As the world reels from the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus and its associated disease, COVID-19, daily life is being altered for many people. While government-imposed measures continue to escalate, I cannot help but notice many similarities between the mobilization to mitigate COVID-19 and those proposed to mitigate the climate crisis. Some have been saying that COVID-19 might stall momentum for climate organizing, but I argue that the COVID-19 mitigation effort presents an unexpected blueprint for what rapid change in the face of a climate crisis might look like. In fact, the current situation should give us hope in our ability to cope with rapid change and encourage us to recognize our resilience.
Crises of a Kind
On the surface, there are a host of striking similarities between COVID-19 and the climate crisis. Both events are ones whose effects unfold in an exponential fashion. Climate change has been shown to be a self-reinforcing, positive feedback event that closely resembles the community spread of COVID-19 and other epidemics. Further, both climate change and COVID-19 are crises whose effects began outside of the United States. Island nations, coastal cities, and the Global South are the front lines of the effects of the climate crisis. While floods, hurricanes, and wildfires have devastated the industrialized, imperial nations such as the U.S., the long-term effects will arrive at our doorstep later than others. Finally, these are both events which scientists warned the media and political bodies about, using harrowing statistics and analyses, ultimately to be ignored until it was too late. In general, COVID-19 and the climate crisis are both events that will inevitably lead to severe, self-reinforcing consequences, whose growth and worsening are caused by the very institutions that are core to daily life, and whose mitigation requires overhauling those same daily routines, all while trying to account justly for those with less resources and privilege.
The striking similarities between the COVID-19 mobilization and a climate crisis mobilization show what nations are ready and able to do in emergencies.
Despite the uprooting of daily life necessitated by such crises, we have seen COVID-19 leading to rapid changes and mobilizations all around the world. Travel has been suspended in many regions as flights are grounded and public transit becomes increasingly unsafe. Institutions which support large gatherings of people are closing to avoid community spread. Many aspects of work have been moved to a remote model so workers can maintain distance from each other and avoid infection. There are political moves to guarantee lost wages to workers who are forced out of work by the crisis — even going so far as to try to secure wages for those who may lose their jobs due to the resulting economic turmoil. International cooperation is moving slowly towards a higher point, as some nations realize coordination is necessary to ensure safety over national pride. All over the globe, individuals are being forced to acclimate to significant changes very quickly.
These reorganizations of daily life have echoes in calls for mobilization in response to the climate crisis. One of the largest sources of carbon emissions is from transportation. Though total stoppage of flights is not the goal of a climate crisis mitigation strategy, substantial reduction of unnecessary flying will be part of the plan. Institutions will have to make their operations sustainable, which may necessitate similar slowdowns in overall productivity. Entire industries such as the fossil fuel industry and the weapons manufacturing industry will no longer be viable in a sustainable economy. Workers in such industries will similarly need to be guaranteed a just transition as their jobs are made obsolete. On the large scale, nations participating in the global economy must cooperate to ensure a transition that does not simply benefit industrialized, imperial nations. In total, all of us will individually have to become accustomed to changes in how we live our lives.
The striking similarities between the COVID-19 mobilization and a climate crisis mobilization show what nations are ready and able to do in emergencies. Unfortunately, a climate crisis mobilization would depend on a nation and its politicians acknowledging that the growing threat of climate change is as urgent as COVID-19. Much of the pushback against mobilizing against the climate crisis rests on the so-called unrealistic nature of such a mobilization. However, in the wake of measures taken for COVID-19, it appears that such pushback has been revealed as fraudulent and unjustified.
