Living in a Science Fiction Movie: Covid-19’s Preview of Climate Change

San Francisco and Midday on 9/11/2020 Credit: John McKee

The Covid Pandemic of 2020 is both a tragedy of its own and also an ominous preview to that other crisis unfolding around us with increasing speed, humanity’s unprecedented alteration of the Earth’s climate. In the three decades since the first serious warnings about climate change, our experiences of it have evolved. First came the theory and then the scientific confirmation of the theory. Then came the politicization of the crisis, the denials of the science, and our sputtering global response. Now we are deep into the tragic first impacts. The coronavirus, however, has now given us one more addition to the list — humanity’s first real global taste of what it feels like to have our lives turned into a science fiction movie.

Welcome to Life in a Science Fiction Movie

Science fiction is a good reference point for the events of 2020. As the pandemic began its spread at the year’s beginning, what big cities across the world most began to resemble were scenes from the 1950s science fiction classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still. The movie, however, had the advantage of being fictional.

The pandemic also happens to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of science fiction’s most prolific masters, Isaac Asimov. A physician and a serious scientist, Asimov once observed that science fiction and politics share a common mission. Both, he said, are about looking into the future and thinking about how we might deal with the challenges that await us. Covid-19, as science fiction come to life, has given us a look at how humanity actually deals with a planetwide crisis, and it offers us lessons about how we are likely to deal with that far larger planetary crisis still to come.

For most of us, our first real awakening to Covid-19 came with the images from Wuhan, a city of 11 million people brought to a standstill of wide empty streets. In the U.S. we looked at these pictures with the naïve belief that it could never happen here, until it did, just weeks, from Fifth Avenue in New York to Market Street in San Francisco. Wuhan, as it turns out, was our prologue to the pandemic.

What hit us most however, in those first few weeks, was a shared global experience of fear. We feared that people we loved would get very sick, or that we would. We feared that our economic lives were collapsing — our jobs, our businesses, our retirement savings. This was not an intellectual experience; it was felt, and it was near universal. Suddenly everyone, everywhere in the world was in the path of the same giant force of nature that we did not control. My neighbors here in western New York, my family in California, my friends in Bolivia, Thailand, South Africa, and beyond — we were all speaking the same new worried language of underlying conditions, social distancing, first symptoms, and ventilator shortages.

Fear is a useful tool. It has a unique power to focus the mind. Even when we were just primitives, fear alerted us to threats, and in our better moments it can ignite us into intelligent action (and in our worse moments, unfortunately, great stupidities). In the case of Covid-19, despite many missteps, our collective fear has provoked humanity into a collective response that has been breathtaking in its swiftness and reach. We have been witness to an unprecedented worldwide pivot to protect public health.

To be honest, a similar bout of collective fear about climate change would do humanity some good right now, if it would similarly push us into action. But instead we have struggled with decades of distraction and a tepid, inadequate response. There is a reason for this difference. The pandemic’s sudden arrival and its direct impacts on people’s lives gave it the power of undeniability. Deaths are deaths. Sirens in the night are sirens in the night. Climate change, on the other hand, comes less suddenly and is cloaked in the disguise of separate events — a record heatwave on one side of the planet, record flooding on the other. Each can be ignored unless it affects us personally. To absorb the full urgency of the climate crisis we must connect the dots and most people are just too absorbed in their lives up-close to connect dots that spread across an entire planet.

In the case of Covid-19, it is striking how quickly humanity has adjusted to a radical new pandemic normal — children going to school in their bedrooms and people wandering grocery aisles in masks. Imagine how all this would have looked to our 2019 selves. I think we have coped with all this only because we still think of it as temporary. We think of the pandemic as something with a beginning, a middle, and an end. If we thought our experiences of 2020 were actually just the opening act of something much longer-term, or even permanent, we might well collectively lose it altogether.

Climate change will not be so generous.

Despite our focus in 2020 on a pandemic, protests, and politics, climate change has not slept. This summer it awoke with new ferocity in the U.S., with the apocalyptic wildfires on the west coast and an onslaught of so many relentless Gulf Coast hurricanes that the National Weather Service is about to run out of names to give them.

But here is where the pandemic and climate change part ways. The destructive impacts of an altered atmosphere do not have a beginning, middle, and end. The projections for monster fires and killer hurricanes do not lie on a pandemic’s comforting bell curve. They climb ever upward for the rest of our lives, and the lives of our children. In a pandemic that is still only months long, we have already seen a global surge in anxiety, depression and hopelessness. How will humanity react as we absorb the reality that, with climate change, we are just at the start of a crisis far worse and which has no visible end?

Ever-So-Much-More-So Unequal

One reaction that we can count on, as evidenced by our experience with the pandemic, is that everyone who can will use every scrap of advantage they have to shield themselves and their families from the worst. As with Covid-19, the weight of climate change will fall far harder on some people than others.

When I was a boy, one of the books I read over and over again from our local public library was about a young fellow named Homer Price, who lived in an early 1950s version of small town middle America. In the story I remember best, a slick talking salesman came to town bearing bottles of an invisible liquid which he branded, ‘Ever-So-Much More-So’. The magic of this product was that if you poured it on anything, it would take its qualities and amplify them. A tasty donut would become ever-so-much-more-so tasty. A squeaky door would become ever-so-much-more-so squeaky. It was of course, not real.

