IMPACT

Why We Panic About The Coronavirus But Not About The Climate Crisis

Both are urgent global crises, both are taking lives ― but our reactions are very different. Climate experts explain why.

We face two global crises. In both cases, the science is crystal clear, the economic and social impacts are devastating, and people are dying. But our reactions to them are very different.

One is the coronavirus pandemic. While many governments have been criticized for slow and uneven responses to the virus, they are now scrambling into action with emergency plans and stimulus programs. 

China, the world’s second-largest economy, was virtually brought to a halt. The whole of Italy is on lockdown, with schools and businesses closed. In the U.K., the right-wing Conservative government just announced a Keynesian budget, promising $38 billion in extra spending to tackle the coronavirus. And in the U.S., the Trump administration has banned travel from most of Europe.

People are washing their hands, practicing social distancing and hoarding hand sanitizer.

Compare this to the world’s response to the climate crisis. Evidence of climate breakdown is coming at us fast. The polar ice caps are melting six times faster than in the 1990s, according to data published on Wednesday; whole ecosystems threaten to collapse in the next few decades; and scientists say we may be approaching tipping points that would irreversibly lock us into a far hotter world.

People are already dying. Around seven million people a year die from air pollution. The World Health Organization has predicted there will be around 250,000 additional deaths from 2030 to 2050 due to malaria, diarrhea, heat stress and malnutrition caused by climate change.

Yet despite this tide of bleak and terrifying scientific evidence, climate change action has been painfully slow, muted and wholly out of step with the urgency of the situation. 

We spoke to six experts in climate change to try to understand why people cannot muster the kind of strong and wide-reaching action for the environment that they can for the coronavirus. Here’s what the experts had to say:

Coronavirus is a simple, scary threat — and we’re not the villain.

Lise Van Susteren
Lise Van Susteren

Lise Van Susteren, a Washington, D.C., psychiatrist with a special interest in the psychological effects of climate change

The coronavirus has immediate, visible consequences. This is a very powerful message. There are also empowering actions we can take ― many of us can take immediate life-saving or health-preserving actions. So we pounce on this, and it’s much easier than something [like the climate crisis] which is more nebulous. 

It is a sudden specific threat. Everybody is doing something or talking about it and this creates a social norm to take action. And nothing is more powerful than what the people around you are doing. We have a herd mentality, we’re social animals. 

We also don’t have to understand the details of the DNA of the virus, we’ve had experience of the flu. We know that this happens, we can see people getting sick, we’ve heard of people dying ― it’s something that is not unknown to us. It doesn’t require a scientific mind to understand. 

But the climate crisis, in many aspects, is complex scientifically, even if the outcomes are not. 

The climate crisis is much more psychologically demanding. ... It requires compassion to imagine what is going to be down the road and to drive ourselves to take action now for the benefits that we may not personally receive. Lise Van Susteren

The climate crisis is also much more psychologically demanding. Being fearful is really easy ― that is a very primitive impulse. It’s an immediate and powerful way to muster everything that we’ve got to focus on the threat.

To tackle climate change, however, requires compassion. It requires compassion to imagine what is going to be down the road and to drive ourselves to take action now for the benefits that we may not personally receive but we can understand, intellectually and out of empathy, will happen to others.

Ultimately, the coronavirus is easy, it’s specific, it’s identifiable, it allows us to take empowering actions so we’re more willing to go there.

And we’re not the villain ― the virus is ― so it decriminalizes us. We’re all complicit with climate change.

Climate change is too complex. People struggle to see the impacts.

Marshall Shepherd
Marshall Shepherd

Marshall Shepherd, professor of geography and atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia, international expert in weather and climate, and past president of the American Meteorological Society

People are very dismissive of threats seen as creeping or long-term. This [coronavirus] seems like a more immediate threat even as climate change is now impacting extreme weather events or sea level. 

The nature of climate change is too complex, but we do see hints of concern when there are weather disasters. It is more of a psychology issue than a meteorology/climate science one. People struggle to see current impacts of climate change on weather, health, agriculture and other kitchen table issues.

People see climate change as an “over there” and “future” problem.

Steve Trent
Steve Trent

Steve Trent, co-founder and director of the U.K.-based Environmental Justice Foundation

For most of the previous two decades, people have viewed climate change as “over there” and in the future. They hadn’t understood the near-term implications. It’s exactly like a pension ― the benefits of saving when you’re 20 are magnified tenfold. The benefits of acting earlier would have been much, much greater but they didn’t have that foresight. 

