Today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a day launched in 1970 to serve as a tool to promote awareness and action on pollution and environmental degradation. On a day when Canadians grapple with the recent horrific tragedy in Nova Scotia, and the ongoing fear, anxiety, grief, and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, Earth Day may seem like an anachronism. Its environmental message may seem like a distant priority as families, communities, businesses and governments all face profound disruption, loss and change. But Earth Day 2020 serves not just as a reminder of our environment but also as a profound reminder of the crisis we are experiencing. It is a crisis within a crisis.
Crisis emerges from the Greek krisis, referring to a “turning or decision point in a disease, a change which indicates recovery or death.” These turning points, or tipping points, shift the signposts of the quotidian – the regular, predictable, routine patterns of everyday living. The loss of these signposts contributes to a sense of disorientation. The world is changed. For some time, normal is on hold. Like a fish thrown out of water, we became aware of the water – that which we rely on but which is hidden in plain sight by day to day routines and expectations.
Shifts in ‘Normal’
In most instances, the pause in Normal generated by a crisis is relatively contained. We rush to recover, rebuild, and re-establish routines, work, and a sense of normalcy. This is understandable – no one wants to linger in disruption and disorientation. By rushing past the pause in Normal, by not collectively reflecting on what we might need to change to avoid similar disasters in the future, we can miss out. We can miss not only the opportunity to mitigate future crises, but also miss the chance to reimagine what a better, new Normal might be. We lose the potential in an emergency to learn and transform in intentional ways. We lose the intention to carry forward what we truly value and let go of things – systems, behaviours, worldviews – that serve neither us nor the natural environment on which we depend.
In the current pandemic crisis, we are experiencing an unprecedented global pause in Normal. There is no clear end in sight, nor any simple path forward to recovery. Unlike most disasters, the pandemic is neither contained to specific geography nor to one particular population. Every person, every community, and every nation is feeling the impacts. Every sector of society is affected. Our communities and economies are virtually shut down, routines and expectations are on hold, and the duration of this pause in Normal is unknown and unpredictable.
The unprecedented pause created by COVID-19 is a warning siren. It calls our attention to the changes we need to make to manage and end the current crisis. It also shows us what we can learn in real-time to inform and shape the changes we need to make to be resilient and adaptive to the looming crisis of climate change. We need to lean into this opening, rather than rushing past it. We need to intentionally, carefully, and collectively reimagine a next Normal that supports our long-term health, and that of the earth that supports us.
Earth Day reminds us of this, and it reminds us that the climate crisis is not standing still. The now-familiar “hockey stick curve” of global warming mirrors the transmission curve of the current coronavirus, and the implications of failing to flatten this curve are even more catastrophic. For years, we have ignored the warnings and continued with behaviours and practices that contribute to and accelerate global warming. Despite dire projections from climate scientists, despite escalating calls for action from climate striking youth, despite declarations of climate emergencies, we continue to behave as though we are immune.
As with the coronavirus, there is a lag time in the expression of the symptoms of climate change. Each day we delay addressing the climate threat, we increase the social and economic costs of that threat. We have seen the cost of hesitation in the context of the pandemic in the staggering images and figures that have come out of China, Italy, Spain, New York, and now, Canada. We are living with the human costs and suffering of the pandemic. We are only now beginning to realize the extent of the economic damage of that hesitation and lack of preparedness.
Similarly, the amplifying effects of global warming on extreme weather and disasters are already apparent. Canadians are paying over $1 billion a year in direct, insurable costs as a result of disasters. This staggering amount accounts for only a portion of the real costs, which continue to rise exponentially each year. But even these costs will pale as future climate change fuels not only more disasters, civil unrest, and resource conflicts, but also the likelihood of more pandemics. The Canadian Public Health Association has described climate change as the “greatest health threat of the 21st century.”
We need to start treating the climate emergency as the public health emergency that it is.
We need to learn from what this pandemic is illuminating about the fragility of global supply chains and economies. We need to consider the costs of short-sighted reactive approaches. We need to start considering proactive strategies to health (ours and the planet’s). What we take for granted, what we consider Normal in our modern, globalized world, is undermining rather than contributing to our wellbeing and resilience.
We need to take this opportunity to learn from this crisis. Learn about the power of our capacity as humans, businesses, governments, and societies to pivot quickly, to educate and innovate in real-time, and to transform in response to a massive threat.
Little over a month ago, at a national conference of climate adaptation researchers, practitioners, and policymakers, the coronavirus outbreak was not even on the agenda. It was not a topic of conversation in the hallways, nor in the sessions. Fast forward to today when no conversation, no media coverage, no activity is free from the focus on COVID-19. Within months, we have transformed how we work, how we interact, and how we engage as a global community in ways that most of us would not have thought possible.
The pandemic shines a spotlight on the holes in our systems. We can see the flaws in our increasingly interdependent global economies and supply chains. We can now clearly see the holes in a perpetual economic growth model that cannot even pause for an illness. We see the light shining through the holes in a highly accessible and inexpensive global travel market.
What COVID Can Teach Us About Climate
While the pandemic makes visible the frailties and failures of our systems and behaviours, it is also making visible some of our oft-hidden potential. This health crisis is bolstering our faith and investments in science and evidence-informed decision-making, regardless of how visible or invisible the signs of the threat may be. It inspires us to adopt an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ orientation that is reinvigorating neighbourhoods and motivating a willingness to cooperate and coordinate across boundaries.
It fosters a renaissance of caring where the needs of those who are most vulnerable and those who support them are prioritized. Physical distancing is causing us to slow down and be more mindful of the importance of our connections to each other and to the natural world. We are finally seeing the critical, essential services provided by health, child, and elder-care workers, teachers, grocery store clerks, truckers, couriers, janitors and cleaners, and artists. All those people who, for so long, have been undervalued and underrecognized. The economic crisis generated by public health measures is forcing us to wrestle with the ethical and practical balance between the costs of short and long-term measures.
Unlike the pandemic, we can’t wait out climate change, nor can we rely on science to fix it. The changes required to reduce global warming and support our capacity to adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change will involve every sector and every citizen. These systemic changes are being hinted at in the transformations we have already made and will continue to make to flatten the curve of COVID-19.
In other words, the pandemic is challenging us to reimagine and implement a new mindset and a next normal that is defined by a collective political, economic and personal willingness to prepare, adapt, and be nimble and flexible in the face of uncertainty and change. It is reminding us to learn and act from that learning before the inevitable next emergency.
This COVID-19 defined Earth Day is calling us to face the realization there is no vaccine for climate change.