John Hollenhorst, KSL, File

The pandemic isn't fixing climate change

By Opinion By John Sutter, CNN | Posted - Mar. 27, 2020 at 12:18 p.m.



ATLANTA (CNN) — The internet has deemed 2020 canceled. And now everyone's looking for a silver lining.

But you know what's not a silver lining of this pandemic? Fixing the climate crisis. We haven't fixed it, aren't fixing it, and the way we're talking about all of this is gross.

You've probably seen these headlines — that air pollution and heat-trapping emissions appear to be down as the world economy sits idle. Millions of people are trapped at home while Covid-19, the novel coronavirus, sweeps the globe. We're not consuming in the way that we normally would. We're not flying, driving, gathering, meeting — basically, we're not "doing" at all.

And yes, all of these inactions curb pollution — a bit.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

The public conversation, online and off, has been too quick to celebrate the unintended consequences of a pandemic that, remember, is killing thousands of people.

One Twitter user wrote: "-Venice Canal has become clear

"-Italy Coasts have dolphins coming nearer

"-Japan has deers (sic) roaming the streets

"-Thailand has monkeys doing the same

"-China has record-breaking pollution cuts,

"The Earth is healing."

Um, no.

"It is amazing how a very complex system that is ruling our climate — how quickly that can change, how rapidly," Alexander Verbeek, a Dutch environmentalist, said in an interview with TRT World. "For instance, in New York City, there was a study that because of less cars, the carbon monoxide — not the carbon dioxide — is down 50%, and carbon dioxide is down something like 5% to 10% just because of the reductions of cars in New York ... We saw in China a reduction of 25% in the CO2 emissions. So, it proves that it can be done."

Verbeek is someone I respect. He and others are careful to say they're not celebrating the loss of life, or that we've solved the climate crisis because pollution is down.

But a brief pause on our normal emission levels related to Covid-19 does not prove we are going to reduce emissions in the longer term, as we must.

And real solutions to the climate crisis don't look like this.

Others are troubled by these associations, too.

"[I]t doesn't feel right to celebrate [a reduction in CO2 emissions] when it comes at the high cost of the lives of people — elders, sick and disabled people, and an increase in racist attacks against the Asian community worldwide," Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, wrote on Facebook recently. She is a poet, artist and activist from the Marshall Islands, a country in the Pacific that could disappear beneath rising seas because of climate change. "Real, meaningful climate action is all about being inclusive, and it doesn't leave our most vulnerable community members behind."

My beef with the corona-climate chatter goes beyond decorum.

There are a couple of odd associations at play here.

Policy wonks have spent years debunking the myth that economic growth and fossil fuel pollution march in lockstep. They don't. There have been periods of time when emissions declined while economies continued to grow. How exactly to curb global warming pollution is the source of healthy debate, but it's clear society can be prosperous — and healthy — and also avoid existential collapse in the form of climate apocalypse. It's not either-or.

The truth is that fixing global warming will not be easy, but it will not look like this. It will look like cleaner technologies, different sources of power — wind, not coal — cleaner, denser, more-walkable cities. It will look like plant-based diets, more trees, electric planes, and so on. It looks like carbon taxes and regulating (and prosecuting) of still-powerful fossil fuel interests.

It looks like action, not inaction; taking to the streets, not staying home.

I've also seen smart writersdraw parallels between the urgency with which many individuals (thankfully) are responding to the Covid-19 pandemic and the urgency that's needed to respond to the climate crisis.

Yes, we need urgent action on climate. But motivation matters. I see no reason to believe that the pollution-reductions associated with the pandemic will last beyond the duration of this public-health crisis. We need the public to see and be motivated by the very real and very clear dangers of the climate crisis — and for that motivation to continue in the long-haul, well beyond coronavirus, well beyond the decade, in fact.

If anything, the Covid-climate talk may fool some people into thinking we've already "fixed" global warming — that a slight leveling-off of some pollutants means we bought more time.

We haven't. We're already on borrowed time. The climate crisis is an emergency, too, and has been for decades. A NASA scientist, James Hansen, testified about global warming in the US Senate in 1988, saying the era of global warming had begun. Alarm bells have continued to ring throughout the years from scientists, from the UN, and from many world leaders. We now have only a matter of years not just to slow fossil fuel pollution but to eliminate it.

If there's one tiny silver lining that I take from the way individuals are responding to the coronavirus pandemic, it's that social norms can and do change on a dime.

Elbow bumps, video chats, social-distanced picnics, hanging out the window and banging pots at 8 p.m. in support of medical workers and others on the front lines — all of these have become not just normal but expected behaviors in many peer groups, seemingly overnight.

We can and should make the same shift in attitudes toward fossil fuels — stigmatizing flying, driving gas-guzzlers, eating beef, and so on.

And, more importantly, because climate change is a system problem, not just an individual one, we can change our attitudes toward politicians who enable the status quo.

We can — and must — choose to fix global warming.

But it won't happen on the coattails of a deadly pandemic.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

Opinion By John Sutter

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