Countries that responded quickly and aggressively to the coronavirus have had impressive success in containing it. Others, like the U.S., that minimized the hazard, or waited to respond, face ongoing dangers.
Today, all attention is on the virus. But we cannot afford to ignore another deadly threat that is upon us: the climate crisis. Time is of the essence with the climate, just as with the pandemic. Every day that we delay in taking bold action increases the seriousness of the suffering that will result. Why have nations risen to the challenge of the coronavirus so quickly, while the far more dangerous threat of climate change has failed to inspire the bold response it demands?
Already we face spiraling dangers from catastrophic fires, droughts, floods, storms, excessive heat, sea level rise and huge economic losses. There will be unprecedented mass migrations and violent conflicts following global climate disruptions. On our current trajectory, our world will be terribly changed: scarred and diminished and made far less habitable. And unlike the effects of the virus, which should lessen before too many months pass, the effects of climate change will be with us for centuries, likely growing worse with time. Even now, millions die annually just from pollution caused by burning fossil fuels, utterly dwarfing even worst-case projections of deaths from the virus.
Why haven’t we taken bold action on the climate, changing course before it is too late? Our brains simply are not wired to engage with a danger that is not acutely present. We are activated by threats that could come for us tomorrow or next week, like this virus, much more than we are moved by an inestimably greater danger that moves toward us, inexorably, but at a slower pace. We are not built to do battle with a threat (like the climate crisis) that is so vast and pervasive that it seems almost abstract; it is easier to mobilize when the enemy is localized (like a virus) and the methods of resistance are simple, obvious, and personal.
But humanity shows its greatness most when it refuses to be bound by what we were “wired” to do, when we stretch beyond the limitations of our evolutionary heritage and embrace higher levels of moral urgency, responsibility and resolve. We have done this before, in solidarity, in fights for rights and justice and health all over the globe. Even as we fight this virus now, we must not allow ourselves to be distracted. We must show our true greatness by engaging the biggest fight of our lives — the climate crisis — where the fate of our future hangs fully in the balance.
Thom Krystofiak is co-founder of Climate Action Iowa. With degrees from Harvard and Cambridge University, he is a writer and software engineer living in Fairfield.