Offsetting The Coronavirus And Other Lessons For the Climate Crisis

Image credit: Departimento Protezione

For the most part the conversation about the coronavirus (aka COVID-19) in the context of the climate crisis has been focusing on its impacts on global emissions. The New York Times, for example, reported that the decline in economic activity in China due to measures taken to stop the outbreak resulted in a reduction of about 25% in China’s carbon dioxide emissions over the past three weeks compared to the same period last year. This decline, according to Carbon Brief, is mainly associated with reduction in fossil fuel use. At the same time, Carbon Brief made it clear that this is a short-term impact, not a long-term one.

Important as the impacts of the coronavirus outbreak on the current global emissions are, I believe there are also a couple of important lessons to be learned from this crisis in the context of the fight against climate change. What we have seen in the last couple of weeks provide both encouraging and discouraging indications that we need to pay attention to and hopefully learn from. Below you can find five of the lessons I find to be the most important ones:

Lesson #1: Climate change is not (yet) a clear and present danger

On Thursday, February 27 the World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a news briefing: “the new coronavirus outbreak has reached a “decisive point””. Tedros was urging affected countries to “move swiftly” to contain the disease.

These remarks as well as the seriousness of the action taken by most countries suggest that many governments, businesses and companies see the outbreak as a clear and present danger. School closing in Japan, airlines cutting back services and canceling flights, companies closing outlets in China, employees moving to work from home, and people who don’t leave their house without a mask in many places are just some examples of the unprecedented level of response to the outbreak.

We see almost none of it when it comes to the climate crisis. We have thousands of scientists telling us “clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency” and the IPCC report calling for urgent and unprecedented changes, but do we take them as seriously as we take the coronavirus warnings?

Not so much. Yes, we hear governments and companies talking about the need to take the warnings of scientists seriously, but it does not translate overall to the level of action required to limit global warming to 1.5C. Apparently, no matter how many dire warnings scientists provide or how many wildfires, hurricanes, and floods take place — it’s just not enough to produce a shared sense of clear and present danger.

There can be a number of reasons for it (see next lessons), but the bottom line is that for the most part climate change is still perceived as a distant threat, not a clear and present danger.

Lesson #2: Fear > Hope when it comes to radical changes (Or: Fear works)

There is an ongoing debate in the climate community: What is more effective in terms of action on climate change — fear or hope?

David Wallace-Wells, the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth” touched on this issue in an interview to the Guardian:

“On the question of what kind of motivation is most effective, I don’t believe fear and alarm are the only options; there is a place for hope and optimism. There are many shades in between… And to go back to the second world war analogy, we did not mobilise in that way because we were optimistic about the future. We mobilised in that way out of fear, because we thought nazism was an existential threat. And climate change is obviously an existential threat and it is naive to imagine we could respond to it without some people being scared. I think it is silly to throw that rhetorical tool away. My basic perspective is that any story that sticks is a good one. If you can get people engaged, it is good, however you do it.”

While I tend to concur with studies suggesting that a combination of fear and hope can motivate people to engage with climate action more than using merely one of these ingredients, I believe the current outbreak supports Wallace-Wells’ point about the power of fear. We see how governments, companies and individuals take unusual steps to protect themselves from the coronavirus, including closing schools and borders, forcing people to work from home, and shutting down factories and offices.

Fighting climate change will also demand to take unusual steps, including material changes in the way we live, conduct business and interact with our ecosystems. We need to consider how we get people to make such changes swiftly and therefore need to understand what would motivate them to do so.

While the need in hope is obvious, as otherwise we may fall into the narrative seeing collapse as unavoidable, with no real ways to change this outcome, this crisis is a reminder that fear may be a stronger motivator than hope. Thus, when we consider ‘recipes’ for the fight of climate change we may want to consider adding two cups of fear with every cup of hope. Such recipes may be considered as ‘alarmists’ and therefore undesirable, but the current crisis proves that they should not be discounted as fear, whether we like it or not works.

Lesson #3: The forces holding us from acting on climate change are VERY powerful

The Guardian reported on February 27 that Australia “has declared the coronavirus will become a global pandemic, and extended its travel ban on visitors from China”. The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was quoted saying the following: “There is every indication the world will soon enter the pandemic phase of the virus. We believe the risk of a pandemic is very much upon us and we as a government need to take steps necessary to prepare for such a pandemic.”

It was interesting to see how Morrison, who has consistently downplayed the risks of climate change and its impacts on Australia, is taking a proactive approach against the coronavirus, offering very radical steps to stop it and suggesting that “the risk of a pandemic is upon us.” His response now, letting Australians know that their country needs to respond quickly and that “to stay ahead of it we need to now elevate our response to the next phase” is the exact opposite of his response to the climate crisis.

