10 Lessons in Crisis Management from COVID-19 to Climate Change

April 23, 2021 • KITTY POLLACK

With the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, each day more Americans have the privilege of standing on what feels like the other side of the pandemic. Yet they retain a sense of what a global crisis looks like in scale and severity as well as a distant memory of normal life. Straddling these two realities, it is our collective responsibility to reflect and redefine our sense of normalcy so that we are better equipped for the next emergency: the rapidly intensifying climate crisis.

Staying within the Paris Climate Agreement’s 2℃ limit (and preferably closer to 1.5℃ trajectory) while working to avoid some of the worst climate impacts, will require a large, coordinated action—a response very different from the one that we have witnessed in the past year. Drawing on lessons of effective crisis management from this past year can help to better prepare us for the significant challenge ahead.

  1. Global coordination is critically important. Much like the spread of COVID-19, greenhouse gas emissions cannot be carefully contained within borders. Similar to the vaccine rollout, solutions to the climate crisis must be global in their scope if they are to be effective. So far, high-income countries representing 19% of adults globally have purchased more than half of all available vaccine doses giving themselves the capacity to vaccinate their populations twice over and leaving doses out of reach of much of the world population. COVAX, an international partnership between the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness, the World Health Organization, and others, is working to narrow this inequity gap. The venture also hopes to mitigate the health and economic risks of this unequal access including a projected $9.2 trillion global economic loss. Just as President Biden joined this COVAX effort, upon taking office he immediately rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement because of the crucial importance of global coordination in mitigating and adapting to the climate crisis. In 2017, the US produced a whopping 13.4% of the greenhouse gases emitted globally. Yet even if our national contributions were to go to zero overnight, continued emissions from other countries would continue to contribute to the rising global temperature. This week, President Biden hosted 40 world leaders in a virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, which will serve as a key milestone towards even greater global coordination in Glasgow this November at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. To limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, it will take collective action. Major economic leaders will have to account for the gaps between their own emissions and those of less developed countries and work to balance this scale without burdening or sacrificing growth.
  2. Racism and inequity are both illuminated and exacerbated by crisis. The vaccine rollout is just one example of the injustices that have been threaded throughout the pandemic. Last December, the CDC reported that Hispanic or Latino, non-Hispanic Black, and non-Hispanic American Indians were dying at disproportionately greater rates from COVID-19 than their white counterparts. Non-Hispanic Black populations made up 34% of COVID-19 deaths in 2020, though they only make up 12% of the total US population. Yet social inequities presented themselves in the health outcomes of racial and ethnic minorities long before the pandemic. A “Fumes Across the Fence-Line” study found that African Americans are exposed to 38% more pollution than their white counterparts and are 75% more likely to live in communities bordered by a plant or factory, among hundreds of other instances of environmental injustice in the US and around the world. The Biden administration has preliminarily set itself up to prioritize an all-of-government approach to environmental and climate justice and should be vigilant to the more significant impact that its lower-income and BIPOC communities will likely experience in the face of intensifying climate impacts. Internationally, US cumulative CO2 emissions since 1750 also dwarf those of other countries, and yet it is countries who are least responsible that feel the most significant climate impacts—a pattern of inequity familiar in light of the uneven suffering of the last year. Global climate crisis management and responses should address the inequities that its impacts make so acutely visible.
  3. Solutions lie in science and innovation, but trust has to be built across the political spectrum. As misinformation about the pandemic was surging last spring, a Johns Hopkins study found that 54% of the public reported trusting science “a lot.” The 46% who trusted science “some,” “not much,” or “not at all,” were also less likely to follow public health guidance around social distancing and other measures. This distrust grew along party lines, with Republicans surveyed less likely to support public health experts guidance. This faltering confidence in leadership among Americans led to the delay in implementation of and uptake of important life-saving measures like mask mandates and contributed to the worsening spread of the virus. This same polarization exists around climate issues, with 2018 data from the Yale Center for Climate Communications showing that 91% of Democrats in the US believe that global warming is happening compared to 52% of Republicans. The development of vaccines was nothing short of a miraculous scientific feat and a testament to the power of innovation and collaboration. But among a large percentage of the public distrust remains high, especially along party lines. This same level of creative innovation is required to address the climate crisis. First, trust needs to be rebuilt around science and science must be detached from politics.
  4. Transparency and strong communication are key to resist misinformation. Through the pandemic, mistrust in science was amplified by leaders’ lack of transparency around the virus, as most notably highlighted domestically by Governor Cuomo’s withholding of data around nursing home deaths in New York state. Transparency and strong communication will be crucial to ensure that the same misinformation that plagued the COVID-19 crisis is absent from climate responses. A Yale Center for Climate Communications study from 2020 found that the majority of the public consuming news reported feeling “not very well informed about global warming,” with less than 20% feeling “very well informed.” This demonstrates the significant opportunity to improve communications. Beyond just an increase, climate communicators have to be vigilant against misinformation from climate deniers aiming to break down trust in science.
