The Silver Lining of COVID-19


These are strange times: a world on the brink of irreversible change from climate destabilization, an administration who denies scientific facts and uses magical thinking to guide policy, and the world-wide spread of a coronavirus. While we all brace for what looks like a rough period from the health and economic fallout of Covid-19, there are some insights we can gain and apply to the work we do to reverse climate change. It’s old news, but it reminds us about the significance of awareness and human health.

Over the past weeks we have seen societies and governments act very quickly to make human health the priority. When the choice between economic stability and even relatively small numbers of deaths presented itself, most rational governments chose human health and well-being. This choice exhibited in the Covid-19 crisis is the same existential choice for reversing climate change: choosing human health and well-being at the expense of maximizing profit.

The rapid change occurring in our culture since the start of Covid-19 is astronomical. It tells us when humans see a real threat to their health, people and governments CAN act very quickly. We’ve seen conventional thinking do an about face from the prevailing attitude that this is nothing but another flu, to self-imposed social distancing, school closures, travel bans, and other advanced protective measures. This brings into sharp focus the fact that our messaging about climate change is not clear enough, something I’ve long suspected.

Our messaging has been abstract, and our words badly chosen. The messages are not personal. Global warming and climate change are terms that don’t accurately describe the threat. Talking about the planet removes the reality of the impacts that will ultimately be highly personal. The climate movement has talked about the health of “the environment” and not our own health, which of course is another abstraction. Little of our messaging has been personal or about our own health and wellness.

Those of us working to reverse climate change have the ability to see the havoc the warming climate will mean for us in terms of food scarcity, rising sea levels, destabilized eco-systems, and increased wildfires, just to name a few. Because this vision is in clear focus for us, we act appropriately. But for a large number of people, this vision is blurry, and often, in their opinion, potentially overblown. They see environmentalists as over-reacting, fear mongering, out of touch, and threatening their lifestyle. Conflicting views of climate science appearing in the press haven’t helped. But just as we’ve seen the skeptics reverse their opinion about just how serious the Covid-19 virus is, once they truly grasp the facts, people will act very quickly when the effects of climate change come into clear focus. People can turn on a dime when it comes to their health and well-being which is EXACTLY what we’ve learned in the past few weeks with Covid-19.

A large segment of the general population is unaware and uninformed about how the natural world works and our dependency on it. Many are isolated from it, have never had a garden, never experienced the natural landscape, and have no understanding of bees, ecosystems, pollution, how food gets to the grocery, or how climate change directly affects their lives. They’re unable to connect the dots. They’ve been told their lifestyle affects the planet’s warming but, again, the abstraction and the scale of the problem make one’s personal efforts seem meaningless. The population needs a course on how we are dependent on clean water, air, and the natural world in general. We need to see how the polar bear’s demise is a reflection of our own wellness. We need to connect the dots. People need to be educated to the threat of the issue.

We’ve just learned when we see the threat we can react: businesses have been shuttered, schools closed, and social-distancing has become the practice of the land once the threat became clear. When awareness of the issue by the larger population is achieved, change happens rapidly. In one week’s time the concept of “flattening the curve” has achieved broad recognition. We have been educated about the spread of infectious disease, and it has influenced our actions! It is important to realize that this is not strictly a panic response…it’s not just fear based, it’s information based. These are sound and prudent measures we’ve taken, based on the evidence that’s been presented in order to protect ourselves.

I’m not suggesting fear is the solution. It definitely is not, because fear is paralyzing. But EDUCATION is certainly a solution. It’s education we need most in order to make effective change in the climate crisis. And it’s not simply education about the climate crisis, but education about how the world actually works. When people are given the facts to protect their health we see them change quickly. This is the great lesson of Covid-19. True, we’ve seen some panic, people hoarding food and supplies, people hoarding masks that are ineffective, and fear-reactions in the stock market sell-off. But most of the change we see is a response, not a reaction. It's not just coming from fear, it’s coming from increased awareness.

Positive change often springs from adversity. So, as we hunker down and prepare for this historic change in our community, let’s take comfort that we may actually be able to rebuild a world that is better educated, more aware, and fully invested in protecting its own health.