Climate Action

On climate change and coronavirus, the science is clear — so why are we so bad at responding?

Countless news and opinion writers have connected the coronavirus to our climate crisis (so have we: just look here, here, here and here). And understandably so.

Both crises require international cooperation. Both crises require urgent action. And both crises require a drastic departure from business as usual.

One of the most striking similarities between climate change and coronavirus, however, is the role of science — and what happens when we ignore it.

As of Tuesday morning, the coronavirus has infected more than 796,000 people and killed at least 38,500 people. In the United States, at least 3,000 people have died. That number is expected to grow, and the U.S. could see more than 100,000 total deaths from the virus.

As nations prepare for the influx of patients, many people worry about the number of patients overwhelming hospitals. Amid the outbreak, health experts and government officials are suggesting, and lately mandating, social distancing to flatten the curve of the outbreak.

If everything seems so reactionary, that’s because it is. The novel coronavirus seems to have taken us by storm, yet scientists have warned for years that we’re unprepared to handle a pandemic. But instead of boosting pandemic preparation funding, the U.S has dismantled security programs put in place after 2014’s Ebola outbreak.

The parallels between our response to coronavirus and climate change here are notable. For decades, we’ve known — and at least 97 percent of scientists have agreed — that human-caused climate change is heating the planet. Yet many politicians have either actively ignored or attacked the science backing that knowledge.

The rollback of car pollution standards is only one of many recent examples of the U.S. government’s disregard of science.

This anti-science mindset does not bode well for our current pandemic. The skeptical, wait-and-see attitude that is all too familiar in climate discourse is catastrophic in a pandemic.

In times of crisis, the speed and scale of the response can make all the difference in the world. To understand how critical a swift and decisive national response can be in curbing a crisis, one need only look at the recent reports of South Korea’s success: With rapid resource mobilization and aggressive testing, the country has mitigated the spread of the virus. 

The consequences of ignoring science

Science can unite people, but when ignored, it can also divide them.

With the polarization and partisanship that has plagued this pandemic, epidemiologists worry their research won’t be taken seriously.

“This is why epidemiology exists,” writes the Washington Post. “Its practitioners use math and scientific principles to understand disease, project its consequences, and figure out ways to survive and overcome it… And their models allow policymakers to foresee challenges, understand trend lines and make the best decisions for the public good.”

But when science is ignored — or attacked — there’s only so much scientists can do about it (which is why perhaps a growing number of scientists have taken to advocacy).

So, who do we believe? How do we act? Lives literally hang in the balance as we try to answer these questions.

“Perhaps the two most important things a leader can personally provide in the midst of an epidemic are reliable information and a unifying spirit,” writes The Atlantic.

Right now, however, Americans are facing a shortage of both. 

In an otherwise uncertain time, science is a guiding force. And though science can be intimidating, science is necessary for a society to understand and solve crises. In our coronavirus response, policy informed by the latest science could have softened the blow. Instead, we’re playing catch-up.

The same has played out for years for climate change. To take one example: As higher sea levels make sunny flooding a daily occurrence in Florida, officials are left with a difficult choice: adapt with expensive engineering projects, or retreat.

Despite these realities, people are discrediting and distrusting science, as well as the impacts of climate change. And the longer it takes to correct this, the worse off we will all be. 

Science as empowerment

As we struggle with the global crises of climate change and coronavirus, we also struggle with a new, uncertain world — one that no one, scientist or not, was prepared for: social distancing, self-quarantines, the threat of a recession and the fear of losing loved ones. 

We feel lonely. We feel vulnerable. But we’re not completely powerless. 

As we’ve seen, science can be disregarded, or even attacked — but science can also empower us and inform essential and urgent action in an otherwise uncertain time. 

Citizen science has long been a staple of the environmental community, empowering people all around the world while providing researchers with invaluable data. 

This month, Earth Day Network is launching Earth Challenge, a citizen science app that allows us to collectively contribute to overcoming challenges together. Through the Earth Challenge app, anyone with a smartphone can contribute to a global database of information on air quality and plastic pollution. In the coming months, the platform will expand to include data on water quality, insect populations, climate change and food security.

Though we may be physically apart, we all share the planet. And by empowering individuals and working toward a collective goal — to protect the world — we can remind ourselves that we’re not alone in the fight against crises. 

Understanding and trusting science is the foundation of this fight.

Download the Earth Challenge app this month, and on April 22 — the 50th anniversary of Earth Day — join us as we build the largest online mobilization in history.

Photo at top: A subway rider wears a mask and gloves in an otherwise empty subway car during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in New York City. Photo credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider