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The paperback edition of my climate change book The Uninhabitable Earth is out today, and while it may feel strange to even think of climate change now, in the midst of a more immediate and disorienting crisis, the crises each echo the other in some unshakeable ways (1/x).
There are differences, of course, in the lessons from each (more on those in a minute).
In this crisis, as with climate change, we are waking up to the reality that we have not defeated nature, and do not live outside it or beyond its reach, no matter how protected we are.
Instead, while we can mitigate damage with wealth and empathy and human ingenuity, one major lesson of each crisis is that we live, all of us, in a fragile and unstable relationship with nature, which threatens us as much as it provides for us.
A second lesson the two crises share is: alarmism is good.
The lessons of the last few weeks are very clear: those societies and communities who moved quickest, and most aggressively, have done best. Aside from a few fights over toilet paper rolls, the costs of social panic have been tiny; the benefits of it, enormous.
If you wait until you are absolutely sure a worst-case scenario could happen, you have almost certainly missed the chance to avoid it. Uncertainty isn’t an argument against applying the precautionary principle, but also for following its wisdom.
The world is much more fragile and stretched thin than it appears, as we’ve been taught again over the last few weeks, when so many systems so long taken for granted as unchangeable, entrenched features of our lives have already been interrupted, at least.
The lesson here is two-fold, or rather double-edged: we are vulnerable beyond our nightmares, and we can change much more about those brittle systems than we’ve ever really let ourselves believe.
What looks inevitable and unchangeable can, in fact, change quickly.
In the case of coronavirus, in the space of weeks we’ve not only seen the rise of medical surveillance states but the collapse of airline travel, cities in total shutdown...
... tiny government types pushing WWII models, Republican senators pushing UBI and what seems now even more like the inevitable arrival of at least some public health option or provision in the US.
Probably the coronavirus crisis will produce many more changes still—many more changes than we even see at present. The climate crisis requires a similarly all-touching approach to change.
But of course the responses are also similar in that they have been, too this point, national—which is to say chaotic, divergent, uncoordinated, in many instances counterproductive at least for a time and already, in the US and China at the very least, drifting into xenophobia.
In some ways, a “federalist” response like this is useful—encouraging innovation and experimentation and allowing for local customization.
But watching the disastrous American preliminary response and the even more disastrous British one is a lesson that “experimentation” can have enormous costs and consequences when the stakes are so high.
And the exemplary South Korean approach shows that many measures that seem needlessly costly at the outset will prove to be not just “worth it,” but something close to optimal responses, when preparing or responding to onrushing threats such as these.
Of course, you’d also have to be blind to not see differences between the two crises, of which there are many.
But a few in particular stand out to me, as someone who’s spent the last few years thinking a lot about all the challenges climate change poses to all of our systems (political, cultural, economic) and the challenges those same systems pose to the project of addressing warming.
The first is villainy. There are, practically speaking, no villains responsible for the coronavirus. Perhaps strangely, given common invocations of the narrative power of war or alien invasion stories, that has seemed to make it easier, not harder, to respond to.
That is not to say there have been no bad actors—Trump perhaps most conspicuous—or that we have been able to consider such a scary threat without assigning some amount of blame (hence the “Chinese virus,” and the insinuation, within China, that COVID19 is an American bio weapon).
Villainy doesn’t explain all of the climate crisis (though certainly some), but we now see that crisis almost entirely through the lens of vilification.
Climate change is not a culture war but an existential threat, as is the coronovirus crisis—existential in the sense of promising to profoundly impact the shape and meaning of human existence.
Of course, it is also striking that, when it comes to the coronavirus, the people in charge — in command, in power — overwhelmingly want to help, not to profit.
This is for the most part true of our political leaders, worldwide, however imperfect their responses. It is overwhelmingly true of the doctors, nurses, and public health officials scrambling to respond.
You simply can’t say the same thing about those in charge on energy and the environment nearly anywhere in the world—today, as politics policy and business energy shift, but certainly over the last decades, dominated by inaction and obfuscation and profiteering.
As with climate, there are enormously differential impacts from COVID19–though many of them are inverted. The young will be punished by climate change but are superhuman in the face of coronavirus; the old are agents of inaction in climate, but the most vulnerable now.
For decades, climate activists have wondered how different things would be if the most intense effects of warming arrived first in the first world, not the global South. For the time being, that is the COVID19 situation—infecting along vectors of wealth and globalization.
We may not yet be seeing the spread of the coronavirus into the global south, or it may be relatively protected from its impacts thanks to climate (which would be an incredible irony, after centuries of the wealthy west looking down on the developing world as diseased).
But among those countries affected today, the biggest differential is simple: human response.
And this is the biggest reason why, I think, it’s useful to think about these two crises together, even if each seems far too big, panic-inducing, and overwhelming to share brain space with anything else...
Climate change will test us again and again as COVID19 has—destabilizing systems that seemed unmovable, cascading through once-invulnerable seeming populations, calling our basic presumptions about what we are capable of into question, and delivering untold amounts of suffering.
This disease isn’t an outgrowth of climate change, but it is like hundreds of barbed developments that are.
We will face all of those in the decades ahead, indeed even while we find ourselves fighting this crisis (the hurricane season is just six weeks away, and historic storms are currently lashing Hawaii).
The question, as with the coronavirus, is how we respond—how quickly, how aggressively, and how much in the spirit of humane universalism rather than blinkered, small-minded self-interest. (x/x)
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