What our pandemic year tells us about how we might respond to the climate crisis

What does our experience with the COVID pandemic suggest about how humanity will deal with the far greater crisis of climate change?

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As a futurist, I’ve been thinking about this for a while (see earlier posts 1 and 2) and wanted to return to the topic, now that we have the first glimpses of the pandemic’s possible end*.  This month represents one year since the coronavirus became a global pandemic – fifteen months since COVID appeared in China. This now presents to us one case study in how 21st-century human civilization confronts a global calamity.

In this post I’d like to identify some top-level macro features of the coronavirus story that seem to point to behaviors we might exhibit as the climate crisis deepens.

Caveats before proceeding: this is a big picture analysis.  For every point there will be exceptions and variations.  To repeat one caution from an earlier post: comparing pandemic and climate crisis involves two very large subject areas, especially for the latter.  Also, I won’t summarize the global response to COVID, but will touch on key points.

Deep divides on taking science seriously. Obviously the past year has seen political and cultural conflicts over different aspects of pandemic science.  Scientists have also become political, from supporting political causes (Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter) to maneuvering for political influence (cf the experts in and around CDC and the Trump administration).  Britain’s Boris Johnson cited science to push for herd immunity, then cited science again in reverse, to lead closures. China argued that it controlled the pandemic in Hubei province with utmost science, yet did not explain the initial delays and punishment of scientific critics.

We have also seen a raft of pseudoscience and junk science, pushed from people as diverse as religious leaders, Donald Trump, conspiracy fans, New Age influencers, and random folks online.  Most recently I’ve heard of people recommending heartworm drug ivermectin as a COVID treatment, a claim widespread enough that the FDA saw fit to denounce it.  Each adherent tends to claim the mantle of science, or at least of practical reason.

Imagining this constellation of science views applying to climate science is easy, since it’s already going on, obviously. This suggests we’ll see, unsurprisingly, political actors of all kinds seize on various pieces of climate science to justify various stances. Climate scientists will also leverage their expertise, and perhaps not just about the Anthropocene.  And we should expect crackpot science claims to ripple across society. In a sense we can forecast “more of the same.”

We remain national or local creatures and resist thinking globally. Time and against we’ve seen nations acting on their own, making decisions that break from their neighbors’ or against international plans. For example, most recently China has decided to restrict visitors to those who’ve been vaccinated… by the Chinese vaccine.  We’ve seen nations rush to stockpile vaccines but not share them. There’s little interest in making the proprietary vaccine information generic or otherwise shared with the developing world. International cooperation is, overall, slight. Instead, we seem to have chosen something like (forgive my poor Latin) cuius regio, eius morbus.

In the United States our pandemic strategy is a hash, a federal shambles, with different policies being pursued by states, counties, and even cities, often in isolation or, worse, competition.  Globally WHO seems to have done little, as it is mostly at the mercy of nation-states for financial support.

So for climate change… we’ll address in this national and local way, it seems.  As I noted much earlier, COVID shows us a human race wedded to the nation state, and suggests our climate change response will follow suit.

We can spend a lot of money if we deem it necessary. We’ve seen some sloshing of large amounts of money for certain purposes. Some governments and companies have, at times, for specific purposes, spent deeply. Several businesses invested heavily in vaccine production. Operation Warp Speed cost around $15 billion, which dwindles in comparison to the trillions spend by two American presidents on pandemic aid – just so far!

Allied to this point is our newfound capacity to anti-spend: to willingly shut down economic production for the pandemic. Combined, this suggests we may well have the reflex to spend on certain climate change items, such as storm relief, population relocation, or geotechnology.

There is, on average, some concern for some marginalized populations. Alongside Trumpian racism we’ve seen a kind of pandemic justice, a drive to rebalance imbalances by prioritizing support for the marginalized.  We’ve seen this with calls for, or policies that do, get vaccines into people of color especially.  In academia there have been a range of drives to pay special attention to marginalized students, faculty, and staff.  (There’s a LOT going on here, but I’m just summarizing right now.)

For climate change, this suggests we’ll allocate some resources to helping marginalized populations, such as people most at risk from sea level rising who also lack resources to respond. Yet alongside that climate justice movement, we should expect more racism.