I also think that while some political leaders are incredibly smart, astute and engaged, across a broad landscape of political complexion very few have been bedded in the science and even those that have felt more compelled by near-term economic gain. They haven’t been able to grapple with it intellectually or emotionally. 

And the political lobbying, the behind-the-scenes activism by fossil fuel companies ― married with the financial institutions that, even now, are doing all they can to resist the so-called “stranded assets” that they will get if we move rapidly out of carbon ― has been the political game-changer of the second half of the 20th century and into the present. 

Anyone who doesn’t understand that is really not living in the real world.

Trillions of dollars have been invested in oil, in one way or another, and the architecture of our current industrial regime. It is that as much as anything else that has controlled political and economic decision-making. And that’s why nobody’s taking climate seriously.

It’s exactly why they are taking the coronavirus seriously. Because there, it’s not just a demand-side thing, it’s a supply-side thing, and they see their assets being weakened because of the inability to get people in to carry on producing them.

We pay attention when there’s a disaster and then we move on.

Ram Ramanathan
Ram Ramanathan

Ram Ramanathan, the Edward A. Frieman endowed presidential chair in climate sustainability at the University of California, San Diego

The coronavirus is current and happening now. For climate change, which has been happening for decades, we pay attention when there is a weather disaster and then move on. Likewise, if COVID-19 lingers on beyond this summer, we will also move on.

Is there a lesson to be learned from COVID-19 for climate change? I have predicted that the warming will cross the dangerous threshold by 2030. When that happens ― and I am more than 50% certain it will ― climate change will move into our living rooms, and there will be panic and a huge cry for action. 

I hope we don’t wait for that but start on it now. What do we need to do now? We need to get massive public support for action. For that to happen, we need to unpack climate change from all the politics that divide America and reach out to people ― those with and without college degrees ― including those who have not yet accepted climate change science or the data. It is doable.

People care more about their health than the climate, even though climate change is a health threat.

Robert Gifford
Robert Gifford

Robert Gifford, professor of psychology and environmental studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada

My first response to the question is immediacy. Even though so far the virus is far away for many, the threat seems more salient and has the potential to make an important impact sooner.

My second response is journalism. All are doing their job, no criticism, but just the sheer amount of coverage is putting it in everyone’s face (but don’t touch it!).

My third response is that most people care more about their health than climate change, even though climate change is also a threat to health and is now near the top of concerns.

My broader answer is the “Dragons of Inaction” ― a term I use to describe the set of psychological barriers that people use for not engaging in climate-positive behavior, even those actions they agree would be helpful. These include lack of knowledge of the problem, fear that changes will cost us, mistrust and numbness. 

The coronavirus can set a very real example for climate change.

Michele Wucker
Michele Wucker

Michele Wucker, author of “The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore”

With climate change and the coronavirus, things seem to go slowly until all of a sudden they go fast. While they’re still going slowly is when you have a chance to stop them ― but, of course, people don’t usually act until they are about to get trampled.

The coronavirus can set a very real example for climate change: The sooner you act, the more chance you have of surviving. This is true for individuals, organizations and governments alike. Everyone needs to buy in.

In both cases, individual people are more likely to act if they feel they can do something concrete that makes a difference, especially when it affects them personally.

The thing about obvious dangers is that we don’t pay attention soon enough because they are so obvious Michele Wucker

With the virus, it’s washing hands thoroughly, working from home, avoiding crowds. With climate change, it’s tracking the emissions you create and reducing them.

And governments and organizations are more likely to act if they know that their constituents demand it. Businesses are waking up to climate change because investors are recognizing the potential impact on their supply chains and central banks are warning of the potential impact on financial stability. We still have a long way to go before we solve the problem, but the momentum is picking up. We need to use that momentum and accelerate it.

The thing about obvious dangers is that we don’t pay attention soon enough because they are so obvious. It’s like living next to a train that you learn to tune out so you can sleep. But when we remember that we are vulnerable to missing the obvious, we can consciously change that. 

I ask people to imagine a giant rhino charging at them, with the name of whatever their challenge is written on its forehead. What’s your gray rhino? And what are you doing about it?

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