Dawdling on disaster How response to coronavirus threat, climate change differ
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/03/2020 (976 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The waters of Rome’s Trevi Fountain continue to flow, but no one is there to marvel at its beauty.
The always-bustling streets of Banff are now empty.
Even sitting on a Winnipeg Transit bus rattling down the street has become a mostly solo journey.
The world has changed in a matter of weeks in a desperate attempt to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Whether governments and authorities acted quickly enough will be hotly debated for months to come, but there is no question that action has been taken on an unprecedented scale.
These decisive moves have sent echoes through the scientific community studying climate change. What can be learned from the international response to coronavirus that could be applied to tackling the climate crisis?
The difference between threats near and far
Psychologists will start by pointing out that there are several key differences between the threat posed by this pandemic and the one posed by climate change; differences that may well limit how many lessons can be carried over.
First, there is the timeline. We’ve known about climate change and had concrete scientific evidence of its existence and potential impact since the late 1970s. We are beginning to feel the slow-moving impacts now; it has taken decades for warming to occur to the degree it has, and it will continue to get worse. Apocalyptic projections are for 2100, and that still seems ages away.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 has had an immediate impact, killing more than 20,000 people and infecting nearly half of a million others (so far) since it first emerged in December.
“All of our immediate life has changed,” said Robert Gifford, a University of Victoria psychology and environmental studies professor.
How fast a risk threatens people is critical to how they will react, Gifford said. “It’s called temporal discounting.”
Temporal discounting is academic jargon that essentially means humans aren’t well equipped to properly evaluate risks (or rewards) over long time horizons. The further it is down the road, the less credence we give it.
“Some risks are in our face,” he said, referring to COVID-19. “We read about climate change, but it’s not really in our face most of the time.”
“Some risks are in our face. We read about climate change, but it’s not really in our face most of the time.” – Professor Robert Gifford
Gifford adds that the lack of immediacy of the climate threat allows us to slot in our other priorities ahead of it, whether it’s our own convenience, or economic gain, or our desire to travel, and so on, Gifford added.
The second psychological difference is proximity. As we all sit glued to our smartphones, we are able to watch the spread of COVID-19 through our communities day by day. Meanwhile climate change’s impacts are often characterized as being far off, in other parts of the world.
“It could be the person sitting across from you right now carrying (the virus). That brings it very close.” said Per Espen Stoknes, a Norwegian economist and psychologist, and the director of the Centre for Green Growth at the Norwegian Business School.
That completely eliminates the distance through which people were able to view the threat of the virus just a couple months ago, when it was simply something happening far off in China, Stoknes said.
With this immediate, close risk, comes the introduction of immediate reward for actions taken to minimize the threat. This is also an important departure from how climate action is seen, he said.
“Very important in psychology is this sense of self-efficacy. It means that if I do something, it has an impact, and I can see that impact in the world. And that’s a huge motivator,” he said. “When it comes to the climate, even if California cut its emissions, for example, it wouldn’t make a dent in the amount of climate change we’re seeing. So it’s much harder to build a sense of collective efficacy when it comes to climate.”
Acting to slow the spread of COVID-19 has essentially become a social norm, Stoknes said; you can see others acting on it and you need not wonder whether it’s effective, since we can watch the number of infected individuals grow at faster or slower speed.
Invisible threats are more difficult to fight, and while greenhouse gases and the virus might both be invisible to the naked eye, the animated virus orb still seems to have offered the world an enemy against which we can unite, he added.
Health threat often not connected to climate change
Health and well-being is the concern that trumps all others for most people, Gifford noted. So at first glance, it is understandable COVID-19 would mobilize people in a way climate change does not. However, the World Health Organization has warned its estimates indicate that as many as 250,000 people will die annually between 2030 and 2050 as a result of climate changes.
Global estimates for how many people could die as a result of the pandemic are hard to come by. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has developed scenarios to model how the pandemic could play out, predicting that hundreds of millions of Americans alone will be infected with the virus, with between 200,000 and 1.7 million deaths.
