Do you remember way back in January 2020 when the coronavirus was just another news story?  For years, experts have been making urgent calls about the possibility of a global pandemic.  But these scientific warnings, not unlike climate science, only popped up briefly on our collective radar before being swallowed up by the cacophony of modern culture.

Now, suddenly, the pandemic is front of mind and every aspect of our daily lives has changed.  In two months, we have done so many things that we have been telling climate activists were completely impossible for years.  Important conferences have gone online or been cancelled.  Everyone who can do so is telecommuting.  Oil and gas consumption has plummeted.  All that luxury travel that people ‘needed’ to feel alive has disappeared.  

The impacts of doing all this, so suddenly, without a back-up plan, will be negative.  This is not one of those blogposts declaring the pandemic to be the planet’s salvation.  However, the pandemic is a major disruption to the status quo and disruptions illuminate previously invisible possibilities both good and bad.

Mint and Dark Green Illustration Earth Day Card (1)

First of all, it’s very, very instructive to see how the government and the public react to a crisis that they are actually taking seriously.  The immense power of government, collective behaviour change and public shaming — and particularly the intersection of all three — are suddenly on display.  How and why were we all suddenly convinced to take this pandemic seriously?  Are there any clues here about what a serious response to climate change look like?

Horror stories prompted real action.  Experts on communication often tell us to keep our climate stories positive — but with no vaccine on the horizon and governments asking people to give up all social interactions, it’s pretty obvious that positive messaging was not what worked here.  If we recall how things played out, terrifying first-person accounts from overwhelmed hospitals in Wuhan and Lombardy were key triggers to widespread action elsewhere.  World leaders didn’t sugar-coat their requests or say they would make life better — they required them through legislation and asked us to make these sacrifices to protect the most vulnerable — something that they could easily do in their GHG emissions messaging if they weren’t so afraid of the fossil fuel industry.

But it wasn’t just the severity of the crisis that got people’s attention.  If severity alone was enough, we would have acted on climate change years ago.  With climate change, there will never be a return to normal without collective action.  Yet we still refuse to act, so what exactly is different?

There was no organized disinformation campaign against government action.  This is obviously an important issue — in the early stages of the pandemic, oil companies weren’t spending millions to muddy the scientific consensus — but it is one that has been very well covered by others, so we won’t dwell on it here.

Actions speak louder than words.  At Climate Pledge Collective, we have written letters and emails, bought subway ads and made videos both emotional and informative.  We’ve created petitions, attended rallies and developed a pledge system that shows people the full palette of possible actions they can take to make things better.  And hundreds, if not thousands, of other climate organizations are trying similar experiments in social change.  None of it has budged the needle — emissions rose in 2018 and again in 2019.

I am increasingly convinced that we act based on what feels normal and what others around us are doing — information and science are nearly irrelevant for most people’s decision-making processes.  With coronavirus, this could have led to a dangerous paralysis, but a few major organizations — the NBA’s early cancellation of their entire season stands out here — took what seemed like drastic actions and, within a few days, we saw a tidal wave of other institutions following suit.  Real action from high-profile organizations convinced the general public that this was indeed an emergency and triggered a shift in collective behaviour.  When our customary behaviour is based on old information, rational behaviour looks drastic and bizarre.  Institutions of any size can and should make bold changes to reduce emissions and announce why they have done so – this will have more impact than hosting yet another lecture or talk.  Climate change also requires actions that seem drastic when compared to the behaviour of those around us — who are still driving gas vehicles, traveling for pleasure and investing in oil companies  —  but the only way to pull society along is to do what seems drastic now until the dominoes of conformity start falling.  My wife and I both refuse to fly to academic conferences — and as grad students this makes us outcasts — but little by little we are getting under peoples’ skin and helping them see that the emergency is real.  Even more than individuals, if businesses and institutions start taking concrete steps like removing beef from menus or replacing delivery vehicles with cargo bikes, action on climate will be rapidly normalized. 

So what might a real global climate emergency response look like?

The global response to coronavirus have shown us that immense change, both in government policy and in public behaviour, is possible.  It has also demonstrated how dishonest government declarations of “Climate Emergency” have been.  In Canada, the climate emergency declaration came and went with little fanfare from the government and even less uptake from other institutions.  But for coronavirus, Trudeau is self-isolating and making grave pronouncements daily on live TV.  The Health Minister urges us to do better at social distancing and the public is shaming their neighbours into conformity.  Would you still leave your car idling or jet off to Trinidad and Tobago if people gave you cut-eye for your lack of civic spirit?  Radio hosts on regular music shows talk constantly about hand-washing and staying home, exhorting everyone to do their part to #flattenthecurve.  Unlike climate change, where celebrities jet around to lend their luster to environmental events, when it came to coronavirus, they actually changed their behaviour and then gave unprecedented access to their daily routines to make it real.  Imagine we had seen this same cultural pressure to reduce emissions!

Cost is a mere distraction.  The cost of closing most businesses over night easily exceeds the economic impact of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels.  With coronavirus, we see that in a real emergency governments spend money freely and figure out how to pay for it later.  This type of fiscal bravery could easily fund a green new deal — and, unlike the desperate boat-bailing we are seeing now, a green new deal is a real investment with  beneficial long-term pay-offs across sectors.

Unilateral action.  Although a cohesive global strategy to contain the pandemic would have been more effective and less expensive, no one waited for a consensus — instead, countries acted fast and unilaterally and each bold declaration put pressure on others to follow suit.

Expose lies.  The same social media and search giants who have  kept mum about climate change have rolled out new fact-checking and information boxes to keep the public informed.  Everywhere you look there are new pop-ups and sidebars taking up extremely valuable on-screen real estate to highlight facts about the pandemic.  Imagine every single google search for information on climate change over the past ten years had an automatic pop-up leading you to NASA or the IPCC!  Imagine every youtube video on climate change had a ‘learn more’ disclaimer that led to trusted sources!  And, once again, tech made these changes voluntarily, unilaterally and without complaining about their cost.

To confront climate change effectively institutions from national governments down to tiny cafes can and should:

  1. Act unilaterally and aggressively.  If you lead, others will follow.
  2. Include facts about climate and emissions as a sidebar everywhere from menus to mutual fund disclosures to google searches.
  3. Scare the shit out of people — it works.
  4. Challenge people to make real sacrifices to protect the vulnerable.
  5. Don’t continue to normalize old behaviours.
  6. Focus on material changes to daily life rather than messaging where possible.

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