What COVID Can Teach Us About Climate Change

aerial view of damage to gulfport Mississippi by hurricane katrina
Aerial view of destruction wreaked by Hurricane Katrina on Gulfport Mississippi in 2005.

We are nearing a million Americans who have lost their life to COVID. It’s one of the leading causes of death in the world, and the level of mortality caused by it is almost certainly undercounted. Despite this, there are still people like Possible Sociopath David Leonhardt who are trying to argue it’s all no big deal.

To be fair, no idea if Leonhardt is a sociopath but some of his Tweets and writing are, well, coming off like he has minimal care for his fellow humans and just wants to be able to go to a restaurant without a mask even if it does kill the olds and the weaklings.

It is not hard at all to see this exact same thing unfold as climate change continues to worsen. There are some obvious parallels between the public reaction to climate change and COVID. In both cases, Democrats and left-leaners see the threat clearly, while Republicans mostly do not. Remediation efforts in both cases are stymied by monied interests, with fossil fuel companies throwing up roadblocks and influencing politicians with climate change, and business interests trying to force us “back to normal” with COVID via fighting things like mask mandates.

In addition, some of us in American society treated COVID as someone else’s problem. Early on in the pandemic, it was viewed as a city disease that harmed mainly people of color, so the rural types didn’t really care about it – something I heard a fair amount in the rural area where I live. One of New York Times Opinion Slinger Ezra Klein’s worries that he has voiced numerous times is that deaths from climate change will be easy to ignore. He has said this prior to COVID. The reason he gives is how air pollution kills millions each year, including six-figure numbers in the United States, but you hear little about it in the media. And the people most affected tend to be in low-income regions.

Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine someone in say Ohio thinking that a series of hurricanes in an especially bad year for tropical systems killing hundreds or even thousands in Florida is not their problem. In fact, we have already seen this with a million dead Americans from COVID.

What is the solution? While it does not bring up COVID, this Vox interview provides a potential tact for climate scientists to take, which is to bring in social scientists.

Climate scientists are coming around to this, based on my own observations. Scientists, in general, are increasingly seeing the value to social science. In fact, where I work at Penn State, I hear scientists talk about the need for social science in communicating the benefits of their work and guiding the application of science for maximum societal benefit.

They have a tall order. There are basically three types of Americans right now – the conservatives who believe and spread misinformation wholeheartedly, the liberals who are paying attention and understand what is going on and are horrified, and low-information voters who are susceptible to misinformation because, well, they’re not really paying attention. Overcoming this will require some real social science jujitsu, and in our current environment where social media is basically a bullshit firehose set on high, they have their work cut out for them.

One example I can think of is understanding that some climate change solutions will make for higher costs for Americans in the short term. While I think many people understand electric cars are a necessary part of fighting climate change, the price tag for them is a barrier for a lot of Americans. You need to think of ways to help lower-income people through that, and trying to shame them into buying an EV is only going to create more resistance. So, this will require some empathy that leads to remediation of these costs, including care to not give the worst minions of social media the ammo they need to take statements from scientists and turn them into “see, the elites don’t care about you little people paying more” Facebook memes.

As the last paragraph in the Vox article points out, incremental, “common-sense solutions” are not going to work because we’re past that point. We will need urgent action, and if we don’t get political and societal buy-in for those solutions, all the scientific know-how in the world won’t matter because the application of ideas just won’t happen. I think a reason for optimism is many climate scientists understand this.

The last word goes to Andrew Bird, who explored the relationship between science and humanity via this wonderful song: