COVID-19 is a nightmare that has left more than 600,000 people dead in the United States alone. But from the very start it was also a clear dress rehearsal for the looming global catastrophe of climate change, which is barreling toward us and likely to wreak more damage than the pandemic.
Early on, it seemed like COVID-19 might sober us up, and teach us some useful lessons for that other great and imminent threat. Perhaps the coronavirus would force us to acknowledge that there really are invisible dangers in the world, and that there really are experts who know more than we do. Perhaps it would show us that if we don’t act to avert crises sooner rather than later, the problems only get worse.
Climate activist Bill McKibben suggested something along those lines. “This might be the moment when we decide to fully embrace the idea that science, you know, works,” he wrote back in March 2020. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called COVID-19 a “wake-up call” for climate change.
But here in the United States, we did not rise to the occasion. We did not wake up. Instead, we bungled much of our response to COVID-19, making the situation worse than it had to be. It’s not clear we learned much of anything as a nation.
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I was reminded of that again Monday when the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its most dire report yet (each has been more dire than the last). The IPCC concluded that humans can no longer reverse some of climate change’s effects or stop its intensification over the next three decades. Therefore, we should expect more raging storms, devastating heat waves, harrowing floods, out-of-control fires, severe droughts and other “extreme events unprecedented in the observational record.”
That wasn’t the part that bothered me. I expected no less.
What bothered me was the frustrating conclusion that we could still head off the most devastating climate change effects if we took immediate concerted action. Sharp cuts in carbon emissions beginning right now could make an enormous difference in what lies ahead.
It’s frustrating because why think that any such thing will happen? Isn’t concerted action what Americans just showed we cannot do — pull together, sacrifice together, expect that Washington will behave rationally or that our leaders will lead? I’m pleased there’s still hope, but what indication is there that we will avail ourselves of it?
In response to the pandemic here in the U.S., many millions of people behaved responsibly, wore masks, got shots and made sacrifices for more than a year.
But many, many millions of others responded by denying the facts and disbelieving the science. They chose stubbornness and know-nothingism. They chose shortsightedness. Some were misinformed; others were in the grip of fantastical conspiracy theories.
Worse yet, many elected officials, led by then-President Donald Trump, were willing to politicize the pandemic, spreading bad information or encouraging misbehavior. Some merely kept quiet, like the New Mexico mayor quoted in The Times on Monday who says he no longer urges his constituents to get vaccinated: “You could lose votes for pushing the vaccine too much.”
That kind of gutlessness is why case numbers are going up and new virus variants are threatening to send us all back into hiding. Only about 58% of vaccine-eligible Americans are fully immunized.
COVID could have been stopped much sooner. A minor step like getting a shot in the arm — how difficult is that? It’s not an affront to liberty to ask people to get a lifesaving vaccination.
If people won’t get vaccinated or wear masks, how can they be expected to transform their lives as climate change requires? Answer: They can’t.
And fighting climate change is even harder than fighting COVID-19 in this sense: With COVID, there’s no trillion-dollar industry with a vested interest in making sure you don’t believe in it.
Unfortunately, neither the capitalist system (which too often encourages corporations to maximize profits at society’s expense) nor our democratic system (which allows citizens to toss out politicians who call for unpleasant efforts) seems particularly well suited to meet the climate battle.
Here’s what the IPCC report says: Melting ice and rising sea levels are accelerating. Extreme weather events are worsening. Even if we cut emissions drastically now, some climate changes are “locked-in” and will be “irreversible” for centuries. In about a decade, we’re expected to barrel past the limits on warming that the Paris pact sought to set.
The pandemic dress rehearsal didn’t go so well. And with each passing year, each passing presidential administration, each rise in temperature, each new season of wildfire or flood or drought — the problems ahead become deeper and harder to solve.
The lessons of COVID ought to be clear: We cannot dismiss science or blithely ignore what we know is coming at us. We need to work together, look out for others and accept that sacrifices will be necessary, as we have sometimes done in wartime.
We need leaders — Republicans and Democrats alike — who will acknowledge reality and instead of pandering for votes at any cost, press us to meet our obligations to the world and to each other. The threat to the planet is real, and we won’t be saved by self-delusion, conspiracy theories or stubborn, studied ignorance.
Nicholas Goldberg is an associate editor and Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times