The world reels from the COVID-19 pandemic. Nations shutter their borders. We lock in place to protect ourselves and others, striving to prevent overburdening of our healthcare systems and medical workers.
This is an intense time. We each have our own Pandemic 2020 story, unfolding every day. Some lives and livelihoods will be decimated, others will be inconvenienced. Yet not a single person will be unaffected.
COVID-19 is an extremely urgent crisis. Climate change is an extremely important one. What is the difference? And how do we approach and learn from them?
The Urgent Crisis and the Important Crisis
Something that is urgent requires immediate action. It has to be taken care of right away, or there will be consequences. If you cut your finger and it is bleeding, it is urgent that you put a band aid on it. If you have appendicitis, it is urgent that you have surgery. Other health concerns, such as smoking or obesity, do not have the same urgency. They are slow-burn crises, building gradually and often invisibly day-by-day. If you take care of it tomorrow, it’s almost the same as if you took care of it today. Yet their long-term impacts are dire.
COVID-19 is extremely urgent. We must take immediate action to avoid the consequences of our hospitals being overburdened and many people dying unnecessarily. We must take immediate action to protect our communities and ourselves from falling ill from a contagious virus.
Climate change is not urgent. If we take action tomorrow, it is almost the same as if we took action today. Yet it is extremely important, because on the long-term, it threatens the security of our global food supply, the safety of our communities from extreme weather events (such as floods, forest fires, severe droughts, etc.) and will endanger life as we know it.
How We React to Crises
Even in the face of an urgent crisis, we (the global ‘we’) are sluggish to respond. History will look back and pinpoint many ways in which we could have responded faster and more efficiently to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet once mobilized, we have already gone to incredible lengths to try and contain the crisis. Much of the world is on forced or recommended social isolation and/or quarantine, a scenario many of us would have believed impossible and unimaginable only a few months ago. There are global examples of great leadership, and global examples of extremely poor leadership and decision-making. Yet broadly speaking, as we see around us every day and on the news, humankind is capable of great change, sacrifice and adaptability in the face of an urgent crisis.
However, if we are sluggish to respond to an urgent crisis, it is an easy extrapolation that we are extremely sluggish to respond in the face of a non-urgent crisis. This is already self-evident, as awareness of climate change has existed for decades and we remain largely unmotivated to take action. I have no doubt that we will take action, because eventually, a non-urgent crisis will become urgent.
But the scope and importance of climate change means that if we allow this crisis to become urgent, we will be facing a catastrophe beyond the scope of our imagination.
Can We Learn from COVID-19?
COVID-19 has prompted a reckoning on a global, national and personal scale. We are confronted with the precarity of our health, our livelihoods, our freedom of movement and our communities. There is a settling sense of claustrophobia, impotence and frustration. Some people’s jobs and means of paying the bills have been decimated. Others cannot travel home to be with their families. An unfortunate minority are grieving the loss of a loved one. And a majority are very lonely.
Yet we can also reflect on who we are globally, nationally and individually. There are countless stories of extraordinary leadership, healthcare workers risking themselves every day, citizens going the extra mile to support strangers and people working themselves to the bone to make sure grocery stores are stocked. As in any time of deprivation and uncertainty, we become keenly aware of our gratitude for the many simple things in life. We will overcome COVID-19. We will not be the same. Some of us will carry scars. However, we will survive, thus revealing once more humankind’s most distinguishing trait; survival.
While we are watching this unfold around us, while we are feeling firsthand the impacts of this crisis, we can observe the evidence that demonstrates that as a global civilization – to be driven to action – we need to feel urgency. As this urgency is fresh and burning in our minds, prompting us to action and deep thought, we may use it to consider how we can prevent – rather than wait to respond to – the worst of the most important crises we face; climate change.
In an information age that allows us unprecedented access to live updates, we can choose to see what we are capable of and how we can do better. Perhaps now is a good time to harken back to Theodore Roosevelt’s quote, “The Man in the Arena.” As we sit isolated in our homes, it may be very easy to point fingers and, in many cases, we have every single right to do so. But we could, instead, start filing away lessons and building up our reserve of grit and urgency to jump straight into the arena as soon as COVID-19 is under control, so we can ride that urgency toward concerted and full-force action on another very important crisis.