I love memes. This one captures the thoughts of the many who have in vain been struggling to convince the policy and business decision-makers about the genuine threats our way of life is facing due to the environmental issues. It highlights how the societies can jump fast and put other values than economic to the fore when it is considered necessary.
It also illustrates how the resistance to change, the slowness of notable transformations, the immutability of human behavior and the stickiness of status quo are not actually natural laws. They are not given. It points out the ingenuity and adaptability of humanity when encountering crisis – we are capable of notable feats when we decide to do so.
So, the question is: why have the societies not reacted with equal vigor to the threat of climate change? After all, in the current rate of global warming, we are, in the relatively near future, facing a living environment that is at least as threatening to the health and lives of the individuals as the covid-19.
Is it a question of belief? While there are still vocal denialists, it does seem that the majority of decision-makers have come to believe the message of the surprisingly unified front of the researchers actually studying the phenomenon.
Is it a question of technology? There are a number of existing technologies, and an even larger number of nascent innovations that when adopted in larger scale could be harnessed to fight the change.
Is it a question of money? As the responses to the corona crisis shows, humanity is capable of redirecting or creating money to reach the desired ends.
Is it a question of motivation or coordination, of lack of knowhow, of political battles over power? To an extent, but as the current actions show, also these issues can be overcome.
What is the difference between the threat of climate change and corona virus?
The fundamental difference between climate change and corona virus can be identified through remembering the three components of disruption: there is a trajectory (or a set of them), trigger that initiates change, and the responses that mandate the direction of change. Corona virus is a trigger that makes it impossible to not respond, to not change.
But climate change is a trajectory. It inches forward on its path, well-established by the actions we have undertaken for a couple of centuries. It is not an exogenous event but one of such trajectories that form as a residue of us living our lives ‘normally’. It has been emerging as a side-product of the very human and by themselves valuable ambitions of pursuing a more comfortable life, the other side of the coin of lifting large swaths of humanity from absolute poverty, famine, sickness.
Changing the direction of a trajectory through incremental actions is nigh impossible as it is firmly entrenched in everything we deem normal in our ways of life. The trajectories change notably only when there is a disruptive trigger followed by such responses that make it impossible to return to such actions that would enable the trajectory to return to its old path.
Fighting climate change needs a disruption
As stated at the onset of this post, corona pandemic has shown that the humanity can enact huge changes in a very short period of time. However, those changes require a trigger that makes it impossible not to respond. If we want to harness the ability of the societies to make fundamental and dramatic shifts in order to reorient the climate change trajectory, we need something to disrupt our such actions that have been responsible of creating the trajectory in the first place.
Interestingly, in interrupting our everyday lives, both the covid-19 pandemic and the measures taken to safeguard individuals from its impact on health and lives, have disrupted also such normalcy that reinforces the current direction of climate change. Because of the pandemic, we are accepting such restrictions that as their side effect have a direct link to the environmental footprint of our daily lives. We have all seen the footage of the clear skies in China and the dolphins in Venice.
The corona disruption has nudged the climate change trajectory. In the post-corona rebuilding era we have two choices. We can either lend increasing strength to that nudge, utilizing the fact that when everything changes anyway, enforcing such change that results in a better new normal is easier that initiating change in the first place. Or we can isolate the environmental issues into a basket of externalities and put all of our efforts into rebuilding the very same mechanisms that have created the climate change trajectory in the first place.
There is nothing that is all good or all bad. While the human costs of covid-19 are devastating, as a crisis it also opens up such paths of action that cannot be seen nor taken in the more stable times. We can choose to see and act on those novel possibilities, gaining something good from all the bad, or we can just focus on the very genuine bad, ignore the opportunities present in all upheavals.
Fighting climate change needs a disruption. We have one on our hands. Are we going to realize the potential benefits of these transformative times to change such that needs changing?