Over the last few days, the US has implemented a travel ban on an entire continent, countries across Europe are locking down their citizens, and schools and businesses have closed all over the US. Public anxiety is high and it’s been a hell of a week.
Rewind to thirty days ago, my husband had warned me that we would need to stock up on food, supplies, and medicines. I could barely believe that the steps he was taking would be necessary, but I went along with it anyways. Two weeks later, while on a business trip to Houston, I watched from afar as San Francisco preemptively declared a State of Emergency due to the novel coronavirus. I recall one of my colleagues laughing it off and saying “why doesn’t San Francisco deal with its homeless situation first? That’s more urgent than the coronavirus.”
Over the weeks that followed, people around me brushed off COVID-19 as a “hoax,” an “over-reaction,” and a “media induced panic.” People criticized those who were preparing for the worst as “crazy survivalists.” When the market first tanked, people said it was “a good time to buy.” When the tech companies finally told their workers to stay at home, my Instagram feed was full of pictures of friends at concerts, sporting events, and the gym.
Then SXSW and the NBA shut their doors, and Tom Hanks tested positive for COVID-19. I started to hear stories of a friend of a friend who had tested positive for the virus. Italy’s hospitals quickly became overwhelmed with patients. Many people were dying. Within days, the people around me started to work from home and post messages encouraging social isolation on social media. Many people asked why it had taken the government “so long” to respond. COVID-19 had become real.
I work on climate change, and think daily about the very real threats that will change our way of life. For two decades, I have watched world leaders fail to make any meaningful strides to manage the causes of climate change and I have listened to a repetitive public debate about how hard it is to change behavior.
My two year old daughter has already lived through two unprecedented wildfire seasons and one week without power in our home in Northern California. As a family, we are learning to be prepared and resilient for abnormal events. However, it wasn’t until I watched the behavior of those around me, including myself, deny, postpone, and laugh off the threat of COVID-19 that I fully grasped why the world has not acted in a meaningful and concerted way on climate change.
This pandemic has shown me that even when all the facts are there, it isn’t real until it is immediately changing your own way of life. Not until my schools close, my supermarket shelves are empty, and my employer closes its doors do I accept the seriousness of what is in front of me.
The science on climate change is known. There will be more extreme weather events, more disease, and more social discord. Governments have been too slow or unwilling to act because climate change is not an emergency that manifests itself in one peak event that can be resolved with a vaccine or emergency response team. Climate change is a rising cacophony that will overwhelm our society’s capacity to deal with it.
It saddens me as a mother that my daughter’s childhood (and life) will be full of these extreme events. However, the onus will be on each of us as individuals to embrace preparedness and build resiliency into our lives. To do this, we each need to stop thinking that our life can’t be anything different than our on-demand normal. Indeed, it already is not.
It has only taken a few weeks for people all over the world to radically change their behavior as governments declared national emergencies for the coronavirus. Business trips were moved to video calls. Commutes were replaced with home offices. Perhaps we have learned that large-scale behavior change, when it is socially accepted and encouraged by government direction, is possible and can happen very quickly.
Managing climate change requires similar aggressive and speedy actions. Perhaps we will look back at the COVID-19 pandemic as that moment of awakening when we realized that it is possible to slow our pace of life, change our routines, and alter our behavior for a larger common good.