What this crisis can tell us about the climate crisis

We are learning lessons from the pandemic that we can bring to the climate fight. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

It’s been seven weeks of stay at home. For many of us, it’s been hard economically, emotionally and logistically, and it’s not over. But as we begin to turn the dial toward reopening, it’s a good time to take stock. What have we learned about ourselves as Minnesotans, about how we respond to crises and about how we might respond to a slower moving crisis — like climate change?

First, during COVID, we’re learning more about which Minnesotans are most at-risk. Who’s getting sick?  Black Minnesotans, who comprise 6% of the population but make up 16% of the confirmed cases. Latinos are 5% of Minnesotans; they are 14% of COVID cases.  

Who’s losing their job? Women comprise 56% of applicants for unemployment benefits.  

Where are people getting sick?  At hospitals, in meatpacking plants and in congregate living facilities, like prisons and nursing homes. Who’s dying? Older Minnesotans.

(Note: all of these data are emerging and incomplete. Without widespread testing and excess death reports, we won’t see the full picture for months.)

Second, we’re learning more about disinformation efforts. Increasingly, Minnesotans’ media ecosystems are fragmented, nationalized and ideologically self-reinforcing. President Donald Trump is our principal COVID-denier. His regular disinformation efforts are amplified by national right-wing media outlets, then chopped up and shared — both organically and professionally — on social media. COVID is a hoax. COVID isn’t dangerous. COVID can be fixed with a miracle cure. COVID is Chinese.  

Most conservatives understand that Trump is frequently disingenuous, or outright dishonest.  Despite their skepticism and principled caution about the power of government, most conservatives still support widespread, but measured public health interventions. For a small but motivated faction, however, politics is jocks vs. nerds, and they’re not getting stuffed in any lockers.

Third, we’re learning about Minnesotans’ capacity to care for each other. Spend a minute thinking about this: In a matter of weeks, we changed how we work, drive, shop and socialize to protect people we’ll never meet.  We socially distance to protect care providers, first responders, retail workers, the elderly and the immunocompromised. It’s both astonishing and ordinary. When asked to do simple things to protect one another, the vast majority of us said ‘Yes.’  And months in, the vast majority of us across the political spectrum are still saying “Yes.”

Now, what light does this shed on our climate crisis?  

Forget about polar bears and carbon emissions. Think about precarious people and places. Climate change is a crisis accelerant. The earth will be fine — but people and communities are at risk, and COVID is showing us who. Granted, the risks of floods and urban heat islands are different than the risks of a viral pandemic, but the factors that shape our adaptive capacity are the same. Our living situations, age, race, immigration status, wealth and income shape our capacity for resilience — both COVID resilience and climate resilience.

Next, COVID deniers are using the architecture that climate deniers built. It’s not a similar disinformation architecture; it’s the same disinformation architecture. It’s the same think tanks, media and political operations. It’s the same politicians. State Sen. Scott Jensen is a clear example. The senator that voted to deny that human activity is ‘a key cause’ of climate change has also seeded COVID conspiracy theories on Laura Ingraham’s show — three times. The disinformation techniques that the fossil fuel industry innovated over the last twenty years are now a leading crisis-response strategy for Minnesota’s right wing.

Fortunately, most Minnesotans aren’t falling for it. If anything, COVID is showing us that we’ve underestimated our capacity for acting together on big challenges. And for this, the climate movement itself bears some responsibility. At times, we downplay what we need to do to create climate solutions at the scale of the problem we face.

Yes, some of our solutions are simple. New renewable energy sources, like wind and solar, are consistently cost-competitive with or outright cheaper than coal and natural gas.Our electricity bills go down as we make our homes more energy efficient. Having more transportation options —like electric vehicles and public transit — literally means we will all have more transportation options, and be better connected as a state.

But maybe the “it-won’t-be-too-inconvenient” argument for climate action underestimates who we are. Maybe we’ll emerge from COVID with a more visceral understanding that our lives are connected.  Maybe what we’re learning tangibly, vividly in early 2020 is that most of us are willing to be part of something that’s bigger than ourselves.

At a human-scale of time, COVID has been a fast crisis. When presented with tangible evidence, clear consequences and credible political leadership, people and governments responded: together, intentionally, and imperfectly, yes, but at an international scale. 

Maybe we could just as capably respond to our slower crises as well. We just changed how we live to protect our elders and our care providers. We could do the same for our kids and those living harm’s way: in flood plains, in drought and fire-prone areas and in polluted neighborhoods.  

COVID has revealed a lot about Minnesotans. One lesson: most of us, most of the time, are more capable and more resilient than our politics-as-usual permits.