Environmentalists: Be careful with climate and coronavirus rhetoric

The current pandemic presents an important opportunity for climate dialogue but environmentalists need to be careful with the rhetoric.

by Josh Ettinger

There is growing dialogue about climate change amid the coronavirus. After all, the pandemic is a sobering account of what happens when we fail to heed to scientific evidence and the recommendations of experts.  For example, the Obama Administration set up the “Global Health Security and Biodefense unit” to prepare for this exact kind of scenario; the Trump Administration disbanded the group in 2018. Furthermore, climate change can amplify the transmission of infectious diseases.

In the short-term, some positive environmental consequences seem to be associated with the global coronavirus response. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have dropped and air pollution levels have significantly reduced in many of the world’s most polluted cities.

Scientists will likely be studying the atmospheric and ecological impacts of this time period for years. However, the long-term effects remain unclear. Will everything return to the status quo after the pandemic ends? Or will we manage to restart more sustainably?

Whatever the future holds, coronavirus presents an important opportunity for climate dialogue. As we modify our behaviours in response to the pandemic, we can now imagine sustainable futures in which, for example, we host many more virtual meetings to reduce flying.

Additionally, the process of trying to interpret epidemiological models with associated probabilities and uncertainties reflects the climate policy process. But the environmental community needs to be extraordinarily careful with its rhetoric here. Sadly, by the time the pandemic is over, many will have lost loved ones or know someone who has.

“In a crisis, we change our behaviour and adapt to the new circumstances for the greater good of society,” wrote Greta Thunberg recently as she encouraged young activists to join the #ClimateStrikeOnline.

We must, therefore, walk a delicate line between advocating for nature while also remaining sensitive to the suffering of others. If environmentalists aren’t careful, they might be perceived as celebrating a pandemic, even if this is not at all what they intend.

To be sure, some media pundits are unfairly characterising the views of environmentalists about coronavirus. Likewise, fake climate activist social media accounts appear to be spreading pernicious messages such as “coronavirus is the cure, humans are the disease.”

These efforts are likely being led by individuals who want to drive negative public sentiment against climate activists. It is important that environmental groups respond to these tactics. Nevertheless, misinformation campaigns like this are nothing new.

Compassion is at the heart of environmentalism. Please remember this when drawing parallels between climate change and the coronavirus over the coming months.

What environmentalists can control, however, are the ways in which we communicate about climate change and its connections with coronavirus. We can preface discussions about climate change by acknowledging that saving lives takes priority above all other concerns right now.

Before starting climate conversations, we can check that the other person is comfortable discussing the issue at this moment amid other priorities. We can also describe how the entire point of fighting climate change is to make the planet a better, safer, and more just place. We do not seek to reduce GHG emissions irrespective of human suffering.

Climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe did an excellent job striking this balance in a recent interview: “What really matters is the same for all of us. It’s the health and safety of our friends, our family, our loved ones, our communities, our cities, and our country. That’s what the coronavirus pandemic threatens, and that’s exactly what climate change does, too.”

Compassion is at the heart of environmentalism. Please remember this when drawing parallels between climate change and the coronavirus over the coming months.

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