In this essay, author and environmental policy specialist Dave Dempsey reflects on the challenges humans face today, fifty years after the first Earth Day. These days, the rolling, long-term emergency of climate change has been eclipsed by the sudden rise of a deadly pandemic. Will human kind learn and change in time to control both global emergencies?
As vague awareness became concern, and concern became alarm, and alarm became a sudden, profound change in our daily lives late this late winter and early spring, I heard many comparisons of the pandemic and climate change. Both have the potential to transform not just routines, but the way we live on Earth for all time, some said. Both had the potential to mobilize whole societies to make change, others said.
I’m not sure the comparisons hold up. The first comparison that comes to my mind when I reflect on the last several months is between the pandemic and 9/11. Unlike climate change, both of these catastrophes pounced on us quickly. Both visited death on innocents. But the greatest similarity is the stunned public reaction to both. Who could have predicted 9/11? Who could have predicted COVID-19?
Well, I didn’t, and a lot of other people didn’t – but those who were carefully monitoring the worlds of their expertise predicted both. “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.,” said President George W. Bush’s daily briefing in the summer of 2001. “WARNING: We Are Not Ready for the Next Pandemic,” shouted the cover of Time for the issue dated May 15, 2017. The warnings were there. Lacking, however, was a societal ability to imagine either calamity.
Climate change is a little different. As Earth Day 50 nears, murderous fires rip across California and epic storms strike the South. The public begins to see that what was once thought a speculative, faraway emergency now looms in front of us like a stalled semi on a freeway we’re traveling at 80 miles per hour. It takes less imagination to envision climate change as an existential threat than it used to.
But it takes a whole lot of imagination to see climate change as altering our daily habits. Buy more fuel-efficient cars? Buy more wind energy to electrify your home? These are important actions but they aren’t changes in a meaningful sense. We can see ourselves doing these things precisely because they don’t require a new way of living.
The pandemic has made a new way of living vivid for hundreds of millions of Americans and people around the world. Social distancing, the early adjournment of the school year, monster numbers of unemployed, families clustered at home and travel virtually abandoned are part of that new way of living. For some, chiefly the economically secure, it also means time to reflect, breathe, and look at life from new perspectives. Societally, it means less air and water pollution, the recovery of vistas and waterscapes, and a glimpse of living with less resource consumption.
Climate change will eventually require adjustments of comparable magnitude, not just for a few months or even 18 months, until an effective vaccine is found – but for all the months to come. This is a hard truth, not one that I easily accept. But my lack of imagination or willingness to change won’t alter that truth.
In the end, maybe the greatest resemblance of climate change and the pandemic as threats to our way of life is in our irrepressible desire for things to “go back to what they were.” We run the risk of crawling back inside the comfortable womb of yesteryear, reverting among other things to compulsive buying, unnecessary travel, and the manufacture and use of plastic that endures for generations in the environment.
Who’s “we”? Ah, there’s the final, most important point. “We” does not include the bravest, unflinchingly honest scientists and advocates I know and you know. It may not include you. But “we” includes many people – if truth be told, me among them – unable to believe in the likelihood that Americans in mass numbers will adopt a different relationship to the Earth if it affects our daily lives.
There’s no simple answer to what seems to be a fundamental part of human nature, this yearning to persist oblivious to the need for change. But there are a number of small answers. One I am advocating here, and for myself, is to pay more attention to the experts, especially the scientists. They are trained to pursue truth.
We had the opportunity in January and February this year to head off the pandemic’s effects in the U.S., but our government didn’t take the threat seriously enough, and clung to happy talk instead. A similar approach to climate change will cost us even more dearly. We need to make changes societally and individually now if we are to cope successfully with a climate in rapid transformation.
We have a chance, then, to prevent the worst of climate change and mitigate some of it. That may not sound like the Earth Day view from 1970, but it is an Earth Day for our times.