Mental/spiritual responses The COVID experience has meant mass amounts of trauma, which our societies tend to meet with psychological or religious assistance. Already there are many calls for escalating mental health support for those who have experienced illness, deaths, and damage around them.

We could expect this to persist as climate change ratchets up. The experience of being impacted by extreme weather is a well established trauma mechanism.

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There is already work being done on this under various headers, including “climate grief” and “ecoanxiety.”  (cf my forthcoming Universities on Fire‘s chapter on academic research.)

We could expect echoes of this psychological service demand to grow as climate change ratchets up.

At the same time this concern for mental health may branch out into religious and/or spiritual levels. Historically plagues have prompted increases in belief, ever unpopular unbelief, and religious creativity with the emergence of visionaries and sects. Again, we could see waves of changed religious affiliation and behavior follow as climate change worsens.  To offer one example, recall how one leading character in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future floated the idea of creating a religion to drive climate change mitigation, and possibly succeeded in doing so.  Or consider the wide range of religious ideation around the Earth.

Shame Elsewhere on the psych front, shaming has reemerged as a popular social tool during the pandemic. Some will shame people who don’t wear masks (I’ve done this just today). Others will shame antivaxxers; I suspect this might strengthen as the vaccinated population approaches some herd immunity threshold. On the reverse anti-mask and -vax activists also deploy shame, albeit not at such scale, and sometimes with guns.

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Shame is obviously a deeply seated part of the human psyche and we should expect it deployed around climate change in multiple ways. “Your geoengineering project is evil!” “How dare you drive a gas-burning car?!”

Conservation We are also interested in conserving as much as we can, contra this post’s linked article. Despite the pandemic’s enormous stresses and the attending chaos, we are struggling mightily and often successfully to maintain the status quo.  In 2020 Adundhati Roy asked us to imagine a new world, but the world many have in mind looks a lot like 2019. Think of American president Biden’s “build back better” slogan and his general campaign tone of recovery, restoration. Or consider how America’s public health system has been shown to be a mess, while our medical system is grotesquely unequal, yet most of political discourse avoids talk of reforming either. Similarly, while some debate the causes of COVID (animal to human transmission? lab accident?), there are no serious drives to change anything that enabled the virus to leap into being a global menace. Some signs of disgust at Chinese wet markets have not translated into movements towards vegetarian or vegan diets.

Looking ahead, COVID tells us we’ll approach the emerging post-carbon world with a desire to maintain every bit of carbon-era life we can.

Growth More, the global consensus still settles around wanting more economic growth. Business shutdowns have revealed that we do have the power to consciously and at scale cease burning so much carbon. You’ve all seen those images of cities from last spring, where skies opened up to astonishing clarity.

Yet the consensus is that these moves were humanitarian disasters.  Necessary for the pandemic or otherwise, every nation I’ve seen has viewed these shutdowns as horrible.  Those who believe in voluntary simplicity, cutting back consumerism, adopting the circular economy, or degrowth have attained little to no purchase in public opinion.  Overall, we do not think smaller is better.  Bigger and more is what we want..

For climate change, this suggests we are a long way from actually reorganizing the global economy along new, less consumerist, less capitalist lines.

…yet remember these extrapolations will be flawed once they hit the world. It may be that the many COVID failures shock survivors into different behavior.  2,780,015 dead (as of today) and massive economic hits could stimulate a lot of rethinking.

Further, we may see a phase change occurring by generations.  People who didn’t grow up immersed in the Cold War’s deep training might be more amenable to new economic models, from various socialisms to donut economies.  Some younger people whose economic experience includes the 2008 Great Recession and 2020’s disasters might not see degrowth as that much of a change.

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Moreover, as Bruno Latour notes, the root difference between COVID and climate change might let us think anew.

[I]n the health crisis, it may be true that humans as a whole are “fighting” against viruses – even if they have no interest in us and go their way from throat to throat killing us without meaning to. The situation is tragically reversed in ecological change: this time, the pathogen whose terrible virulence has changed the living conditions of all the inhabitants of the planet is not the virus at all, it is humanity!

Jeremy Stanton asks us to think beyond humans versus others, and for us to adopt a more holistic, ecological way of seeing the world.

The climate crisis won’t be “won” by “fighting” with the same old war-thinking, the top-down Leviathan approach, because we are the climate crisis, and fighting ourselves will perpetuate the same behaviors and outcomes that gave rise to the problem. So Latour is on to something when he says “the classical definition of society – humans among themselves – makes no sense. The state of society depends at every moment on the associations between many actors, most of whom do not have human forms.”

We are part of the ecosystem, not separate from it. The more we hold the self-evidence of this truth in our civilizational (re)designs, the better chance we’ll have of mitigating the climate crisis.

I fear COVID did not empower that cause.  Trump’s declaration of war on an invisible enemy has proven to be a popular framing.

Perhaps we’ll adopt a different stance, viewing the climate crisis enemy as Pogo’s Us, since we made it happen. In that case we might reexamine ourselves more deeply. On the other hand, so many of our pandemic responses have been about trying to get people to behave in different ways, so that perhaps the difference won’t amount to much in practice.

spaceship Earth EPCOT_Zach Stern

I do wonder if the transnational nature of the pandemic will gradually nudge human consciousness towards a global framework. As a child I found Buckminster Fuller’s spaceship Earth model very appealing.  Perhaps the combination of thinking of viruses advancing over continents, economic supply chains breaking or moving between nations, vaccines fought over across national boundaries will add some Earth-level thinking to our minds. And as climate change advances, perhaps our mental frameworks will as well, and we could look back to the COVID planetary storm as a milestone along that path.

(thanks to my Patreon supporters for feedback; photo by Zach Stern)

*Note that I referred to the end of the pandemic. That means we still have COVID in our ecosystem. Nobody is talking about eradicating it. Instead, “end of pandemic” describes transmission rates and total infections dropping below pandemic levels. Think of it as comparable to the seasonal flu in scale, if not function.

Also, by “glimpse” I wanted to include the possibility that while we grow vaccinations, we also screw things up with “vaccine hesitancy” and bad public health behaviors.  A glimpse of the eventual end doesn’t mean everything is fine and dandy in the short run.

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8 Responses to What our pandemic year tells us about how we might respond to the climate crisis

  1. Anthony Helm says:

    My first read of your post, Bryan, was a downer, but I see there is optimism within as well.

    Theoretically, on one level we study history as a way of avoiding the sins or dangers of the past. The older I become, however, the more convinced I am that we are as humans held hostage by our past instead. That is, when we attempt to steer the present and future away from the knowledge of the rocky shores of our past, it is as though the crags of the shoreline send out tendrils below the surface of the water that reach out to pull us back upon those same sharp reefs. Fear, greed, and a quest for power (or religious dominion) continue to fuel the tribalism, populism, and nationalism that keep us from moving ever forward. There is progress, but it always seems to be “2 steps forward, 1 step back.” And each step back ultimately means lives lost, whether from unchecked war, disease, or other deprivation, and more recently, human contributions to climate change resulting in increased environmental catastrophes. I’ve always considered myself an idealist (but with a realist’s view of my idealism) and an optimist, but the older I become, the more I have to fight back against the pessimism that rises from within and without. As a species we have come so far in so many ways. We cannot escape our animal natures, but I do think on the whole we continue to evolve in positive ways. Perhaps our own journey mirrors that of our planet and other celestial bodies, going round and round but each time getting just a little bit further away from the past that clings so tightly. The challenge, of course, is can we progress quickly enough to comprehend on a global scale that “We are part of the ecosystem, not separate from it,” and respond accordingly while we still have our Spaceship Earth?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Anthony, what a big-hearted and wise post. You’re exactly the kind of person who can push us forward.

      Is there anything in the past we can draw on for progress on climate change? I’ve heard some call for WWII, which is an odd fit. The Green New Deal summons up FDR, which is a little better. I like pointing to the Montreal deal that saved the ozone layer.

    • Glen McGhee says:

      I think that I share the pessimism as well — at least, in the long term.
      It is only a matter of time before the Sun enlarges, becoming a Red Giant, engulfing the earth and all life on the planet.
      Optimists look past the astronomical science, and the inevitability of extinction on this planet that we call home.
      Already, even now, we are on the edge of the habitable zone.