Both cases are dire. But climate change introduces the complication of deaths being a result of indirect effects. “Climate change” would not be the listed cause of an individual’s death; it would be something linked to it, such as an increase in malaria rates, a natural disaster, malnutrition or heat stress.
“There’s a deep skepticism of indirect connections,” said Eric Galbraith, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at McGill University. “People don’t believe statistical relationships, and unfortunately — because of how climate change works — that’s all we can say.”
Despite there being no doubt about the increased instances of hurricanes and flooding, which result in higher mortality rates around the world, people are still not making the climate-change-health connection, Galbraith said.
“Everybody has to stay home, it’s not just the poorest 50 per cent. So there is a sense of community about who is suffering the fallout or suffering the consequences of the extreme policy changes.” – Per Espen Stoknes
That confusion and obfuscation of indirect relationships is exactly how the tobacco industry was so successful in misdirecting people about the risks of lung cancer associated with its products for so long, he said.
The psychology of distant threats again comes into play here, since climate-change health impacts are mostly projected to be felt in the developing world. People from small island developing states and other coastal regions, megacities and mountainous and polar regions are particularly vulnerable, according to the WHO. On the other hand, COVID-19 affects people in all walks of life.
“It’s a community threat, in the sense that it’s shutting down whole communities…. Everybody has to stay home, it’s not just the poorest 50 per cent. So there is a sense of community about who is suffering the fallout or suffering the consequences of the extreme policy changes,” Stoknes said.
Mass, mobilized, co-ordinated action is possible
There was the brief temptation for people to rejoice in the silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic: lowered carbon dioxide emissions. China, for example, cut emissions by roughly 25 per cent over a matter of weeks, as a result of lower electricity use and the near elimination of industrial production and transportation. Similar trends have since been seen around the globe.
But the reality of the economic context in which that’s happening, as well as the likelihood that those gains would be erased once the dust settles, seem to have put those “wins” in context.
“At best, a financial crisis delays emissions growth a few years. Structural changes may happen, such as the shift to nuclear energy after the oil crises, but evidence suggests emissions continue to grow,” Glen Peters, the research director of the Center for International Climate and Environment Research, wrote last week in The Conversation.
On March 10, the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres pleaded with the world not to let the temporary drop in emissions distract from the continuing threat climate change poses.
“It is important that all the attention that needs to be given to fight this disease does not distract us from the need to defeat climate change,” he said.
Emissions reductions aside, what we, collectively, can take away from this complete and seismic shift we’ve seen in human behaviour over the past few weeks elicits both hope and skepticism from the intellectuals of climate-change studies.
Galbraith, for example, is optimistic and empowered by all that’s come about in such a short time.
“This really demonstrates that our societies don’t need to be complacent about the future, we can act dramatically and quickly, based on foresight,” he said.
“We didn’t wait until the hospitals were full and overflowing. We saw that it was coming and we acted ahead of time,” he said. “I really am amazed that we are doing things that are so extreme, based on an anticipation of what’s coming. And that’s great that we can do that. When this has passed, which it will, we need to focus on using that same ability to address these other problems, so we all have a better future.”
“If you ask me whether or not I think the coronavirus will help people to deal better with the climate threat, my bet would be on ‘no.’” – Per Espen Stoknes
Stoknes is more skeptical.
“If you ask me whether or not I think the coronavirus will help people to deal better with the climate threat, my bet would be on ‘no,’” he said.
But there is the opportunity to take lessons from this crisis that could help in tackling climate change, he said, noting the importance of science and experts.
“Leaders who neglect and belittle science make both coronavirus and climate change much harder to tackle,” he said.
Stoknes said he hopes that world leaders stimulate the economy by putting their money behind green projects that coincide with climate goals.
“I’m not saying it’s going to happen,” he said. “I’m saying there’s opportunity.”
Dawdling on disaster will be an ongoing series looking at how humans faced the climate crisis.