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What the US’ Response to Coronavirus Can Teach Us About Climate Change

Experts say that in many cases, climate solutions are in fact pandemic solutions. 

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Much of the global population was caught off guard as COVID-19 rapidly spread across the world, but scientists and health experts had been warning about the threat of a pandemic for decades. Those calls for action went largely unheard, resulting in our country and others caught unprepared for the coronavirus and its repercussions. 

Scientists have been ringing the alarm on climate change and its inevitable impacts on our future for equally as long. The vast majority of climate scientists -- 97% -- agree that humans are causing climate change, with the data explicitly backing up their beliefs.

“The science is clear: The science is unambiguous. The politics has made it difficult to respond to the science,” climate and water expert Dr. Peter Gleick said.

Record temperatures, unprecedented fires, melting ice, rising seas and unrivaled storms are just some of the things that we’re already seeing. With global climate change playing out in real time and the proof to back it up, the question is, why aren’t people listening?

The short answer is solution aversion.

“People don’t think that there are any solutions to climate change that are consistent with our values. We think the only solutions are socialist or communist,” climate scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe said. “There are some that believe the science but are fearful about the governments need to respond to it.”

Instead of people basing solutions on evidence, they ignore or dismiss the overall idea because of how it fits into their ideologies.

Those fears seemed to have played out here over the last two months, with many Americans resistant to the seriousness of the threat COVID-19 posed until the grim numbers were piling up. 

“What we’ve seen is when the risk is finally staring us in the eyeballs, we are willing to act in proportion to that risk, but when that risk seems far off, it’s happening in China but not here or in the future but not now, we are not willing to act," Hayhoe said.

That line of reasoning is what worries climate scientists around the world.

“By the time that the impacts of climate change are staring every single one of us nearly 8 billion people on the planet in the eyeballs, it will be too late to avoid the most dangerous impacts," Hayhoe said. "Just the connection between our risk perception and our willingness to act and how we can accelerate connecting the dots between the impacts that we can avoid by action now.”

Experts say that in many cases, climate solutions are in fact pandemic solutions. 

“The actions we need to take around climate change namely greater reliance on renewable energy, for our electricity and transportation, eating less meat and more plants to reduce carbon emissions there and frankly across the board,” explained Dr. Aaron Bernstein, Interim Director of the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard.

But none of these solutions are as drastic as the social distancing and stay-at-home orders much of the world is facing. 

“The collective action here around this event is unprecedented in recent US history and the sacrifices that people are making left and right go way beyond anything that would be asked of folks in any other solution sets,” Bernstein added.

Like the coronavirus pandemic, much of the resistance revolves around the perceived cost to tackle the problem. Protests to reopen have been occurring around the country in recent weeks. Many are anxious to choose restarting the economy over safety recommendations. The same argument engulfs climate change. Hayhoe says that’s actually not true. 

“One of the most common myths we hear about climate change is that it’s too expensive to fix it. People say, ‘Oh that’s going to destroy the economy if we actually try to fix it,'" Hayhoe said. "It’s estimated that about 90 corporations are responsible for something like 70% of climate emissions since the dawn of the industrial era. They're some of the wealthiest companies in the world."

She added that when comparing the impacts avoided by meeting the Paris Agreement targets in the US with actually achieving the Paris Agreement reductions required by the US, we see that we would break even over between five to 20 years.

“Any reasonable economic estimate makes all the sense in the world to cut emissions," she said.

“We spend about $3 trillion every year in the US just on healthcare. By conservative estimates, about half these are preventable. Think about the money we could save by reducing air pollution, people eating healthier diets, eating less processed meats and red meats. All the things that I’m talking about could save potentially a trillion dollars or more," Bernstein added.

According to Dr. Hayhoe, the statistics prove just that over 70% of new energy around the world comes from clean energy sources. There are more jobs in clean energy than in fossil fuels in the United States itself let alone China. This leaves many wondering, why aren't we doing it?

“There are a few who would not benefit. Those few are the richest corporations in the world, the majority of them made their money off digging up, processing, selling or making things that burn fossil fuels. But the people who are making those decisions often make them based on quarterly returns and that is one of the biggest reasons why we see this mismatch between the need to act and the failure to do so,” Hayhoe said.

Experts agree that doing nothing will cost us the most. 

“The honest answer to the question about cost is that it really just comes down to this: The only thing we cannot afford is climate inaction. It’s that simple. We don’t have another planet, folks,” Bernstein said.

Tackling big issues means having important and sometimes tough conversations. Climatologists stress that denying the science means we aren't having the political debate that our policy needs to engage in to get ahead of the climate crisis before it’s too late. 

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