Warnings about the crisis went unheeded. Scientists were ignored and called doomsayers. The press accounts were labeled fake news and brushed aside. “The cure would be worse than the illness” went the argument. Government watchdogs saw their budgets gutted. Lawmakers misled the country and did more harm then good. We were told by leaders that “everything was under control” or that the worry was nothing more than “a hoax.”
They were all wrong.
In recent weeks, as the coronavirus spread inexorably across the world, destabilizing countries, causing misery, heartbreak and shattering even the most robust economies, most governments were found unprepared and quickly overwhelmed. The world changed forever in a matter of days.
Instead of readiness and competence, the Trump administration had disbanded the global pandemic team at the National Security Council, and when face to face with the long-predicted crisis, the president proceeded to try and lie, bluster, and bluff his way through the threat. Then lots of people began to die.
We have seen this horror movie before. The mishandling of the coronavirus has terrifying parallels to the climate crisis. It’s difficult to think about the other civilizational calamity on our doorstep. It’s much easier to be consumed by what’s happening right now, or better yet to hunker down and binge watch your favorite shows and hope the plague passes over. But we cannot. Both tests call for innovation and a collective response. During the pandemic, we have witnessed failures of leadership but also incredible bravery, resolve, sacrifice, and innovation. That is the blueprint for our future.
The world is collectively enduring a terrible test, and none of us will be the same after this. But unlike the climate crisis, this pandemic will end. In about a year and half, by most estimates, we will know the full extent of the destruction of the coronavirus. We won’t all take the same lessons from it, of course, especially considering our polarized politics, but hopefully enough people will learn enough of the right lessons. Or at least gain some visceral understanding that we are all connected, that our choices affect other people. And that is exactly what’s needed in a warming world.
We have all become witnesses to the climate crisis in action in the past few years. “Storms of the century” have ravaged New York, Puerto Rico, Florida, and Texas. Wildfires in California have destroyed entire towns in minutes. Historic floods crippled the Midwest. Millions of people will become climate refugees in the coming decades, and an untold number have already been displaced.
For decades, scientists warned of the perils of climate change and yet we didn’t act. Worse, we doubled down on our addiction to fossil fuels as the industry bought our politicians and local governments. “Drill, baby drill” became a rallying cry when America could have led the world in shifting toward renewable energy sources. Instead, there was empty rhetoric and disinformation campaigns led by an industry bent on extracting every last dime from the earth.
In the face of the coronavirus and the climate crisis, any ideology that worships profit above all else, that trumpets individualism above the common good every single time, is simply a roadmap to self-immolation. As Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told Rolling Stone’s Tessa Stuart, “It’s not just about the science — it’s about the systems that protect all of the power that goes into defying the science.”
The coming weeks are going to lay bare the price of an anti-science, anti-government, anti-reality approach, in a most painful way. The U.S. now has more recorded cases than any other country, probably in no small part because of the fend-for-yourselves non-leadership from Trump, who wants to reopen the country by Easter, a heartless and reckless calculation, and told governors they were on their own for essential medical supplies — equipment that will save lives and protect health care workers who are putting everything on the line for us. But this failure is not just his. He says and does what he thinks will please his base; he only ever cares about getting good poll numbers. That the lies and pettiness work for him (somehow he’s at a 60 percent approval rating for his handling of the crisis) is a reflection of how poorly our country is adapting to the emerging threats and tectonic shifts of the 21st century so far.
But the challenges we face now require that we care about one another. There were small glimmers of hope last week that this might be sinking in for some people in Washington. Congress members seemed to understand that radical action was needed, that they had no choice but to act quickly to limit human suffering. Maybe some of their eyes will be opened wide enough to see the parallels with climate. Maybe they won’t. Either way, there’s work to do.
The last thing you want to read about right now is more doom-filled climate predictions. All the more reason to start thinking of the climate story as more than one of just doom – but as one of innovation and ingenuity, compassion and courage. This week and next, Rolling Stone is releasing its special issue on the climate, featuring Greta Thunberg on the cover. In it you’ll hear from scientists and activists and ordinary people, sharing their grief and their hopes and their hard work on issues such as the state of the oceans, solar power, and the fate of biodiversity. We will not stop covering the climate crisis. We’re not going to look away. There is still time to hold back the worst of the coming tide. Despite likely having contracted the virus herself, Greta hasn’t stopped. She’s continuing her Friday for Future as a “digital strike” until it’s safe to take to the streets again. And we have no doubt she will.