It is not difficult to see the several consistencies between the COVID-19 pandemic and the Climate Emergency. You can find them in more than one dimension. Some involve the trajectories of the crises, while others reside in the human response or lack thereof.
Things like acceleration and lagged effects are important for understanding crises that can lead to a system’s collapse. It all has to do with how complex systems maintain their stability or go off the rails. The world we live in consists of a complex network of systems and the various environments in which they reside. For a long time that world remained relatively stable—including the systems we humans created. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Climate Emergency have made that a thing of the past.
System Fluctuations and the Trajectories of System Crises
In an open robust environment where resources abound and ecosystems are stable, crises tend not to occur unless some outside force disrupts the relationships of systems within it. Often, when an environmental change such as unusually bountiful annual rainfall occurs, the balance among species can change. I like the example of coyotes and rabbits in the northern highlands of New Mexico, where I have personally observed their relations.
In years when a large snowpack in the mountains causes lots of runoff in the spring and if heavy summer monsoon rains encourage lots of green growth, rabbits proliferate on the bountiful food. Of course, many well-fed rabbits mean extra food for coyotes. So, in years when the rabbit population grows larger than usual, one result is that well-fed coyotes produce more young. Then, when they have had their fill and the next season brings less water, plant growth, and rabbits, the coyote population contracts as well. This normal fluctuation follows variations in climate.
Some changes in climate, however, are not “normal.” Every species influences and is influenced by climate and the ecosystem in which it lives. However, only one species has altered these systems in ways that go way beyond normal fluctuations. In fact, the reason some scientists now say we have entered a new geological era, the Anthropocene, is that organized human activity fueled by various forms of petroleum has pushed ecological and climate systems out of their normal range of fluctuation by heating the planet.
Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crises are human-caused. COVID-19 could not have spread exponentially if humans were not traveling all over the world every day by the thousands. The roughly 11,000-year geological epoch of stability, the Holocene, allowed the growth of the human population until we occupied the entire planet. Today, the result is that both ecological and climate systems have destabilized beyond the point of no return. We have entered a new phase of Earth history, mostly without acknowledging it.
Too Little Too Late, Too Much Too Soon
Non-industrial peoples have operated in direct relation to their habitats for eons. Industrialized nations have exerted greater and greater control over natural environments by the use of fossil-fueled technologies, especially over the past two hundred years. Ecosystem destruction and climate disruption have inevitably followed. We have deeply destabilized the entire Earth System. Yet culturally and mentally, we sustain illusions of control despite the dissipating stability of the Holocene.
Various corporate interests and their political agents in authority have taken some very disturbing political measures to cause confusion, denial and distraction executed in their short-term economic interests. That, along with our comfortable industrial-consumer culture is why it is so difficult for most people to grasp that we are already in a deep planetary emergency.
Those who believe that facts should drive public policy have for decades tried to get governments to take action commensurate with the dangers of the changing climate. Epidemiologists and public health professionals have warned of the increasing danger of pandemics due to the hyper-interactive relations of groups and nations in the latter days of the industrial era. Airline travel has grown exponentially. Yet, blind faith in the economy as the end-all solution to all problems has caused people to dismiss both the immediate pandemic and the somewhat longer-term threat of climate chaos.
Political authorities have resisted taking strong immediate action in both cases. The pandemic has forced the hand of the global economy of growth and the politicians who serve it. Despite growing direct evidence of major climate disturbances, often with the loss of life, those same politicians resist taking action in response to the climate emergency as well.
Politics caused very slow responses by some nations to the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused great suffering and death. Now the political desire to “restart” the economy will likely cause a resurgence of the pandemic. Politics is also stifling any rational response to the climate emergency–especially in the US.
The economic shutdown resulting from social distancing has dramatically reduced carbon emissions and has inadvertently demonstrated why the only viable response to climate chaos is extreme societal transformation to create a decarbonized economy. The solution to the pandemic is a harbinger of one element of the solution to climate chaos and ecological destruction. We must create a nearly carbonless economy, which, by the way, will significantly reduce the threat of future deadly pandemics.