  2. Joe Murphy says:

    Regarding concern for marginalized populations, I’m struck by the stories of more privileged folks going into low-income/racially-marginalized neighborhoods where vaccines are easier to get (both due to intention and failures of logistics and communication). Also the way that complex systems which are supposed to support the most vulnerable turn out to either require guides, or become opportunities to game the system.

    The easiest parallel to climate change will be in gentrification. Urban greenspaces, for example, can drive up property values and drive out the very people they were supposed to benefit. (see Katie Black and Mallory Richards, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/who-benefits-from-public-green-space/). But it’s also easy to imagine a parallel to the vaccine rollout, in carbon tax-and-rebate systems, or climate change relief programs, which are simple to access if and only if you have a certain level of cultural and technological capital.

    That doesn’t mean we should let the perfect be the enemy of the good, of course. It just means we should expect this behavior and plan accordingly. Public health experts actually know a lot about how to work within communities to craft and spread a message effectively, if we’d just listen to them.

    • Joe Murphy says:

      (In anticipation of a question – vaccines are easier to get in some neighborhoods because officials are trying to reach the people who live there; that’s good. But they’re available, instead of spoken for, because the information isn’t getting to the right people, or it’s not sufficiently persuasive/trusted, or the vaccination clinics aren’t as accessible as officials think they are. That’s what I mean by “failures of logistics and communication.”)

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      That’s a subtle and important caution, Joe.

  3. Jeremy Stanton says:

    Bryan, great post. I love this approach to exploring how we might respond to climate change futures. We really don’t have any good historical analog for a global disruption of the sort that climate change will bring about. Which I suppose is the key problem — it’s an entirely novel situation for our civilization, for which we have not yet developed the right “tools”, thinking frameworks, governance structures, stories, to be able to cope with the situation.

    Reading your post, I can’t help but think that if we beat the pandemic, it might actually worsen the outcome of our response to climate change. It could likely reinforce our war-thinking–“we beat covid, we can beat carbon dioxide too!” I contend that climate change is not the problem, but rather a symptom of a broader ecological unraveling, a problem that is orders of magnitude more complex than the pandemic. We won’t ever be able to marshall enough new technology, capitalism, and people to be able to reverse the destruction caused by too much technology, capitalism, and people.

    With the pandemic, we have a single, definable enemy to defeat–the solution statement is relatively simple: stop the spread of the virus. Similarly with Kyoto, the solution was simple: reduce CFCs released into the atmosphere. With ecological unraveling, we are faced with the fact that most everything we’ve been doing makes the problem worse. This week we learned that even after our year of covid, CO2 measurements hit an all-time high at Mauna Loa, 421.21 ppm (https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/research/news/2021/record-co2-levels-despite-lower-emissions-in-2020). Our solution brief for this problem might read: redesign human civilization while simultaneously avoiding harm for significant numbers of people and life on Earth. Much more complex than attempting to reduce a single parameter–carbon dioxide output.

    Not that I’m advocating doomsterism or giving up hope. I’m feeling more optimistic over the last few months, though the source of my optimism isn’t based on anything scientific.

    Glen’s comment reminded me of the short story The Next 10 Billion Years by John Michael Greer, wherein he explores “the gap between notions about the future we’ve all absorbed from the last three hundred years of fossil-fueled progress, on the one hand, and the ways of thinking about what’s ahead that might actually help us make sense of our predicament and the postpetroleum, post-progress world ahead, on the other” and tells a story where “notions of perpetual progress and imminent apocalypse are seen as industrial society’s traditional folk mythologies”

    It’s a fun read.

    Tying the big big picture back to academia, if we consider that it functions as our civilization’s self-optimization mechanism, and recognize that a good portion of that optimization results in faster and better ways to hasten our plunge over the cliff edge, I often wonder how we might reorient academia to serve moving the civilization in a new direction.

  4. Jeremy Stanton says:

    On the topic of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, here’s a great interview with the author about his book and some of the ideas and thinking that went into it. He gets into some of the questions Bryan posed to us during the book club reading:


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