Take the acronym of Coronavirus Disease 2019, COVID-19, drop the 19, and attach an abbreviation of the word ‘attitude’ to create a portmanteau – covid-tude. It could refer to the attitude we are adopting during the COVID-19 crisis, one of sacrifice, resilience and dedication to our own and the greater good. While it is natural that covid-tude fade along with the virus itself, the moment presents an opportunity to smoothly transfer our internal state to clima-tude: the same attitude and sense of urgency applied to a different threat – the climate crisis.
This pandemic and the nature of our response to it, is unprecedented within our lifetimes. Affected societies have adopted a mode of solidarity and sacrifice towards achieving an explicit goal – mitigate and ultimately stop a novel virus, which threatens to overwhelm global society. Conceptually, one could take the last part of this sentence, replace ‘a novel virus’ with ‘climate change’, spread out the timeline and have it remain a meaningful statement.
It would be unrealistic to propose that we observe the same behaviour of isolating ourselves and press the hibernate button on economic activity. Instead, I am proposing that we all (emphasis on all) take seriously a threat that a different set of experts tell us is very real, is happening right now, and has a window of opportunity within which to act meaningfully.
The two crises are intertwined in at least one important way: given that climate change and biodiversity loss increase the risk of pandemic, COVID-19 stands figuratively as the smallest within a set of Russian dolls, nested inside the progressively larger dolls of global change (a term describing climate change, biodiversity loss, overhunting, altered biogeochemical cycles, invasive species and other planetary-scale changes caused by humans). Naturally, however, there are also fundamental differences between pandemics and climate change, perhaps the most obvious being that pandemics target the physiological health of our species, rather than directly undermining the basis of our livelihoods, security and well-being: ecosystems and the free services they provide, and the chemical and physical properties of the atmosphere, land and oceans. Pandemics are short-lived, even as their effects have lasting ramifications, while climate change is enduring and potentially irreversible. While the pandemic is primarily a public health crisis, climate change is a public health crisis and then some. Pandemics have immediate, visible effects – hospital beds filling up, running out of stock of ventilators and diagnostic kits, the race for vaccine development. Climate change occurs frame-by-frame and is difficult to tease apart from historically occurring phenomena: natural disasters, socio-political tensions, famine. Lastly, meaningful action on climate change involves systemic changes to infrastructure and institutions, permanent and deep change that not only deals with the crisis but gears the whole of our societies to be sustainable, so as to avert future crises.
However, similarities can be drawn, and lessons learnt. People have experienced firsthand that the world does not implode if our lifestyles change quite suddenly – even as the most vulnerable are having a hard time of it – and that we have the resources and flexibility to adapt. While the situation could not go on such as it is, and need not, what we can take from this experience is that the blueprints we have for our societies as they are now, are not set in stone. The economy would not wither if we don’t build that highway that shaves six minutes off average commuter times, and our life support system does not hinge on consumerism and indulgence. Many people can work and pay bills and communicate effectively and need not travel across the country or across continents to achieve the same results. We still go on breathing, living, nurturing and loving, albeit loving from a distance. Where governments are supporting the most vulnerable of their populations, everyone can still access the essentials – food, water, medicine, even online education. We feel united, as we would fighting climate change, knowing that our sacrifice is eminently worth it.
Changing our lifestyles in response to crisis measures, with the retention of what is truly important for our wellbeing, is possible. Psychologists tell us that beyond a minimum level of wellbeing, it is not our suite of behaviours or goods consumption in of themselves, but rather the fact that the society around us has access to them, that drives us to feel an associated sense of dependency. In other words, we have wiggle room in more ways than what we may have perceived we did, and perhaps our limits of satisfaction are largely delineated by how much our peers have. During the COVID-19 crisis, we are more satisfied being cooped up in our houses knowing that others are, too. Meaningful action on climate change, to the wealthy and well-off, may feel like a sacrifice – frequent holidays abroad, buying imported foods, owning an SUV. To most of the rest of us, our lifestyles would not change as much as we are led to believe by professional climate change deniers and their equally ugly metamorphosis, climate change minimisers. This industry, which has been core to influencing public perception, and the political lobbying industry which has stymied a transition off of fossil fuels, has been funded by the well documented and continuing flow of billions of dollars, courtesy the fossil fuel industry.
If the politics shifted meaningfully, it would mean the domino-like declarations of climate emergencies across countries. This would place us on a war-like footing, as the science tells us is now necessary. If societies were then required to make adjustments to their lifestyles, while keeping the fundamentals of what creates a good life, change may well be far more acceptable. Knowing it was vital not only to our children’s, but also to our own survival, and that we were all making adjustments together, could give us the same resoluteness we now possess in changing our behaviour to kill the virus. With targeted policy, there would not likely be real drops in quality of life, and even putting aside the value of a safe climate system, in many instances changes could directly improve wellbeing – riding a bike and beefing up your cardiovascular health, paying less for electricity with government support to install solar panels on your roof, growing food in your back yard as a family- or friend-based activity and a form of green exercise. This could be part and parcel of clima-tude, the attitude required not only to deal with a crisis, but to actively improve your own and others wellbeing in the process.
While the above examples are of a personal and community nature, clima-tude must permeate into the regional, national and international spheres. Individual lifestyle changes alone are simply insufficient. But individual and community action can help galvanise connections with like-minded individuals and organisations, and spur powerful, broad-based action (a marketing trick Greenpeace has been using). This process is reflected in the pandemic, where action scales from the individual, to local municipalities, and right up to international organisations such as WHO and the UN. Nothing less than a global effort is required to tackle both pandemics and climate change.
IPCC scientists definitively told us in 2018 that we have just a short window to address climate change, by now amounting to a fall in emissions of 7.6% per year between now and 2030, to stand a chance of limiting global warming to below a 1.5°C rise in temperatures. They tell us that this would require ‘‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’’. This threshold is regarded as the ‘safe limit’, even though millions are currently unsafe and dying because of climate change and coal pollution. We have the technological and financial resources to achieve this, but up until now have lacked the political will. In a well-functioning democracy, the electorate is the lever which generates this political will. A ruling party that fails in mobilising resources to fend off the spread of COVID-19, will fail in their re-election bid. The franchise, and other tools in our civic toolbox, are the most fundamental means we have in realising our collective power to deal with climate change. We will only be in this position for a limited period of time, and we have already seen the results of even a slight lag in confronting COVID-19. Will you be able to look back in 2035 or beyond, when widespread food and water shortages emerge, crises to make COVID-19 look tame, and say that you did everything reasonable in your power to help avert that situation? Perhaps the next decree to stay in our homes comes not due to a pandemic, but to wars that originate out of geopolitical tensions, driven by multiple, interacting climate change impacts. If pandemics can happen again, so can wars between blocs of countries, developed and developing.
Part 2 will follow soon.
Author: Steven Myburgh
I studied Conservation Biology before joining the “Global Change Ecology” Master’s program in 2017. Since then, I have experienced a growing interest in interdisciplinary science for sustainability solutions. I am currently writing my thesis on the relationship between crop water footprints and biodiversity, in the Ecosystems Service department.