What the Fight Against Climate Change Can Learn From COVID-19

Over 220,000 Americans have lost their lives to COVID-19. Worldwide, the death toll has surpassed a million. Shuttered economies, overwhelmed medical systems, and uncertain job prospects are becoming an unfortunate reality. Failure on the part of our leaders; the American ideal of stubbornness; and the societal resistance to public safety measures that ostensibly limit individual freedoms have all been attributed as causes for America’s failure to contain the virus. Nonetheless, the nation’s failed response has cost us lives, jobs, and trust in one another. It is difficult to look past the day-to-day woes of 2020 amid COVID-19, but these tragedies will not disappear when the pandemic is over. They offer a glimpse of the future when these same problems manifest themselves in a different, more massive crisis: climate change. We must learn from our mistakes in responding to COVID-19 if we want to maintain a livable planet for future generations.

The United States of America has more cases and deaths of COVID-19 than any country in the world. This statistic cannot be taken lightly. While there are certainly instances of bad luck and chance that influenced the pandemic’s trajectory in the U.S, there are critical policy failures on the state and national levels, as well as partisanship problems that have resulted in the current situation.

For one, the Trump administration described the federal government as having a “back-up” role to states. Federalism has always played a role in American decision-making. However, the government has never reacted to a crisis of this magnitude with this level of incoordination. It left states to fend for themselves when acquiring necessary medical expertise, equipment, and personnel. States responded to this decentralized system with drastically varied responses. States have taken contrasting measures in implementing mask mandates, stay at home lockdowns, and travel restrictions in the past few months. This variation seems understandable initially, but the lack of communication between states resulted in high interstate spread levels. Studies suggest that if states with lenient policies tightened their restrictions earlier, the spillover of cases into other states would have dramatically decreased. In other words, if states instead took similar, stricter approaches to enforce common-sense measures, thousands of lives would have been saved.  

The pandemic also revealed the scarring partisanship between Democrats and Republicans. For example, Republican leaders at the state level repeatedly chose to cut restrictions and open more sectors of the economy, despite many Democratic local leaders’ objections. Many Democratic lawmakers continue to urge cities and counties to close schools and businesses, which has been met with great resistance from Republicans. Both of these examples demonstrate that each party’s politics sometimes influence their COVID-19 policies more than science. In Congress, months have passed without a significant spending bill to shore up the economy. Bills have been passed in the House (by Democrats) and Senate (by Republicans). However, both chambers have yet to agree on a comprehensive COVID-19 bill to follow the CARES Act.

The weak response to COVID-19 is alarming, but it does not mean that bipartisan agreements and federal and local partnerships are impossible. When this crisis first emerged in February, politicians had no choice but to sacrifice ideological ties in order to protect the American people. This is demonstrated by the over $2 trillion CARES Act signed into law in March, which provided much-needed aid to countless small businesses and workers that lost revenue and jobs from the pandemic. Additionally, the federal government developed manufacturing relationships with companies ranging from GM and Ford to Moderna and Johnson and Johnson. These are just a few examples suggesting that a robust and unified response to a crisis is possible.

It may first seem like a stretch to connect a pandemic with a changing climate. One is caused by something too small to see, and the other involves a process too large to conceptualize. However, the pandemic embodies many of the political problems blocking climate action today and provides hope on what decisive climate action could look like.

Instead of debating climate change solutions, we continue to debate whether we can trust science. Instead of focusing on building an economically and environmentally sustainable future, we fixate on climate change action being a zero-sum game between the environment and the economy. As a result, the U.S. has pulled out of the Paris Accords, cut back environmental regulations, and promoted the fossil fuel industry with subsidies and bailouts

As of 2020, a record high of 78% percent of Democrats rated climate change as a “top policy priority”. For the Republicans, that number is a mere 21%. Similar to COVID-19, political parties strongly disagree on the severity of the crisis and the necessary actions to be taken. This divide applies to local and state levels too. While some states are engaging in ambitious climate goals to reduce emissions and transition to renewable energy, other states are doubling down on efforts to protect the fossil fuel industry. For one, the Trump administration has repeatedly clashed with California over its refusal to follow federal government environmental regulation rollbacks. Climate change plans vary widely from city to city and further the partisanship between blue cities and red states. 

However, there is room for hope. More young Republicans frame climate change as a priority issue for conservatives every year. There is a consensus among conservative and liberal economists to implement a carbon tax in the U.S. Momentum is building. Whether in presidential debates or news coverage, climate change has become a widely discussed topic.

The climate movement must learn from the pandemic. The only way to respond to a crisis mired with such partisanship and disagreement is to unify through a crisis. It may be the California wildfires, Louisiana hurricanes, or Midwest floods, but something has to give. We are at a breaking point where the costs of climate change are too significant to bear. In both crises, people are dying, suffering, and losing everything. If we can rally around fighting COVID-19, we can stand up to climate change.

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