It may be that Morrison is trying to rebuild his image as a responsible leader after the mistakes he made in the bushfire crisis, but my sense is that this is also about the forces acting to sustain the status quo. When it comes to climate change you have powerful forces fighting to slow or stop the necessary changes that need to take place (Alex Steffen calls it ‘predatory delay’). When it comes to the coronavirus you have (almost) none. There is no fossil fuel industry using its money and power to ensure politicians are afraid to consider anything beyond incremental changes, no media outlets offering misinformation on climate change to shape public opinion.

You don’t need to go all the way to the Heartland Institute to come up with a German teenager who promotes climate skepticism (she’s considered to be the ‘anti-Greta’) to know that those who fight against climate change need to face very powerful forces who will do whatever they can to interfere with this fight. And yet, when we see how swift and radical actions, many of them with devastating economic consequences, are announced without even a squeak from business and politicians who would be very loud if similar steps would have taken to fight climate change one can get a sense of the challenge we face.

To get things done on climate change we need to keep fighting the legitimacy and challenge the social license to operate of the powerful forces that hold us back. Otherwise, we will never move forward fast enough, which as the current outbreak proves we can if there’s no one stopping us from doing so.

Lesson #4: We need to simplify the story of climate change

There is an interesting similarity between the coronavirus and the climate crisis — in both cases the single unit’s well being, be it an individual, a company or a country depends not only on its response but also on the response of others, both locally and globally. You can’t beat the coronavirus on your own just like you can’t beat climate change on your own. And yet, the response to the coronavirus is far stronger than the response to climate change. As mentioned above we can attribute it to different perceptions of risk and fear, or to the absence of strong opposition in the case of the outbreak, but I believe that our ability to understand the story of each crisis also plays an important role here.

As complex as it may be the story of the coronavirus is one most people understand as it represents a quite clear connection between cause and effect. If you do X, then Y will happen, both in terms of getting infected as well as protecting yourself from the virus. The fact that there is a short time gap between the cause and the effect helps increase our understanding of these relationships and perhaps our acceptance of the actions necessary to address the outbreak, no matter how extreme they may seem.

Climate change, on the other, hand is a complex story that is difficult to understand, especially in terms of cause-effect relationships, which are systemic by nature and therefore more difficult to comprehend. It is very difficult to provide people, companies and governments with a clear understanding of how their actions on climate change will evolve into results they can actually see. Add the time gap in climate change between cause and effect and you have a picture that is pretty messy for most people.

So what do you do about it? Linguist George Lakoff suggests to add systemic causation to your vocabulary and to learn how to communicate the concept. This is a viable option but I’m not sure how helpful it would be to when we have a clear preference towards simple stories in terms of cause and effect.

I believe we need to figure out not just how to embrace the complexity of the climate crisis, but also how to reframe it and create simple stories around it that people can emotionally connect with. We need to reshape the narrative of the climate story so it can offer clear connections between cause and effect that people can understand and emotionally relate to. We have to be better storytellers if we want people to understand the climate story as clearly as they understand the coronavirus story.

Lesson #5: Carbon offsetting makes no sense

Let’s say that you are asked to self-quarantine yourself because you just returned from a country affected by the coronavirus. It’s very uncomfortable for you because you want to keep up with your life so you pay someone else, who didn’t travel anywhere but also doesn’t mind to stay home to do it for you.

Doesn’t sound very helpful, right?

While you can make the case that it can still be helpful as the person you paid is one less person that can be infected and thus one less person that can infect others, the bottom line is that if you’re in danger (and may endanger others) your ‘creative’ arrangement is not the answer. If anything it can put you and others at greater risk as you avoid the real problem and its potential consequences.

While this example is not similar in 100% to carbon offsetting it still gives a good sense of how little value this option provides. Rather than tackling the real issues companies in particular are busy creating mechanisms to claim that they fight climate change and in some cases are even “carbon neutral”. These creative carbon accounting games are nothing but a defense mechanism of systems that are afraid of radical changes and want to change slowly.

Just like it does not seem reasonable to allow offsetting arrangements to address the coronavirus outbreak, it should not make sense to allow offsetting to be a credible tool in the fight against climate change. The problem should be addressed directly, forcefully and truthfully. Companies, as we see now, can adjust to radical changes that happen very fast — they just need to have the will to do so and accept that the “lazy option” called carbon offsetting is no longer available.

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