For a real version of ‘Ever So Much More So’ we can look to the ways that the coronavirus has taken all the inequalities around us — racial, economic, and others — and amplified them. If you are black in the U.S. you are more than twice as likely than a white person to get Covid-19 and more than twice as likely to die from it. Latinos and Native Americans are also at higher risk. Children of color are more likely than white children to get sick and to die.

The reason for these inequalities is not because the virus has some perverse genetic pre-disposition toward certain skin colors. It is because we operate in an economic system that forces people of color and low-income people into the front lines of exposure. While some people get to work from a comfortable home and shop via Amazon delivery, others are forced by economics to work ‘essential jobs’ like an 8-hour shift at McDonalds wearing a mask. Some people get around in the safety of their car. Others still crowd into subway trains and buses. People of color and the poor in the U.S. are also less likely to get quickly tested, or quickly treated if they become sick. They are also more likely to have the economic bottom fall out from under them. As it turns out, in a crisis the inequalities between us become ever-so-much-more-so deadly.

The inequalities between nations are more haunting still. Our family lives daily with the comparison between our pandemic experience here in the U.S. versus that of our friends in Bolivia, where we lived for nineteen years. It is a gap so wide as to almost be another planet. Here people complain that they have to wear a mask to go to Walmart. In Bolivia people die at the doors of hospitals, turned away from a health system on the verge of collapse. In the U.S. the early calamity of Covid-19 was a run on toilet paper. In Cochabamba, the city where we used to live, families have had to carry the bodies of their dead parents and grandparents into the street because funeral services and cemeteries stopped functioning as normal.

As the impacts of climate change accelerate, the inequalities between us really will leave us living on different planets. In the U.S., those who can migrate away from fires and hurricanes will do so and the poorest will be left to bear the brunt. When Cape Town, a city of four million, finally runs out of water, the privileged will find a way to keep it running from the tap and the rest will be left to forage for it. When a whole swath of the Persian Gulf is rendered uninhabitable outside because of heat and humidity, those with the means will live their lives in safely air conditioned buildings and those who can’t will flee by the millions. So will hundreds of thousands facing drought and crop failure in Central America. These are the climate realities and inequalities coming our way.

A few years ago I traveled to the Netherlands to help UNICEF develop its campaign to take in more child refugees fleeing war-torn Syria. On the television one night I saw a different prologue, in a news interview with a burly Hungarian policeman. He was talking about the onslaught of desperate families breaking through the razor wire fence just behind him, erected at the country’s border with Serbia. “There are too many of them,” he said. “We either have to let them in or shoot them, and we aren’t going to shoot them.”

As I watched these scenes of chaos, I realized that one day this would change. The United Nations estimates that there were 26 million refugees in the world as 2020 began, fueled by armed conflicts like that in Syria and street violence and poverty in places like Honduras and Guatemala. Just those numbers were high enough to turn politics on its head in much of liberal western Europe and help fuel Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant path to power in the U.S.

United Nations projections for the number of refugees that may be forced on the move by the climate crisis by 2050 are as high as one billion people, an unfathomable mass movement of the desperate. It is not hard to imagine that in thirty years’ time, when we are looking at refugee waves that enormous, that our national debates will no longer be whether to build walls at our borders, but whether to add gun turrets on top of them. It is terrifyingly easy to imagine a dark global turn to strongmen pledging to keep us safe from the hoards.

Three Key Lessons for Our Work Against Climate Change

These are the scenarios that make a good many of people deeply pessimistic about humanity’s future. But as long as we are being treated to the experience of living in a global science fiction movie, we might as well follow-the rule book of any sober-minded science fiction hero: Don’t waste time lamenting what you can’t change, look at what you have to work with, and take action. And as it turns out, the pandemic has given us a better sense of what we need to do.

One thing that the pandemic has shown us is that, when the shit hits the fan, many people develop a much higher interest in real science and hard fact. While we have certainly suffered no shortage of conspiracies and kooks, we have also witnessed a remarkable public willingness to heed the guidance of serious experts. In the pandemic, the guidance that counted (wear a mask, wash your hands, keep your distance) felt more like getting advice from your doctor than being on the receiving end of a political pitch.

There may be a useful reflection in that for the climate action movement. The most visible voices in that movement today are not scientists. They are activists, politicians, writers, and actors. To be sure, many of them are immensely knowledgeable and deeply inspiring to the already convinced, and inspiration is valuable. But if our work ahead is also to rouse the distracted and convince the doubtful, what we might need is an army of climate Anthony Faucis and a commitment to put them up front more often.

A second thing that Covid-19 has given us is an important lesson about the politics of disrupting people’s lives in the name of the greater good. As we began shutting down parts of the U.S. economy earlier this year to slow the spread of the virus, some people’s lives were disrupted far more than others. Amazon prospered, as did people who move information around for a living. Barbers, waiters, and flight attendants were thrown out of work altogether. The disruptions were also unequal and sparked a backlash that we cannot ignore.

