socially; we look to each other to see who’s treating it like an emergency,” says Dr. Klein Salamon. (For example, when people started wearing masks out in public, it signified to others that the coronavirus posed a serious threat. This is part of why #SaferatHome has been such a success.) So be the one out in the world sending signals to others that climate change is an emergency. “One way you can do that is to talk about the climate emergency all the time to people in your life, and then also through political organizing,” Dr. Klein Salamon says.

While it’s tempting to instead operate from a place of hope—hope that someone will figure out the solution, that the endgame won’t be as dire as predicted, or even just that we’ll be long gone before the most severe effects are felt—Yildirim cautions against this type of thinking. Or, as she calls it, “hope-ium”—the phenomenon by which people become more attached to the feeling of hope than they are to action.

That action, like the actions most of us have been taking to flatten the pandemic curve, has the potential to be monumentally consequential. “We have greatness within us as a human species,” Logan says. “We have unimaginable creativity and beauty and joy, and it works when we actually get together. This is our time to recognize that we are one—one planet, one human family with one common future.”

While massive changes are needed on a global scale, there are five things you can do on a personal level to help combat the climate crisis ASAP. And as you join the fight, let these incredible teenage activists inspire you.

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