We are now deep into two serious worldwide events that threaten our physical and our economic well-being. One of these events has been building for decades. The other for only a few months.
The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly a frightening threat that has caused tremendous social and economic upheaval. Uncertainty has come into all our lives … and it is hard to handle, both emotionally and practically. Many of us are struggling to figure out exactly what it means for our future, in both the short and long term.
Science gives us a strong understanding of the COVID-19 threat. While it isn’t exact, and is constantly updated based on new data, it provides a good idea of the seriousness of our situation, what is needed to address it, and how long it will last. Science tells us millions of lives around the world may be at risk over the next few months.
And, in varying degrees, we have responded to this emergency in a timely and logical fashion, both here in Wyoming, and around the world.
Dramatic, historical measures have been instituted. Billions of people have been forced, by both necessity and government edict, to substantially change their lives. Trillions of dollars are being spent worldwide to confront the human and economic costs of the coronavirus. Much of this is being spent without a clear understanding of how effective it will be.
We do all of this with the expectation that science will provide a vaccine and the threat will then be controlled.
Science has also given us a strong understanding of a more serious threat. While the science isn’t exact, and is constantly updated based on new data, it provides a good idea of the seriousness of the climate crisis, what is needed to address it, and the time period that we have to muster effective action.
Science also tells us that hundreds of millions of lives are at risk in the decades ahead. Hundreds of millions more will be displaced by climate disruption. Every person on the planet will have their lives altered in some way by climate change.
Unfortunately, and unlike our response to COVID-19, the response to climate change has been unhurried, uneven, and so far, largely ineffective. Governments worldwide, both national and local, quibble and delay because of the costs of action. They squander valuable time trying to protect the industries most responsible for spewing greenhouse gases and polluting our planet.
For the moment, COVID-19 is giving the earth a brief respite from rising greenhouse gases. Slowing commercial and industrial output, reduced travel and consumer demand have resulted in a significant slowing of the rate of increase in atmospheric CO2. This could be the opportunity we need to take a different path.
We must stop looking at the stock market and GDP as indicators of economic well-being. These wealth indicators don’t represent most people’s true economic health and they do not include the human and environmental burden of our consume-at-all-costs economy.
Most importantly, we must begin to look at the climate crisis in the same way we view the COVID-19 pandemic. Both are real. Both are emergencies.
It is hard to devote the same emotional, mental and economic effort to a threat that isn’t immediate. Indeed, the catastrophic impacts of climate change will increase slowly over the span of decades. Unfortunately, the measures required to slow those impacts will also need decades to take hold.
There will be no vaccine for the climate crisis.
I fear the short-term emergency presented by the coronavirus will exhaust the world’s emotional, physical and financial resources, leaving us at the mercy of a much more catastrophic threat.
But I also have a strong hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will provide the people of the world a model for dealing with the threat of climate disruption. A model that emphasizes the economic costs of failing to act. A model that considers the human costs before the financial ones. A model that envisions and provides for a future beyond the emergency.
Mike Selmer is co-founder of Wyoming Climate Activists, a climate education and action organization. He lives in Laramie.