After a year of climate change being a top media story and public policy concern in many countries, attention is now and will be rightfully focused on COVID-19 for some time. This puts climate leaders in a tough situation.
Given the unprecedented disruptions to health, economic and social systems the health emergency is creating, there is a real risk governments, businesses, communities, households and individuals will lack the time, financial resources or emotional capacity to address the climate emergency by cutting emissions and preparing for impacts, even long after the pandemic has passed. It’s also conceivable that the coronavirus crisis will lead us further into division and political polarization, rather than sustaining momentum around coming together.
Climate action cannot stall out. It’s impossible to know how long the coronavirus crisis will last, but the science is clear time is running out to avert catastrophic climate change. Climate communicators must find ways to advance the conversation.
Sensitivity is required. Now is not a great time to tout the emission and pollution reductions occurring due to the economic shutdown. It is, however, a moment of great change where worldviews and values are being reassessed and reordered. This creates opportunities to connect the health crisis to climate change and advocate for solutions that address both.
COVID-19 is revealing the vulnerability of the systems we rely on and the need for systemic change to ensure safety, health and economic well-being. Many factors that increase vulnerability to COVID-19 including age, existing health conditions, income inequities, inadequate housing, employment type and racism are also what create the greatest vulnerabilities to climate change. Responding to these crises requires systemic change. Expanding access to health care, addressing economic and racial inequities, building community connectedness and preparedness, improving air and water quality are just some of the strategies that increase health and climate resilience.
COVID-19 has the potential to shift views regarding civic duties and responsibilities. This is not to downplay the suffering many are experiencing or the potential for backlash from the restrictions being placed on business activities and people’s lives. At the same time, the experience of coming together to overcome a great challenge in which everyone has a critical role to play may increase confidence in collective response and foster a sense of personal efficacy and responsibility. Climate communication efforts should emphasize solutions and provide clear calls to action and resources for the public to be part of the change.
The coronavirus is making painfully clear how interconnected the world is and the importance of launching a rapid and coordinated government response to a global problem rather than relying on the markets to deliver solutions. The same argument can be made for the need for immediate, global action on climate change. Every country is impacted. None can prepare for impacts or drive the transition to clean energy and low-carbon economies on their own. Taking steps now provides the greatest number of options and is the most cost-effective and efficient way to reduce harm and disruption.
The critical role science plays in responding to a crisis is also being elevated. This could be a beneficial development given sustained efforts over the past few decades to discredit evidence-based decision-making and suppress data by industry and government officials. It’s been clear for some time the importance of amplifying that climate scientists around the world agree the planet is warming due to human activities causing devastating impacts that will worsen if emissions are not cut dramatically. This remains true and may resonate more now as COVID-19 highlights the essential need to have data and experts guide policy decisions.
Now, more than ever, is a time for compassion. Climate leaders have a great deal of experience working through interconnected issues and uncertainties, addressing inequities and tackling climate grief and depression in ourselves, our networks and communities. This experience can be drawn on to ensure climate communication efforts are grounded in concern for people’s well-being and recognize the grief and trauma being experienced while at the same time offer an inspiring and achievable vision for achieving economic, health and climate resilience. A little hope can go a long way right now as we care for ourselves and each other while facing the uncertainties that lie ahead.