What does COVID-19 mean for the environmental movement?

What does COVID-19 mean for the environmental movement?

Apr 29th 2020

Here are six reasons that our collective response to COVID-19 gives me hope for the climate movement, and six ways it causes anxiety. We'd love your thoughts and additions. Email them to [email protected]

Six Reasons for Hope

  1. Resiliency benefits the planet. The underlying theme of COVID-19 has been resiliency - of our supply chains, our economy, our health and health care systems, our homes, and more. In many instances, changes and actions that support resiliency in one aspect of our lives also support environmental resiliency and sustainability. One example is PPE. As N-95 masks became impossible for health workers to get their hands on, new systems were put in place across the country to disinfect and reuse masks. Another close to home example is paper towels. So many households moved to reusable paper towels when they couldn’t find any at the store.
  2. The strength of science and data. Increased recognition of the complexity, nuance and data-driven nature of science. While the public and political response to epidemiological science has been flawed (more on that below), much of the core of what epidemiologists predicted months ago - based on their nascent understanding of the virus, its behavior and its impact - has proven correct. Many citizens and politicians (somewhat wishfully) were dismissive, thinking that these predictions were overreactions, but today have a better appreciation for research, trends and warnings flagged weeks ago.
  3. Speed and strength of our collective action. Our incredible ability - at a global level - to take action when called upon. While we read infuriating stories here and there of people scoffing at stay at home and mask wearing orders, overwhelmingly, there is a respect for orders that are basically voluntary. When I’m at the grocery store, over three-fourths of people I see are wearing masks and everyone is keeping their distance. Same on walks, hikes and bike rides. Those I know and speak with have not physically socialized in any way, despite the toll it is taking on their mental and emotional health. And people are ready to continue in this way in support of public health. The sacrifices that need to be made to build a more sustainable country are far less jarring to life and to our economy. If we can do this right now, I believe we can also transition to a cleaner and greener lifestyle.
  4. Shared responsibility and purpose. Our collective action creates a sense of shared purpose and community. The sentiment that we are #inthistogether has been palpable and reminds us that being asked to do things that are incredibly challenging - whether a person is a grocery or warehouse worker right now, a parent homeschooling their kids while working from home, or a front line health care worker - people are stepping well out of their comfort zone and are being brought together as a result. This shows that if called upon to invest ourselves in eco-friendly actions, even if (or perhaps especially if) those acts are difficult for us - it could help create a collective identity and stronger community.
  5. Our positive impact can be visible so quickly. The speed in which human changes result in a cleaner environment. What we’ve done over the last few months is immediate and dramatic. Flights are grounded, factories have been shut down, coal plants have shut down, and 60% or more drivers are off the roads. Our most polluting activities have ground to a halt and the impact on air quality has been rapid and measurable. While no one is claiming this as an environmental win (as it comes at a great expense to human life, jobs, and the overall economy, and it will reverse as soon as we return to “normal”) it is valuable to see how much human activity drives pollution and how quickly we can bring about positive change.
  6. Zoonotic diseases may lead more people to care about sustainability. There is an increasing recognition that the health of our planet plays an important role in the emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19 (as well as SARS and the Avian Bird Flu). The UN has identified five factors driving the increasing zoonosis emergence: deforestation and other land use changes, illegal and poorly regulated wildlife trade, climate change, intensified agriculture and livestock production, and antimicrobial resistance. When the human impact on the environment becomes more closely linked to infectious diseases, many people who don’t currently see sustainability as “their issue” (perhaps because it seems more intangible and longer term) may sit up and pay attention.

Six Reasons For Fear and Concern

  1. Economy may overshadow sustainability. The long term economic implications of COVID measures could mean that the growing focus on sustainability could be overshadowed for some time. People may plunge into such economic uncertainty that the mindspace to focus on the environment may disappear. Politicians that had previously been supportive of environmental regulation and progress may have to suppress these policies in support of ones that provide a short term boost to their constituents instead.
  2. That we act only when the problem is on top of us. Until we can clearly see and experience the terrible impact of something like COVID, there is limited support for drastic action. One week we are hearing that wearing masks is silly. Two weeks later we are asked to wear masks when we leave the home. One week a mayor is telling us that it is essential to maintain business as usual, the next week the city is in lockdown. While some of this is because “our knowledge was limited and we kept learning more”, much of it was simply our (and our leaders’) inability to take decisive action until the reality of the pandemic was salient.
  3. The political use of the pandemic to deregulate industries is tragic. Industries and deregulation-focused policy makers are using this pandemic to roll back legislation and potentially further endanger public safety during the crisis. On March 26, the EPA rolled back its pollution regulations, allowing companies to “self-monitor” without penalty for violations. Obama-era clean car standards were also rolled back under the auspices of the pandemic.
  4. Prioritization of technology over behavior change as a solution. There is little dialog about root problems, even as we look towards medical and technological solutions. The immense investment in treatments and vaccines is absolutely essential. However, there has been a noticeable absence of dialog around ways we can systematically improve underlying health conditions across the country - with better access to healthy food, increased incentive to eat healthy, safe and seamless opportunities for exercise, incentives to quit smoking, etc. While these types of health improvements are no panacea for COVID, they could only help people’s chances of fighting the virus if infected (and we do know that in the absence of a vaccine, a very high percentage of our population will be infected over the coming years). The rush to solve issues through technology and R&D, rather than exploring foundational changes to how our society operates, is something we see in the world of sustainability as well - which I worry will not lead us to the long-term coexistence with nature that is needed.
  5. The division of ideologies and journalism. Journalism’s use of alarmist language and eye catching headlines, which may spike readership, is proven to spike division. The role and responsibility of journalism in a pandemic can be debated at length. While I don’t necessarily believe it is the media’s job to convert a skeptic into a believer, I would love to see journalists think more about how their work informs not just someone who shares their belief system, but how it can help expose people across the political spectrum to facts and truth. A headline such as “Incompetence Exacerbated by Malevolence” (in describing the government’s response to COVID) is eye catching, click inducing and certainly not necessary untruthful. However, it is also clearly pandering to those who share the publication’s worldview, and designed to be off putting to those who don’t, further exacerbating the political division undermining our response to the pandemic.
  6. Every entity is driven by their own, often hidden, incentives. Governments are balancing public health with economic and mental health, creating a tension between extending stay at home orders versus gradually reopening sectors of society. Media is fueled by both fact finding as well as the need to draw in readers in order to drive revenue, which leads to headlines that can often feel like clickbait. In first imploring people not to buy masks and then strongly recommending that they do wear masks, the CDC was balancing the tension between retaining the mask supply chain for first responders with the public health benefit of all Americans wearing masks when then they go out. Every entity that has power over how our perceptions and actions around this pandemic are shaped is driven by so many motivations. The problem is that they aren’t forthcoming with their motivations, so we aren’t in a position to adequately process and respond to their guidance and policies. The same is true about climate change and sustainability issues, and without knowing the competing motivations and goals of the entities and agencies shaping our worldview and policies, it is hard for citizens and businesses to trust that the right decisions are being made.

What do you think? How are you feeling about your focus on the environment (veruss your focus on your business, your family, your health, etc)?