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4 minute read

Our capability to act on a pandemic gives hope for mitigating climate change

During the last few weeks us in Europe have witnessed a significant state of emergency as coronavirus has grown into a pandemic.

Despite the growing anxiety fuelled by the continuous increase in cases and stricter guidelines set by authorities, there are also growing signs of hope as these difficult times of mitigating a common enemy seem to be unifying us together to act.

Common interest vs. personal unpleasantness

Having carefully obeyed the rules of self distancing, I have noticed how it gives one more time to stop and analyse. Although sensitivity is crucial when handling such topics in public, I can’t resist the opportunity of forming analogies between the response to the pandemic and the climate emergency, another global threat the humankind is facing.

At least here in Finland it has been delightful to see how seriously the restrictions have been taken. Despite being unpleasant for all, the understanding of the common interest has been the higher denominator. As such a spirit is necessary also in our efforts to slow down the climate crisis, let’s have a glance on aspects that either unify or differentiate these two.

What creates the sense of urgency?

First on the unifying side - our modern global economy based on complex, optimized supply chains and constant movement of people and goods serves as an essential ingredient for not only the spread of pandemics but also for the global rise in average temperature.

Unfortunately, both of these are also capable of hindering economic growth drastically, causing the death of millions and creating anxiety and fear wherever they reach.

Yes - it is clear that the high level nominators seem to match. How come has a global pandemic resulted in such swift action whereas, despite several places declaring climate emergency recently, the urgent, concrete and large scale climate action from authorities and individuals around the globe still seems to shine in its absence?

Among the key differences is the pace. Whereas a pandemic may be exponentially spreading, the global greenhouse gas emissions seem to be trending upwards every year with a steady pace.

As from a short term perspective the curve is closer to linear, it gives us the false sense of security and control. Maybe last summer was the hottest on record but now things seem to be… back at normal again?

With a virus you either have it or you don’t - it is that simple. With climate change, its impacts are wide, complex and in many cases indirect. You don’t suffer from climate change, you suffer from floods, excessive heat, drought or bushfires. It is easy to feel like those are just occasions that happen, without our involvement, and then gradually vanish after which we can continue with our everyday routines like before.

How to generate the feeling of being rewarded?

With washing my hands and avoiding social contact, I am getting an immediate reward of not falling sick. With emissions reduction, it is also usually about giving up something or changing your behavior.

However, skipping a weekend trip to the Alps, ditching a car for a bike or choosing locally grown veggies over avocado on my sandwich, the immediate reward keeps one on waiting for itself.

No one is sending you a postcard with a reminder of the good work you did for the emissions cut.

Although there are such obstacles, the ability of us coming together under these circumstances and giving up on things that matter to us gives me hope.

The kind of hope that after this all settles, we can shift our focus on the other urgent global battle in our hands. Unfortunately I don’t yet have direct answers on how to copy paste the needed sense of urgency, level of concreteness or feelings of being rewarded into this battle (maybe a few additional weeks of isolation will do the trick for an extrovert such as myself).

Feeling sorry does not help

It is too easy to feel helpless when the news is all about record high emissions, Amazon rainforest reaching its breakeven point or the sixth mass extinction of species being well underway.

Instead, we can gently remind ourselves much of this comes down to the demand we place. During the current era of social distancing each of us is given an excellent opportunity to critically examine our own consumption habits. What do I really need versus what do I just want?

I hate to wrap this up with such a cliche, but after being kept separate from your loved ones for a while it is easy to remember that the best joys of life don’t necessarily come in the form of physical goods but the physical interaction between us.