Over the last few weeks in the United States, the coronavirus has transformed the everyday lives of Americans drastically. In fact, the positive environmental effects of this “new normal” lifestyle changes of staying inside, working from home, and using less vehicles, are already showing from space.
In China, where millions were quarantined to help stop the spread of the disease, satellite photos show pollution disappearing as work came to a standstill. And, in Italy, a massive quarantine is underway. Meanwhile, in the U.S., as the amount of coronavirus cases grow, companies are asking employees to work from home, canceling conferences, and closing schools. The changes have been fast, driven by widespread recognition that this is a public health emergency.
The response raises a unique question, according to a recent article by Fast Company: What would it look like if the world responded to the climate crisis with a similar sense of urgency? In countries around the globe, governments and citizens have been quick to change daily habits, however, this behavior has not happened for the climate crisis.
“We’ve seen that governments can act, and people can change their behavior, in a very short amount of time,” May Boeve, executive director of the climate advocacy group 350.org told Fast Company. “And that’s exactly what the climate movement has been asking governments and people to do for years in the face of a different kind of threat—the climate crisis—and we don’t see commensurate action. On the one hand, it shows that it’s possible to do this, and it’s possible for this kind of mobilization of resources to take place in a short amount of time. In that sense, that’s encouraging. But we were never in doubt of that aspect.”
In both situations, the scientific community is warning us. Climate change is already killing people in heat waves and other disasters; it’s worsening food and water shortages and it will displace hundreds of millions of people. The same pollutants that contribute to climate change also cause air pollution that kills millions of people each year. And, diseases like malaria and dengue fever are likely to spread as mosquitoes move into new regions. Like with coronavirus, people living in areas with the fewest resources are being impacted most by climate change.
The reality is that if the world was responding to climate change in the way it is responding to the coronavirus things would look a lot different. “We would see a lot of different things happening all at the same time,” said Boeve. “It’s cheap enough and available, but the regulatory systems that would enable people everywhere to get clean energy would require massive government investment. We would see these kinds of emergency packages that would get people off of the fossil fuel grid and onto a clean grid right away.”
After wildfires and floods, relief packages would acknowledge the role of climate. In cities, development rules would change to require low-carbon construction. Farms would shift to regenerative agriculture. Just as the airline industry is struggling because of the coronavirus, some industries would see real impacts.
“It’s a whole bunch of different things, which could all happen quite quickly, because we do actually know what needs to happen,” she said. “And that’s the amazing thing. But the shift in which, and this is what’s so interesting about what’s unfolding with a public health emergency is that I think there’s a trust in the public health community to say, these are the measures we need you to put in place right now. They’re ready to go and policymakers are acting. And the same thing is true with climate change. We’ve got those policies, they’ve been drafted. They’ve been waiting to be enacted.”