Expensive, Unrealistic Socialism
The bitter irony of the COVID-19 mobilizations should appear obvious to those who fight for systemic change as part of their daily routine. Notions often advocated for by climate organizers such as travel suspension, slowdown of growth, or stop-gap guarantee of worker pay during mobilization are being pushed across the aisle. These same ideas are often dismissed as unthinkable by politicians who deny the feasibility of such measures to avoid discussing systemic change. Apparently, these types of measures are sanctioned when the effects of such a crisis can reach the powerful. Now, even ordinary individuals will be faced with the reality that such rapid mobilization by the government can be done, and is worthwhile, in a crisis. Some of the most popular criticisms of climate policy like a Green New Deal have crumbled in the wake of COVID-19’s government response. Even the hyperbolized calls of taking away airplanes (which a Green New Deal would not) suddenly does not seem all too crazy in the wake of a disaster at our doorstep. If COVID-19 was spread through hamburgers, you could bet the media would avoid libertarian jeers as the government takes away your culinary liberties. A favorite of pundits, the cost of a Green New Deal, is looking quite within the realm of possibility after a snap economic stimulus attempt by the Federal Reserve to the tune of $1.5 trillion, and a proposed stimulus of $850 billion. And of course, there is no time to whip up a new Red Scare while a pandemic is sweeping the nation. Either that, or the multitude of authoritative government interventions do not quite fit the bill of the socialist menace this time around.
We should take this opportunity to shape the narrative in a way that shows the feasibility of rapid, top-down response to the climate crisis.
If anything, the response to COVID-19 shows us that nations all over the planet can mobilize in a pinch. It shows that pressure from the public and from lawmakers who side with the people can push to make the mobilization just. It shows that the typical arguments against a Green New Deal apply when convenient, but collapse under any serious pressure. Indeed, advocates of a Green New Deal often hearken to the World War II mobilization as a reference point to show that our nation has accomplished similar feats before. Most people alive today were not alive back then, and may not be able to imagine such an uprooting of daily life. The COVID-19 response now stands as the most recent and visceral example of a mass national mobilization effort. Coupled with the political climate pushing for widespread justice, this rapid response is being heavily pressured to include more measures for those who have the least and could be hurt the most. The people are clearly ready to respond in a just way, and now leaders are getting a taste of what it is like to have no control over parts of their lives. This should stand as a point of reference for all climate organizers as we discuss the viability of rapid mobilization.
However, there are some important differences between the two crises that will stand as barriers to action despite this example of rapid reorganization. First off, the effects of the climate crisis are more class-dependent than those of COVID-19. While it is true that both viruses and climate change care nothing for class boundaries, COVID-19’s spread was so rapid that it did not become the case that the wealthy avoided it and everyone else suffered. Though, the wealthy or famous have been able to get tested while ordinary workers are much more systematically denied such measures. Because of the slower unfolding of the climate crisis, the wealthy have already postured to weather the storms while relegating everybody else to be subject to their effects. Secondly, whereas industry had to turn on a dime given the COVID-19 crisis, fossil fuel and weapons manufacturing industries are trying their hardest to make out like bandits before they are forced to acquiesce to structural change as the climate crisis worsens. Moreover, the path towards mitigation of the climate crisis requires much more restructuring of institutions, economy, infrastructure, and politics than we are witnessing for COVID-19. Moving companies to renewable energy, building a smart grid, reforesting heavily, moving to community agriculture, etc. are altogether much more of an overhaul than policies promoting social distancing. Finally, in a twist of irony, the climate crisis is poised to affect young people the most while COVID-19 disproportionately affects older people. Given the demographics of our representatives, it should be no surprise that COVID-19 is getting a bigger response than the climate crisis.
Despite differences between the two, the response to COVID-19 is a clear example of the viability of rapid, top-down changes in the face of disaster. When the COVID-19 crisis inevitably slows down, politicians reluctant to address systemic change will put on their second face and make up some excuse about why it was okay to mobilize rapidly this one time. We should take this opportunity to shape the narrative in a way that shows the feasibility of rapid, top-down response to the climate crisis. We should additionally cite this moment as one in which people’s resilience and power to collectively rise to the occasion was put on display. Though, while the COVID-19 mobilization comes at a significant cost to average people, mobilization to mitigate the climate crisis will actually come at a minuscule cost to most people; with the heaviest burden shouldered by key industry magnates, those same industries’ workers, and public and private institutions.
Small Cost, Huge Gains
While larger challenges are presented by the climate crisis, in terms of restructuring daily life, the measures taken for COVID-19 are much more of a disruption for most people. In addition to being easier, adjustments taken to mitigate the climate crisis would lead to stronger economies, infrastructure, and a higher quality of life.
Mobilizing for a Green New Deal really does stand as a huge win for a very small cost, even less of a cost than people are willing to pay for COVID-19 mitigation.
In truth, most people transitioning to a new status quo through legislation like a Green New Deal would not have to give up much at all. A public jobs guarantee would provide a high-wage, unionized job to anyone who would lose one during the transition. Additionally, a deal that included universal healthcare would mandate that the newly unemployed be guaranteed medical insurance. With changes to our built environment as in the Green New Deal for Public Housing, community-centered planning would likely make driving a car unrealistic and undesirable, making it easier for us to drive less. Improved and affordable public transit, as opposed to driving everywhere, would also be an easy choice for many. A transcontinental or even intercontinental green transit system could be a huge improvement over unreliable, monopolized, and often frustrating air travel. We could both fly less and enjoy travel more. Each progressive small or big win would additionally make many years of changes psychologically bearable, as we see benefits in both the short and long term despite changes in daily life. The benefits of reorganizing for climate crisis mitigation seem to handily outweigh the short-term inconveniences in a way that is not guaranteed from the COVID-19 response.
Given a Green New Deal scenario, those who would really have to change the most are capital owners: those who own production or have significant stake in big industries that are incredibly polluting. Business owners, landlords, and public institutions would have to invest in revamping infrastructure and practices to become more sustainable. Almost half of total U.S. carbon emissions comes from buildings alone, so there would be ample pressure for capital holders to weatherize buildings and move them towards efficiency standards. Fossil fuel and weapons manufacturing executives would, unfortunately, be forced to find novel ways to spend their millions or billions of dollars, or else concoct new plans to grow their mountains of wealth. Surely, a tragedy worth blocking change.
Overall, any community mobilization would come with a renewed sense of solidarity and public life to revitalize the spirit of the nation — a huge win for democracy and liberty. Mobilizing for a Green New Deal really does stand as a huge win for a very small cost, even less of a cost than people are willing to pay for COVID-19 mitigation. Imagine if, coming out of the pandemic, all institutions adopted policies for paid sick leave, universal health insurance was recognized as crucial to preventing another crisis, Internet infrastructure was revamped so high-speed was available to everyone for minimal cost, and the work week was trimmed to allow for personal physical and mental health time so as to boost the collective immune system of the nation. Similar notions are only part of what would be won from a Green New Deal mobilization. The choice seems clear.
Pushing Our Limits — A Model for Change
In an unexpected turn of events, we should let the successful responses to COVID-19 serve as a model for how to deal with the unfolding emergency of the climate crisis. Our response and resilience to COVID-19 mobilizations should show us that we, ordinary people, can stand some discomfort in the short term if we are helped through it and it serves a longer-term mission. We should see that our lawmakers and government can mobilize quickly in the face of emergencies; and it is not as if the nation transformed into a brutal autocracy overnight. The mentality of “flattening the curve” should also be applied to the effects of the climate crisis’ exponential, self-reinforcing feedback: act now to prevent the worst.
With so much to win given mobilizations like a Green New Deal, at significantly less cost to average people, the choice seems obvious. All that stands in the way is the reluctance of the powerful, and a narrative that serves them. We must control the narrative. This COVID-19 crisis and response should stand as powerful data for organizers building the political will necessary to win a climate crisis response. This tragedy is unexpected and devastating, so we should not let lessons learned from this moment be wasted.
Nick Rabb is a PhD student at Tufts University and organizer with the Sunrise Movement and Massachusetts Peace Action.
This article was first published in Age of Awareness, an online collection of stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system.