  5. Perfect cannot be the enemy of good. During the pandemic, there has not been a silver bullet to deliver us safely out of the crisis, but rather we have had to embrace piecemeal solutions that decrease risk in small ways like wearing masks, social distancing, and proper hand washing. In combination, these can significantly lower risk factors. But even with the rollout of vaccines, these measures remain important as viral mutations spread. While none of our prevention measures have been perfect, that has not stopped us from taking all the precautions we can to protect our communities, a spirit and approach that should be embraced by the environmental community in addressing the climate crisis. Criticisms have already emerged around President Biden’s approach to climate, as progressives have pointed to Biden’s temporary pause on new oil and gas leases on public lands rather than the permanent ban that he promised and his faltering from his commitment of $2 trillion to climate change over four years. Biden’s climate team has defended its approach and has pointed to the critical importance of the early support it has already garnered, which cannot be overlooked in today’s highly partisan environment. Much like with the pandemic, our climate response will have to be patchwork and gather momentum as it goes, but the environmental community should rally its support behind action as a strong starting point, continuing to always push for more without breaking down the partnerships and collaboration that already exists.
  6. Sweeping legislative measures can offer crisis relief. Most recently, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan sent Americans $1,400 direct payments, expanded the child tax credit, provided a significant infusion of money to vaccine distribution, and took immediate action to supplement the other federal aid that has rolled out over the last year. This followed several other relief packages and direct payments that President Trump used to stimulate the economy and offer aid through direct cash payments throughout the pandemic. President Biden’s proposed $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan has the potential to significantly stimulate the economy by rebuilding American infrastructure, and packages climate change within this rebuilding. These large economic measures demonstrate the significant potential for the federal government to provide crisis relief and to funnel money towards climate change via other avenues.
  7. Tapping into the outdoors can offer mental and physical health benefits, and these benefits and spaces should be prioritized. In 2020, 15 national parks set visitation records, with 8.1 million more Americans hiking, 7.9 million more camping, and 3.4 million more fishing than in 2019. Outdoor recreation offered people a welcome escape from the largely isolated, indoor year. This surge in outdoor activity came in stark contrast to the federal actions of the last administration which, among other rollbacks of federal land protection in the nation’s history, dramatically cut the size of Bear Ears and Grand Staircase Monuments. New leadership, including Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, should seize on the appreciation of the outdoors developed in 2020 to manage these spaces for long-term resilience, inclusion, and enjoyment. The climate crisis will only further stress these areas, and if they are to continue to be appreciated and enjoyed, they must be prioritized and preserved.
  8. Disruption can be good. The pandemic forced most Americans to pause their usual routines and adopt habits that are better for the planet. For those privileged with the time and resources to shop at small businesses and access to farmers’ markets, some people took comfort in these outdoor shopping opportunities. They were able to connect more deeply to their communities by supporting businesses that were struggling. Furthermore, with flying, driving, and other carbon-intensive activities slowed significantly by the pandemic’s socio-economic shutdown, global CO2 emissions dropped by 6.4% in 2020. Even with the economy largely shut down for parts of the year, these emissions still only represent a small glimpse of the change necessary to mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis. These emissions are already beginning to return to their dangerous, pre-pandemic levels. It is clear now that there is potential for significant societal shifts to mitigate crises and reductions in carbon-intensive activities and habits, like commuting daily to the office and partaking in extensive business travel, but these changes will have to be significant and extend beyond a single year.
  9. Individual action has its limits. While individuals have had to make personal changes through the pandemic, adjusting their lifestyles and habits, it ultimately took broader state and federal mandates and guidance to instruct and enforce these changes. This is an important lesson to apply to the climate crisis because the burden of action should not fall on individuals’ shoulders. The governments and corporations that have most significantly contributed to the crisis should drive solutions and implement the necessary policy measures to mitigate and adapt to its impacts, rather than continuing to put the onus on individuals. Just as COVID-19 has shown us, individuals have a role to play and aggregated individual action can drive system change, but our collective health is ultimately dependent on broader policies and guidance.
  10. Schools are really important. Let’s use them. The shutdown of in-person instruction during the pandemic made abundantly clear just how important schools are for students’ development and the success of our youngest generation. In the US, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students are more likely to attend schools in poor condition. In the pandemic, the education access gaps between BIPOC and low-income students and more privileged students widened even further as strong internet connections, computer access, stable home environments, and other resources enabled them to better transition to at-home learning. The Aspen K12 Climate Action commission recognizes the pivotal role that our schools play in our communities, and its commission has been working to illuminate the critical role that they have to play in addressing the climate crisis. By transitioning to more sustainable operations; building resilience in preparation for disruptions and negative impacts related to climate change; empowering youth with the knowledge and skills to build a more sustainable world; and elevating the voices and needs of BIPOC communities, schools can be an incredible force in the push for climate solutions and this moment where they are so central in the national consciousness should not be lost.

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