In recent weeks, many Americans have voluntarily and radically altered their behavior in order to protect others from the novel coronavirus. Those who are less vulnerable are making sacrifices in order to protect those who are more vulnerable: the elderly, the immunocompromised, and—in our country, with its broken social safety net—the uninsured and the poor.
Climate scientists have been quick to draw parallels between the need to “flatten the curve” of coronavirus spread and the need to flatten the carbon emissions curve. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that we must reduce emissions by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 in order to lessen the severity of future emergency; to reduce, but not eliminate, the probability of catastrophic changes in sea level, ocean acidity, extreme weather, food security and biodiversity.
But confronting climate change will require a completely different generational politics than confronting coronavirus. Rather than young people changing their lifestyles to protect the elderly, the large and growing proportion of older citizens in industrialized countries will have to change their lifestyles in order to protect children and those not yet born. Those with power and resources today will have to change their lifestyles dramatically in order to protect the world’s poorest and most marginalized, those who will not be able to move away from climate hazards. This is the message that youth activists like Zero Hour, Isra Hirsi and Greta Thunberg implore us to heed. It is also the premise of DearTomorrow, a storytelling project where people write climate messages to loved ones living in the future.
While such activists argue that individuals must opt to change their lifestyles, to travel less and consume less, others contend that voluntary climate action is a pipe dream. They refer to psychologists and economists who argue that we humans are “hardwired” to prioritize the present over the future, and thereby make decisions that benefit us today, even if they harm us later. This second camp of environmentalists argues that policy makers must enact laws and regulations that radically reshape energy infrastructure and national economies.
Who is right? At this moment, individuals are radically and voluntarily altering their daily routines in response to the coronavirus crisis. Across the United States, they are staying home from work, rescheduling their weddings, and refraining from hugging their friends. In response, the culture and economy are changing around them: local bookstores are delivering books to residents who don’t leave their houses except for necessities; restaurants are shifting to takeout only and sometimes delivering groceries to order, and vehicle emissions in the U.S. have dropped during the lockdown, as they have in China and northern Italy.
But of course, there are still those making selfish decisions, as with spring break revelers. Moreover, these big cultural changes are unlikely to persist. People understandably want to return to their precrisis behaviors as soon as possible. And even now, voluntary social distancing is leading to other behavioral shifts that may not be so environmentally friendly: those quarantined are likely to spend more time online, for example, and the infrastructure that supports the internet is a (too often overlooked) greenhouse gas polluter.
Ultimately, as governments and corporations respond to the global economic recession, people the world over will be encouraged to consume more, not less. In the U.S., the idea that spending liberally is a civic responsibility—that a good consumer is a good citizen—dates to the aftermath of World War II, as historian Lizabeth Cohen illuminates. In the wake of coronavirus, American politicians will undoubtedly encourage and valorize individual spending. And in the months that follow, it will be all too easy to value expediency over sustainability.
China has indicated that it will relax environmental supervision of companies in order to encourage industrial output. In late March, the U.S. EPA announced that it would not penalize power plants, factories and other facilities for failing to comply with routine air and water pollution monitoring and reporting obligations if COVID -19 was the cause of the non-compliance. In other words, companies have been left to determine for themselves if they will meet legal requirements on reporting air and water pollution. This is particularly perverse as the conditions that place someone at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19 include asthma, diabetes and cancer – conditions often caused by air and water pollution, and which disproportionately impact communities of color and low-income communities.
And unless economic stimulus packages are directed toward green infrastructure, coronavirus responses could well lead to increased emissions. The unprecedented $2 trillion stimulus bill signed by Trump on March 27 includes funds for taxpayers ($560 billion), big corporations ($500 billion), small businesses ($377 billion) and state and local governments ($339 billion). Democrats blocked a $3 billion provision for the government to buy oil for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and Republicans blocked an extension of federal tax credits for wind and solar energy, as well as language requiring airlines receiving aid to cut greenhouse gas emissions. There will be future stimulus bills and emergency measures to counter COVID-19, and with each, an opportunity to build a resilient and green economy.
The major impact of coronavirus on the trajectory of climate change must not be a temporary reduction in emissions from cars, trucks and airplanes. It must be a collective recognition that rapid and significant voluntary changes in our behavior are possible. For individual climate action to be sustained, people must find honor and joy in it. And that action must also be supported by government leadership and coordination. We must advocate now, as vocally as we can, for immediate and significant investments in green infrastructure. To avert disaster, we must change how we live.