Climate messages from the COVID-19 crisis

The Following Article appeared in Counterbound Volume 1 Issue 1 p 26 – 32, June 2020
Available on subscription from Follow them on @counterbound.
Reproduced here by permission of the publishers.




Alan Journet, Co-Facilitator, Southern Oregon Climate Action Now (SOCAN); 541-301-4107



The COVID-19 crisis teaches us two things: how to deal with crises, and how we recover.

Science Denial in a Crisis:

Data are non-partisan; months ago, they indicated a pandemic was brewing. But it takes a human mind to interpret the data and an informed mind to draw appropriate conclusions. We then have to accept informed understanding.

As the COVID-19 crisis swept the nation, so did leaderships’ refusal to accept science. It is clear science denial is alive and well in the body politic of the nation. Early in the federal response, it was reported that, in the absence of either a fully tested and approved treatment to minimize disease severity, or a vaccine conferring immunity, the only defense was to adopt behaviors to contain the disease and reduce its spread: wearing a mask in public to prevent spreading the virus in case  if one were asymptomatic but infected, maintaining a discreet physical distance from others, and avoiding public encounters as much as possible. Medical science experts were consistent in articulating this consensus.

Yet, from the White House, through Congress and state legislatures, Republicans consistently rejected medical science and insisted on promoting ‘Happy Talk’, that coronavirus was just like the flu, and there was no need to encourage or require the recommended behaviors.  Absurdly, political leaders who recommended or required sane behavior promoting the common good were accused of tyranny.  Tesla’s Elon Musk, the techy wunderkind supposed to be leading a transportation revolution, equated a stay-at-home order with fascism.

Meanwhile, Jackson County Commissioner Colleen Roberts thanked the Lord rather than Southern Oregonian behavior for the low incidence of the disease in this county. Roberts also claimed the stay-at-home recommendations saving Oregonian lives turned Oregon into a police state.

Data across the nation and the world reveal locations accepting self-quarantine exhibit lower incidence of COVID-19 than those rejecting such measures. So why not endorse the science?

Vocal critics still reject scientific recommendations regarding how best to re-open the economy safely, even as the rates of infection increase in prematurely opened regions.  One would think the number of deaths in this country is sufficient to urge caution.  Now that re-opening has caused infection surges in many states, caution is doubly indicated.

The blind rejection of medical science is discouraging, yet unsurprising; it emulates the pattern of climate denial.  Unsurprisingly, many of the same individuals and political leaders who reject medical science also reject the consensus  among climate scientists. Those of us urging state or federal programs to address the underlying cause of global warming often argue that when a major catastrophe strikes the nation, science deniers will surely wake up.  Regrettably, every time calamity strikes (major hurricanes or wildfires, for example), opponents refuse to acknowledge global warming as a major contributor.  Rather, they grasp at explanatory straws allowing them to continue science denial; either it’s a natural phenomenon or it’s caused by some other factor, they argue.

Trump’s rejection of medical science has, as the recent Columbia study suggested, resulted in tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. Meanwhile, an even more recent Berkeley study of six countries following medical advice on reducing coronavirus spread indicated that recommended measures prevented 500 million infections.

Rejecting climate science does not result in the same immediate cause and effect as rejecting medical science because it climate change occurs over decades rather than weeks. Yet the lessons are the same. Ignoring immediate, early action will further suffering not just for those most vulnerable in our global community but for all life on the planet.

Additionally, we know persuading those who reject medical science that they should accept climate science will be difficult; their concerns obviously focus elsewhere. Fortunately, the Yale University Program on Climate Change Communications indicates that this vocal and loud group dismissing the science comprises less than 10% of the population.

Recovering from the Crisis

Another message we can carry over from the COVID crisis relates to our individual behavior.  On a personal note, I can see that the behavioral change required by COVID-19 has altered our family’s direct reliance on fossil fuels – clearly a positive. The early study reporting that globally there was a daily 17% drop in air pollution in early April was likely a function of many others responding as did we. Not only do we make fewer personal trips, but also SOCAN’s committee and general meetings are now held via ZOOM and Facebook livestream so we don’t travel to meetings. As a result, we recently discovered ourselves buying a tank of gas for the first time in two months. The authors of the above study are careful to point out, however, that this reduction in pollution is not a total blessing; the accompanying economic downturn constitutes a warning that reducing emissions the wrong way could bring economic calamity.

Meanwhile, adding a further cautionary note, NOAA reports that as of June, atmospheric carbon dioxide has reached a new high of 417 parts per million. We should not, therefore, imagine that these small improvements in personal energy usage are sufficient to achieve the kind of fossil fuel reductions and emissions reductions we need. Adjusting our personal consumption choices is important, but is not enough to address the scale of the climate crisis.

We must emphasize the need for a complete transition in the energy economy from reliance on fossil fuels to renewables combined with a reduction in our excessive consumption. These are long overdue and should be seen as preventative measures. since the cost of failure will be far greater than the cost of the remedy. To those who challenge this assertion, I ask: what will be the cost (if even measurable) should agriculture, forestry, and fisheries across the globe be devastated?

Considerable thought is therefore being given across the globe to how we stimulate recovery from the coronavirus crisis.  The message here is that this moment provides an opportunity for us to ask how we should promote economic recovery: should we, for example, continue to subsidize fossil fuels, or should we subsidize renewable energy?  Should we continue social injustice or emphasize correcting historic injustice?

Economic stimulus is necessary to recover from the devastation wrought by a mismanaged COVID response. This moment provides an opportunity for us to ask how we should promote economic recovery: should we, for example, continue to subsidize fossil fuels, or should we subsidize renewable energy?  Should we continue promoting burgeoning extractive industries and overexploitation of our natural resources amid obscene social injustice, or, perhaps emphasize an economy built on sustainability and the principles of justice?

While some naysayers have used the economic setback accompanying the pandemic to argue against emissions reductions, we must reject the conclusion that reducing greenhouse gas emissions will cause economic disaster.  Rather, the message is that, just as with increased use of internet communications discussed above, the route to our recovery and achievement of an ongoing and sustainable economy is through reduced consumption, a transition to renewable energy, increased energy conservation and energy use efficiency, the judicious use of energy efficient technology.  But this must be undertaken through the lens of social justice.

Techno fixes alone are insufficient. As the architects of the Green New Deal persuasively argue, the path to reduced greenhouse gas emissions requires a just transition to an economy that works for all.  This means well-paying jobs, workers’ rights, and breaking the stranglehold of an economy addicted to fossil fuel.

Economic collapse is not a necessary outcome of addressing our greenhouse gas emissions problem, but it is an inevitable outcome of failing to address it. We must also wake up collectively to the reality that we live on a finite planet, with finite resources and a finite capacity to process our waste. Unfortunately, we live in an economy that functions on the myth of unrestricted and infinite economic growth based on the illusion of infinite planetary resources. This must be rejected in favor of a sane and realistic economic model.

Caveat and Hope

Social science theory indicates that humans have only a finite capacity to worry. The fear is, if Americans are consumed by Covid worries, we may not have any ‘worry’ left to invest in the climate crisis.  Fortunately, a recent Yale Program on Climate Change Communication report indicates that as of April, a record 73% of Americans think global warming is happening while 62% understand that it’s mostly human-caused and 66% are at least somewhat worried. The lasting and optimistic message is that COVID seems neither to have undermined American concerns about the climate issue nor our commitment to address it.


0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *