Some are suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic will help the world to overcome the climate crisis. The theory is that, after realizing how tragically we paid for ignoring the early signs this was coming, we will not make the same mistake again.
I have been largely quiet on making any predictions regarding the pandemic since late February and early March when I felt strongly that most of the people I knew personally were underestimating the forthcoming impact of the virus. I will change that today by sharing that I have come to believe history will look back on the early 2020’s with more sympathy for the societal impacts of our reactions to the virus than the number of lives that will in the end be lost to the virus itself. That is not to suggest that we should have done nothing or much less, but rather, that we could have done things earlier or differently, and that given the way things have gone, we will pay more severely for what we have done and how we have done it than we will from the virus whose direct damage we will have relatively effectively mitigated.
A fundamental (though incomplete) understanding of my reasoning can be understood by quantifying and contextualizing the death rate from the virus versus the unemployment rate from our reactions to it.
The virus-caused death rate in the United States as of a few days ago has been 777 people per day since 50 days prior when there were no deaths yet reported. If you take global deaths from the virus and assume they all occurred since the beginning of March (which will overestimate the rate because many deaths occurred prior), you get a global death rate of 3,442 people per day. Compare that with the 3,717 people on average who have died every day this year as a result of road traffic accidents. Putting the death rate in perspective leads me to believe that the fatalities from the virus will seem relatively small in retrospect. It also leads me to believe that we should be doing a whole lot more than we are currently doing to accelerate the transition to safer autonomous cars, but I digress…
The unemployment figures on the societal side of the damage equation seem staggering. Already today we have a higher unemployment rate in The United States than we have had since The Great Depression. I will not be surprised if the official number surpasses even the highest rate from those years (24.9%) to become the highest in our history. Once it tops out, it will not fall nearly as fast as it has risen. This is and will be an unprecedented level of unemployment in The United States and around the globe and I of course do not know all of the exact impacts that will come from that, but I fear what I do not know and cannot imagine.
My prediction as I have described it may prove false, but if it turns out to be true, I unfortunately could see this pandemic having an adverse effect on the world’s efforts to overcome the climate crisis. Ignoring the unknowable number of virus-caused deaths that would have resulted from apathetic inaction, the same people who are now protesting stay at home orders standing side by side without masks as spit flies from angry yells will soon say with false certainty, “I told you so”. That is the tricky part for the people who plead to be proactive when it comes to issues like this pandemic and like the climate crisis. If most people eventually listen to them and do as they say, the nightmare scenario that they warned of never comes to fruition, and although it very well might have had they not altered the course of action, no one can ever know. As long as the people who are the earliest to bring attention to a foreseeable issue are able to bring the world to their side, the people who would be the latest to accept its reality never have to switch sides themselves. Instead, they can protest in denial while the rest of the world reacts, and in the end, they say “I told you so.”
I do not disagree that this pandemic could possibly help us to more effectively manage the climate crisis. I am a reasonable optimist after all. I am simply hesitant to ignore the alternative possibility. I am cautious that after another potential “I told you so”, the powers that be may not err on what seems to be the side of caution next time when the stakes are even greater. They may refuse to give in to the advice of the earliest activists because they will look back at this pandemic and see the damage they caused by listening them, without realizing that the easiest way they could have prevented that damage would have been to have listened earlier. The powers that be may instead choose to wait it out, and they may not be around long enough to realize the consequences of their stubborn and ignorant denial. The consequences may not be the worst case scenario that some people fear, but rather, a different awful scenario that we had to choose as the alternative to it. That would be similar to what we are dealing with now, and so I suppose I am not proposing something very new or clever in suggesting that history may in fact repeat itself.
In many ways beyond its polarization, the current pandemic resembles the difficult decisions we will face related to the climate crisis ahead. As with most issues, there are extremists on both sides. Some, primarily the most politically correct portion of the left, argue that not a single human life is worth sacrificing, no matter what the cost to the global economy. Those people ignore the livelihoods that will be gravely affected and thus the lives that will be lost as a result of economic collapse. I respect the person who has warned of this pandemic since the early days but acknowledges that difficult decisions must be made about what measures we can take to save the most lives and livelihoods overall. Others, primarily the less educated portion of the right, argue that we should let the virus do its damage while continuing on with business as usual. Those people ignore that at a bear minimum there are certain things we can do without negative economic impacts or individual costs or efforts that can help to limit the damage of this deadly disease. I respect the masked protester who is keeping their distance from others, perhaps with gloves on their hands and possibly a Purell in their pocket.
Nothing good comes from conversations with people who are stuck at the extremes on either side, living in fantasy worlds of politically correct perfection or ignorant denial. The productive conversations and the critical debates happen between people like the practical activist and the responsible protester. They happen when these people respect each other enough to listen and are reasonable enough to change their mind. Those are the conversations worth having, and as it relates to the climate crisis and all of the other great problems that humanity is capable of solving, those are the ones I hope to see.
Now, as you all know, today is earth day, and while earth’s day is largely about protecting it, I want to close on a lighter note, and finally, with a quote about appreciating it.
I did not actually remember today was Earth Day until after I turned on a podcast and went for a run this morning, but it was fitting that I chose to listen to the first hour of a Tim Ferris interview with Jane Goodall, the famous anthropologist who lived with chimps. I learned that there is a special airing on National Geographic tonight at 9pm ET called Jane Goodall: The Hope. In a time when many could use a little hope, or at the very least are having trouble finding something the whole family can agree to watch on TV, this seems like it could be a solid program. I plan to watch it with my family.
Lastly, I want to share with you an idea that I had today while running on a particularly beautiful road on an especially sunny day today, when despite a chill in the air, it started to feel like spring.
Earth can be heaven if you believe it, and heaven will never be if you don’t.