Written by Elisabeth Gick and Kim Osborn Mullen 

Hopefully by the time you are reading this our daily lives will be heading towards a new reality of climate crisis activism, coupled with the ongoing threat of Covid-19.

While new information about Covid-19 will undoubtedly continue, a lot of unknowns remain. It may be helpful to look at what we do know about both crises or “pandemics.”

A pandemic, says the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is something that’s “occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population.”

Coronavirus and Climate Change fit the description spot-on. One is with us right now, the other has been affecting us for the past 50 years and will continue to do so long into the future.

Are they connected?

Yes, they are, because climate change increases the chances for transmission of new animal-to-human viruses. Think Zika. It is transmitted by a mosquito bite and with rising temperatures mosquitos have been flourishing farther and farther north. With regards to Covid-19, there are various hypotheses, which Prof. Katharine Hayhoe summed up succinctly: “A common question I’m getting these days is, what does Covid-19 have to do with climate change? The short answer is, very little; but the long answer is, everything is related.” See her full explanation here.

Are they similar? Oh yes, in important ways.

They affect everyone, that’s why they are called pandemics (Greek pan means all, and demic derives from Greek demos, the people). Only a handful of countries have not reported any coronavirus cases yet (Myanmar for example; they might just not be testing). However, although everyone is susceptible, not everyone is equally endangered. Individuals or groups that are disadvantaged already, be it financially, by color of their skin, by physical challenges or personal circumstances, those individuals and groups are and will be more severely affected by any pandemic. Even the ability to observe “social distancing” is a privilege. Similarly, climate change affects the less privileged to a much greater degree.  

Pandemics are physical manifestations of something gone awry. As such they can be researched, examined, analyzed and measured. People who do that kind of work are scientists. It is one of the most infuriating facts regarding Covid-19 and the climate crisis that scientists have been warning us about them for a long time. We live in a political environment where scientists are not taken seriously and we are/will be paying a high price for that political arrogance and close-mindedness.

350 Founder Bill McKibben has also noted this parallel. In an interview with Emily Atkins, he explains the science of this virus is just that; science. It’s science and biology and now part of our daily reality. And ignoring it is not an effective option. Or an option at all. Same goes for the Climate Crisis. McKibben says, “From the day that I wrote The End of Nature in 1989, the basic point that I’ve been trying to get across to people about the world is that reality is indeed real, that you can’t negotiate with physics and chemistry, that you can’t compromise with them or spin them away. Coronavirus is teaching us precisely this lesson about biology, as well.” 

Another common thread between the two is we have to work collectively. As a society, millions of people have come together to social distance and flatten the curve for the health of the community. For many of us, the Climate Crisis has not yet inconvenienced our daily lives. But it will without the kind of action that we now know is possible and it is already affecting millions of people on the front lines of this crisis. 

  “So the climate crisis is, in the end, a collective action problem above all else.” McKibben says, “And it requires that we come together in movements to organize in a counterbalance to the power…..for the moment, we can’t physically come together, but we can still organize.“

And how are they different?

Their time lines differ greatly. The Covid-19 pandemic started a few months ago, and with cooperation from frightened citizens all over the world it might be over in a few more months.

Climate change is much longer lived. While some may argue that it started with the Industrial Revolution, albeit slowly and outweighed by the economic advantages humanity experienced we have certainly been physically feeling it during the past 15 years of constantly increasing temperatures and all the subsequent disasters. Climate change has turned into a climate crisis that will keep growing in intensity and violence unless we quickly, decisively and collaboratively act to stop it. Sadly, even if we did start to seriously curb our output of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses now the effects of gasses already trapped in the atmosphere will impact human existence for a long time to come.

While human mismanagement of Planet Earth plays a role in the cause and spread of Covid-19, it is the one and only cause for climate change.

There is one difference, though, that holds a ray of hope: As Bill McKibben put it in that same interview, “we have the equivalent of a vaccine for climate change.” We have the alternatives to fossil fuels; we know how to regenerate the soil and eat a planet friendly diet; we are actually practicing a somewhat simpler lifestyle. We can do it!! 


Worth subscribing to: 

HEATED, a newsletter and 6 episode podcast by Emily Atkin

The Climate Crisis, a weekly newsletter by Bill McKibben in the NewYorker 

And please check out our fantastic toolkit Organizing During A Pandemic.      

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