When armed protesters entered the Michigan state capitol demanding an end to the shutdown, like many others, I quickly dismissed them as nut cases. Then a woman I know, a common sense farmer, reminded me, “Some folks are desperate right now, and they are going to do desperate things.” This was not just a U.S. phenomenon. In the small Bolivian town where my eldest daughter was born, the sellers in the local market stoned local officials who tried to shut it down to prevent the spread of the virus. The stone throwers demanded to know how officials expected them to feed their families. I don’t support either armed protests in capitols or stoning public officials, but I hear the desperation.

Action on climate change will also cause large disruptions in the name of the greater good, and we too easily ignore those on the blunt end of those changes. Earlier this year, environmental groups in New York State celebrated what they declared to be a huge victory, the closure of the state’s last coal-fired electricity plant near here in the small town of Somerset. But for the community, that closure meant lost jobs and a gaping cut in revenues for local schools and services. It meant real pain.

When the New York Times covered the plant closure in March, most of the commenters on the paper’s Web site belittled the price being paid by the community. “Change must happen and people will find a way,” wrote one. Smugly dismissing the impact on those trampled by change does not make things move faster, it creates a backlash. We saw this in France with the giant ‘yellow vest’ movement of the disgruntled. I see it here where the plant’s closure has left people with a bad taste for climate science and sustainable energy and has helped seed wide community opposition against solar projects. Dealing with the needs of those whose lives are disrupted by action on climate can’t be symbolic or an afterthought. It has to be a core part of the strategy.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also given us a painful worldwide test of the ties that bind humanity together in the face of crisis, and the results have been markedly mixed. At a global level, mostly what we’ve seen is a solid dose of every-nation-for-itself, marked by closed borders, flight bans, and competition to secure testing kits and protective gear. Within nations it turns out that a crisis is a really good time to have an effective leader and a really miserable time to have a bad one. President Trump, whose position evolved from ‘not to worry’ to ‘not my fault’ only succeeded in putting America first in our count of Covid-19 cases and deaths. Many longed for the competence of leaders like New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern or Germany’s Angela Merkel. Similarly, at a state level, New Yorkers seemed pleased with Governor Cuomo’s serious handling of the early surge. Floridians seemed not so happy about Governor DeSantis’s cheerful early dismissals of the pandemic’s threat. In the face of the climate crisis, serious leadership will matter even more.

To the extent, however, that we have genuinely come together in the face of crisis, it has been in our communities. Here is where we fed and thanked our health workers, donated to food banks, ran errands for those most at risk, supported local businesses, and for the most part put on masks. And in a world where we all become strangely separated, it is in our communities that we found ways to connect, from nightly singing on city balconies to child-drawn rainbows hung in small town windows. But the crisis of climate change will not be handled just with local volunteerism and good feeling. It requires serious worldwide policy and action and somehow we will need to root that in our communities, where we still seem willing to talk to each other.

There is one more way in which the pandemic and climate change are linked, one not much talked about. Our response to both hinges on the willingness of one generation to sacrifice on behalf of another.

In the U.S., eighty percent of all Covid-19 deaths have been among people 65 and older, and the young have been asked to make very big sacrifices in order to save the old. High school students sacrificed their glittered proms and proud graduations. Young children used to being boisterous together in classrooms have been reduced to staring at screens at home, alone. Twenty-somethings have given up joyful nights at parties. Young parents have seen their children’s playgrounds blocked off with yellow emergency tape. On the other hand, our inaction on climate change over the past three decades has been marked by the unwillingness of the not so young to make similar serious sacrifices to keep our children from having to live through planetary disaster.

In the last week of February, on the eve of the pandemic’s sweep into the U.S., our second granddaughter, Elena, was born. She is a tiny creature with a head of thick dark hair, who lives with her parents and her glorious three-year-old sister, Bella, just across the street from us. To be a grandparent means to be in love with small people who will live most of their lives in a time when we will not be around, but that we try to imagine. To be a grandparent in the era of climate change is to live in a state of dread of what we have left behind for them. When I listen to projections about even more sprawling fires, more killer storms, and a sea of climate refugees, I measure these by: That’s when they will be in high school. That’s the age when they might be having their own children. That’s when they might be grandparents. It is heartbreaking to imagine what the world will be like around them as they reach these milestones I won’t see.

In The Day the Earth Stood Still (both the 1951 original and 2008 remake) the Earth is visited by a traveler from an advanced civilization, who shuts down the world to get our attention and demand that we stop our foolish and violent ways. In the current real-life science fiction movie called Covid-19, a virus from a bat did that for us and we have been shown, at great cost, what it feels like to live in a planetary crisis we do not control. As we head now into the far more dangerous sequel called Climate Change, there is no one coming from another planet to save us. The intelligent beings this time will need to be us. All we need to do is agree that nothing else around us matters more than protecting the future, and the people we love who will live in it.

A political activist for more than 40 years, founder and executive director of the Democracy Center. Back in the US after 19 years in Bolivia. A dad, a grandpa.

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