I have been thinking a lot lately about what we can learn from the current coronavirus pandemic. Ed Yong has a good story out today looking ahead to the next year of this pandemic, and he includes a section about the lessons we might learn, along with an acknowledgement that we may well decide not to learn them.
The lessons Yong highlights are ones I hope we manage to learn, but the focus of my musings has been a bit different. Perhaps it is because I live in a region that managed to do reasonably well at suppressing the virus for months, and then have that effort spectacularly fail to the point that we're now in the midst of a terrible surge with hospitals stretched thin and daily case counts stuck at 10 times their previous level. I have been wondering what happened and why.
We may never know exactly what went wrong, of course - our health department is too busy managing the surge to be able to collect the data that might tell us where the surge came from. It is probably a combination of things: political polarization leading to some groups in the area refusing to wear masks or follow health orders; competing economic and health needs leading to nonsensical rules, e.g., allowing dining at restaurants while telling people they can't gather in their own backyards; fatigue with the rules and the very real effect of loneliness building up over many months; and of course Thanksgiving (and now Christmas) pulling people to gather to maintain their traditions and connections.
I very much hope that people are studying the US's failed response because we urgently need to learn from our failures (and other country's successes), both to prepare for the next pandemic (which, as the WHO's Mike Ryan recently warned may be worse) and to help us address climate change.
One of the most depressing things about watching large swaths of the American public buy into conspiracy theories about coronavirus and refuse to do something as simple as a wearing a mask is the realization that if we can't even get our collective act together to respond sensibly to a pandemic that is literally killing people in all parts of the country, how will we muster the will to respond to climate change before it has reached catastrophic levels?
I mentioned in an earlier post that I recently read Kim Stanley Robinson's Ministry of the Future. I did not find it to be a particularly good novel (although I have heard that perhaps it is better as an audiobook), but one thing it does really well is make you understand what a climate catastrophe would be like. I found the catastrophe that opens the book particularly haunting. A heat wave strikes India, and it raises the wet bulb temperature above the limits of human endurance. Hundreds of thousands of people die a terrible, desperate death. (I did not know much about the potential for this particular catastrophe, so I did a little reading on it. If you want to know more about it, there is a sobering study that came out in May. NOAA has a good summary of it, and the Washington Post has a good article.)
Deadly heat waves will become more common, but since they will first strike in parts of the world that Americans usually ignore, it seems tragically unlikely that Americans will pay attention.
Of course, there are climate disasters that will hit closer to home - we already see what they might be, with longer and more intense wildfire and hurricane seasons. But humans are really good at adjusting to the new normal and ignoring the warning these events bring. This may well have been a solid survival instinct in earlier times, but it is threatening our survival now. Here again, we have a lesson we can learn from the pandemic, in which people have grown inured to the mounting death toll.
As all of these things have sloshed around in my brain, I've developed some thoughts about what we might learn from the pandemic to help us better respond to climate change. These are just the ideas of a moderately informed lay person. Consider them hypotheses. I hope academic studies give us more insight into which of these might actually be correct, and I'll be looking for those studies. But with that caveat in place, here are my ideas:
1. People will make serious sacrifices for the common good - but only for a limited time and with a clear goal in mind. In the pandemic, this meant that the countries that went for eradication or at least strong suppression were able to succeed with stringent lockdowns. In the US, where we always said we'd be managing but not suppressing the virus's spread, we probably needed to pivot aggressively to a different approach. Maybe a message of risk management? Maybe more extensive testing surveillance? I don't know what the better approach would have been, but the soft shutdowns we used were probably always going to fail eventually as people grew tired of the restrictions with no end in sight.
2. If you want people to change their behavior, you have to make it economically possible for them to do so. You cannot expect people who are just getting by to voluntarily take a short term economic hit for a long term greater good. Furthermore, when people are facing the loss of their livelihood or of a business they worked hard to build, they will fight to save it even when that fight causes harm to the community. We saw this in the pandemic with gyms and restaurants fighting against the public health rules even though allowing them to stay open would just prolong the underlying problem. We didn't give them enough support to survive in stasis for the length of the pandemic, and so of course some business owners fought the rules.
Both of these hypotheses can inform our response to climate change. Here's what I think they tell us:
We should try to limit the personal sacrifice we ask of people as we reduce carbon emissions. This means we need programs to make electrifying our lives economically beneficial for individuals, but it also means that we need to think long and hard about how we handle the fossil fuel industries, which employ a lot of people. Investing public funds to help them transition gracefully may feel like paying ransom to some very bad actors, but we need to be clear-eyed about what the alternative would look like. This may be a case where the best move is to pay the ransom.
If we're going to ask for a sacrifice to achieve a common good, we need to make sure that sacrifice is time-limited and the end point is clear. I am not sure what this looks like in the climate response. Perhaps it is just that when we ask a community to accept change to support our response, we need to be clear what the end point will be for them and how long it will take to get there. Instead of saying "we'll retrain coal miners into other jobs" we need to provide specifics about what the new economic plan for their region is and how we will get them there.
During the pandemic, we have asked people to sacrifice to get back to normal. As we address climate change, we will be asking people to sacrifice to get to a new normal. I think that new normal will be better, but change is hard for people and we need to acknowledge that and have plans to ease the transition to the new normal. If we ever thought we could just tell people what they needed to do for the common good and they would do it, surely the pandemic response has shown us that this is not the case. We must learn from our failures and do better.