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Two American Crises: The Parallels Between Climate Change And The Pandemic

Climate journalist Emily Atkin says climate change and the coronavirus pandemic both threaten lives and livelihoods, require immediate collective action and rely on the expertise of scientists. (Getty Images)
Climate journalist Emily Atkin says climate change and the coronavirus pandemic both threaten lives and livelihoods, require immediate collective action and rely on the expertise of scientists. (Getty Images)

The wildfires blazing in California are displaying the troubling intersection between climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, says journalist Emily Atkin.

During the pandemic, it’s important for people to spend time outside and social distance with friends. But during a wildfire, people can’t do these things because of the smoke or imminent danger, she says.

COVID-19 is like climate change on steroids — a problem threatening lives and livelihoods that requires immediate, collective action and the expertise of scientists, says Atkin, founder of the climate newsletter and podcast HEATED.

People blamed themselves at the beginning of the climate and COVID-19 crises, she says, but now more individuals are realizing that the government failed to protect its citizens as each situation progresses.

Individual actions such as wearing a mask or driving less won’t solve these problems alone, but democracy empowers people to make change, she says.

“I don’t fear that people will become numb. What I fear is that information will be suppressed,” she says. “I fear that people will get the wrong information, and they’ll continue blaming themselves and continue thinking that they don’t have the power to change these things.”

Emissions dropped at the beginning of the pandemic, but Atkin says solving climate change requires long-term solutions around reducing reliance on fossil fuels. Investing in long-term solutions can prevent trillions of dollars in yearly damages from climate-related disasters, she says.

One stark parallel between COVID-19 and climate change is how the crises disproportionately impact Black, Brown and poor communities. People who are the most impacted can’t sufficiently advocate for themselves because of how much they’re dealing with during this time, she says.

The pandemic is teaching people that when someone experiences an overwhelming amount of pain and suffering, it’s difficult to handle responsibilities such as going to work and taking care of kids, she says.

“It really takes the work of other people who are more privileged to push for that work on both ends so that everyone understands that these are all interconnected issues,” she says. “We’re all working for the same thing, which is an equal society that’s not on fire and not plagued by a pandemic.”

Interview Highlights

On the early hope that the pandemic would cause global emissions to drop

“I think anyone who pays attention to climate change knew from the beginning that the narrative that nature was healing, that this was going to help with climate change was a bit of a misguided thought just because climate change is so long term. It has always and will always require long-term emissions reductions. Something we do for a few months or even a year, if we ever go back to quote-unquote normal emissions, it doesn’t really make a difference. And so I think what I saw when this happened was, when these ‘emissions reductions and nature is healing’ thing started, I thought, ‘Well, maybe this will give people an idea of what it looks like to have a little bit of a cleaner world. And maybe that will be inspiring.’ But the fact that our emissions went right back up and stayed basically the same was not surprising. It’s always been clear that we’ve needed long-term emissions reduction.”

On whether our thinking is short-sighted around the impacts of COVID-19 and climate change 

“The short answer is yes. I mean, it’s not even that, though. We can’t even see the pain that climate change is causing us right now. I mean, last year in 2019, climate change contributed to extreme weather events that cost at least $100 billion in damages, if not more. And scientists estimate that by 2050, if we don’t drastically reduce our emissions, the cumulative damages from climate change may reach $8 trillion a year.When you think about the sweeping climate change plans that have been proposed by Democrats in Congress, they rank among the trillions of dollars. But compared to the prospect of an $8 trillion loss per year, it doesn’t actually seem like that much. And those are the numbers that we’re not thinking about when people say solving climate change, these climate policies are too damaging economically. It’s like, compared to what?”

On whether the government has the bandwidth to tackle COVID-19 and climate change simultaneously 

“I mean, it doesn’t matter what the bandwidth is, really. People may not think that we have the bandwidth. But you have to make the bandwidth for both of these things because climate change didn’t stop for the pandemic, clearly. I mean, we can’t just pretend that we only have the capacity as human beings to deal with one thing at a time. Both of these crises threaten millions of lives and economies. 

“Honestly, for me, the pandemic made climate change seem more relevant, not less relevant. And the good news is there are solutions, economic recovery solutions for the coronavirus that include climate policies, job creation, economic stimulus policies. There are other countries that are doing just that. I just read about the [European Union] proposing a plan, an economic recovery plan that included lots of green energy investment for their coronavirus recovery plan. It’s possible and it’s something forward-looking. Can you imagine proposing something in Congress that actually purported to solve two problems at once? And how exciting that might be?”

On if she fears that people will go numb

“No, not at all honestly. I know that some people do go numb. And we have to give people time to feel numb about these things. But I don’t recall any time in human history where people have just gone completely numb to tragedy. There’s always been large groups of people working against injustice, whatever it is. 

“I often argue that anger is a catalyzing emotion. For so long we looked at climate change as something that was just our faults because we had driven our cars too much, because we had eaten too much meat. And there was nothing that we could do about it, because, of course, not every individual is going to do what’s necessary. So we were sad about it. And it was always presented that way in media narratives about it. And I think the same thing happened a bit with coronavirus, too, where we’re like, ‘Oh, man, this virus is just taking over and there’s nothing we can do because people just aren’t staying inside.’ But the more both crises go on and the more we learn about it, we realize, ‘Wait, this wasn’t me. This wasn’t my fault.’ There were failings at the highest level of power for the people that were supposed to protect us that promised us they would protect us, that pull the levers on what happens with both of these crises.”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration of more than 400 news outlets committed to better coverage of the climate crisis. Their Sept. 21-28 collaborative week focuses on the intersection of climate change and politics.

Want to help improve WBUR’s climate coverage? Take this short survey to let us know what you like and what you want more of from our reporting. 

Francesca Paris  produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’DowdAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.