COVID-19’s lessons for climate change

We ignore science, expert guidance at our peril

AS WE ENTER the beginning phases of re-opening Massachusetts, Covid-19 has already provided several important lessons for policymakers to consider when addressing the other major global crisis that experts have been warning us about: climate change.

Two key lessons are immediately apparent. First, we ignore expert guidance at our peril. For decades, public health experts had been warning about society’s potential exposure to a pandemic, and the need to build in appropriate safeguards, procedures, and supply chains. We have consistently ignored and disregarded the counsel of public health professionals and, as a result, the United States, despite being the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth (for now, anyway), is the epicenter of the pandemic, with more cases and deaths than any other nation on earth.

Similarly, we have tragically been ignoring the expert guidance and warnings of climate scientists for decades. Even now, we are willfully ignoring the harsh realities of science, hoping that physics and chemistry will give us credit for trying, even when we know our efforts are doomed to fail.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the largest body of scientists ever assembled to study a single issue in human history, made clear in their 2018 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 Celsius  that if we wanted even a 50 percent chance of avoiding a 1.5 degree celsius temperature rise (the level scientists say we must not exceed), we needed to cut global emissions in half by 2030, and end them by 2050. For a two-thirds chance, that would involve getting global emissions to zero by 2040. Worryingly, both of these probabilities do not fully account for pieces of the climate science that we know should be accounted for (but were hard for scientists to build into models), including feedback loops, tipping points, and additional built-in warming hidden by coal pollution. And they assume massive deployment of carbon dioxide drawdown through processes that have not yet been proven at scale.

Sadly, much of the climate community, along with the Baker administration, has unambiguously embraced the weaker target of a mere 50 percent chance of avoiding catastrophe, and brazenly portrayed that as leadership. Worse, the focus on 2050 ignores a critical component of that call to action, the 2030 target.

At the end of the day, we care about the stock, or total amount of pollution over time, not the flow in a given year. It’s as if someone was filling a bathtub rapidly, and said, to avoid overflowing the tub, we need to cut the waterflow in half within the next 10 minutes, and then completely cut off the water in 30 minutes. And then the response is “great, we’ll cut the water off in 30 minutes, got it.” If you do not meet the interim target, then you will overflow the tub, no matter what you do later on. The same is true of our carbon budget, which is why an aggressive 2030 target is critical in both achieving our goals and asserting leadership for other states and our federal government to follow.

The Baker administration is due to choose Massachusetts’ 2030 target by the end of the year. Some advocates are calling for this to be set at least 50 percent so that it is in line with the IPCC’s coin-toss pathway. Others are pushing for 60 percent or higher to maximize our leadership potential and give us the best chance at avoiding climate collapse.

And the sad truth is that no matter what 2030 target the Baker administration picks, the administration’s goals will be among the most aggressive in the nation.

But that does not change the underlying reality of physics and chemistry. Being best among a class of lemmings still makes us a lemming, and that will not change until someone steps up and offers courage, leadership, and vision.

The second major lesson Covid-19 is teaching us is that while natural threats — be they pandemics or climate crises — are not racist, when these threats encounter racist systems, they produce racist results.

This has been proven tragically, though not surprisingly to anyone paying attention to racial dynamics in society, as African-Americans, indigenous groups, and other traditionally marginalized groups continue to disproportionately bear the brunt of Covid-19 impacts. Nationally, Navajo Nation has surpassed New York as the most directly affected (per-capita) state/territory in the nation. In Boston, for instance, African American residents make up 22 percent of the population, but as of late April they accounted for 42 percent of Boston’s COVID-19 cases.

Again, the virus is not racist, but when African-Americans live in a racist society, their risks of exposure are much greater. The jobs that have been easiest to transition to working remotely during the pandemic are professional, or “white collar” professions; they could just as easily be categorized by the color of the skins as the color of the collars of the majority of people in this grouping.

African-Americans are more likely to be uninsured or underinsured, to be in jobs without sufficient sick time protections, and to be in jobs where phoning it in is just not an option. And, of course, they are more likely to live in more dense quarters, rely exclusively on public transportation, and, crucially, live in more polluted areas (which makes Covid-19 worse). And notably, marginalized and economically disadvantaged populations do not have the option of retreating to vacation homes on the Cape or in New Hampshire to ride out the storm.

So when medical professionals proposed race-neutral criteria for deciding who lives and who dies when critical medical support is in short supply, that race neutral criteria leads to racialized outcomes, where people of color, and, yes, black people in particular, are punished for the pre-existing conditions they obtained by living in a racist society. That is neither fair nor right, and we should celebrate the recent victory of those calling for better systems here in Massachusetts.

So what is the lesson here for the climate movement? All parts of our work, from fossil fuel pollution to the clean energy economy to preparing for climate impacts, all of these things exist and will continue to exist in a racist society. So when we apply a race-neutral lens to a racist society, we will continue to produce racist outcomes.

It is only when we apply a race-positive lens, when we actively work to dismantle and undo the systems of oppression that permeate every part of society, that we can hope to produce truly race-neutral outcomes. Where, in proportion to our population, those most harmed by extreme weather events are just as likely to be white as black or brown, where those getting access to the new jobs created by the clean energy economy and benefitting from investments in resilience are just as likely to be black and brown as white. We have so much work to do, and so little time to do it in. But what choice do we have but to work in earnest to combat these centuries-long systems of oppression? To do otherwise is to accept an implicit devaluation of black and brown lives, of black and brown dreams, of black and brown rights. Surely, that is not something we want to let happen.

In short, we need to reduce pollution much more quickly than most care to admit, and we must do it in with a strong, anti-racist lens that centers the voices, experiences, and needs of black, indigenous, Latinx, and other traditionally marginalized groups. This will not be easy. In fact, it will be incredibly hard. But climate change, like the coronavirus, does not care for the difficulty of the task before us. It simply asks the question: will we rise to the occasion, and be our best selves? Or will we ignore experts, dither and delay, and then express surprise and remorse when disaster strikes and hits black and brown communities first and worst?

Meet the Author

Craig S Altemose

Senior advisor, 350 Massachusetts for a Better Future
The choice is in our hands, and we have precious little time to choose.

Craig S. Altemose is the executive director of Better Future Project, the home of 350 Massachusetts, Divest Ed, and Communities Responding to Extreme Weather (CREW).