PREPARE FOR TOMORROW: Coronavirus response proves the world can act on climate change

Note to Reader;

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a life-altering moment for every British Columbian. Because the threat to health and life demands it, minds are suddenly open to doing things differently. Below, the Partnership for Water Sustainability features an article written by two McGill University professors – Eric Galbraith of the Earth System Science department, and Ross Otto of the Psychology department. They assert that the coronavirus response proves the world can act on climate change.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. All attention is currently focussed on winning the war against COVID-19. Yet we must also keep our eyes on what is over the horizon.
“When the dust of COVID-19 settles, we should look back at this moment as proof that our societies are not enslaved to fate, and find strength in the demonstrated ability of modern societies to react to global emergencies,” conclude Galbraith and Otto in their call to action.

British Columbia health care professionals are on the front-line in the war against the COVID-19 virus (Photo Crediit: Laurel Stephens)

“Policy changes required to mitigate climate change appear far less disruptive — economically, socially and culturally — than the measures being taken right now to tackle COVID-19,” say Eric Galbraith and Ross Otto of McGill University

“I have worked on climate change including climate models, as well as on oceanography, biogeochemistry, ecology and fisheries, mostly using Earth system computer models and global datasets,” states Eric Galbraith, Professor of Earth System Science at McGill University.

“My current work focuses on integrating the global human system into the same framework, in order to be able to predict the interactive behaviour of human and non-human parts of the planet.”

“Why do we sometimes rely on slow, deliberative, and effortful choices, while at other times we rely on fast, habitual, and reflexive choice? On one hand, making the best possible decision is effortful and time-consuming, but on the other hand, the benefits resulting from deliberative behavior may be small relative to its cost,”  continues Ross Otto, Assistant Professor of Psychology at McGill University.

“My research investigates why we sometimes rely on slow and effortful choices, while at other times we rely on fast and reflexive choice. For example, how does an individual’s reliance upon reflective versus reflexive choice vary situationally based on factors like availability of cognitive resources, stress, time pressure, or perceived costs and benefits?

“Why might individuals differ, dispositionally, in their reliance upon reflective versus reflexive choices? To answer these questions, we use a combination of computational, behavioral, and psychophysiological, and neuroimaging techniques.”

Daily briefings by Health Minister Adrian Dix (L), Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry (centre) and Sign Language Interpreter Nigel Howard have become “must watch” television in British Columbia..Dr. Henry has a calming and reassurance presence. Dix and Henry have constantly stressed the need for 100% commitment by all British Columbians to win the war against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why do government responses to COVID-19 and climate change differ so dramatically?

“In the past few weeks, governments around the world have enacted dramatic measures to mitigate the threat of COVID-19,” stated Eric Galbraith and Ross Otto.

“It’s too soon to know whether these measures will prove too little to limit mass mortality, or so extreme that they set off economic catastrophe. But what is absolutely clear is that the pandemic response is in stark contrast to the lack of effective action on climate change, despite a number of similarities between the two threats.”

“The alarms for both COVID-19 and climate change were sounded by experts, well in advance of visible crises. It is easy to forget, but at the time of this writing, the total deaths from COVID-19 are less than 9,000 — it is the terrifying computer model predictions of much larger numbers that have alerted governments to the need for swift action, despite the disruption this is causing to everyday life.”

“Yet computer models of climate change also predict a steady march of increasing deaths, surpassing 250,000 people per year within two decades from now.”

“As scientists who have studied climate change and the psychology of decision-making, we find ourselves asking: Why do the government responses to COVID-19 and climate change — which both require making difficult decisions to avert future disasters — differ so dramatically? We suggest four important reasons.”

IMPACT OF A CHANGING CLIMATE: In this December 2019 photo, firefighters battle a bushfire in Australia. Dan Himbrechts/AAP Images via AP

Reason #1 – Instinctive Fear

“First, COVID-19 is deadly in a way that is frightening on an instinctive, personal level. People react strongly to mortal threats, and although the virus appears to have much lower mortality for otherwise healthy people under 60, those statistics do not quell universal personal safety fears,” wrote Eric Galbraith and Ross Otto in their article for The Conversation.

“The rapid bombardment of vivid detail we receive about infections, overburdened hospitals and deaths further amplifies our personal assessment of risk. Climate change has the potential to end up killing more people than COVID-19 in the long run, but the deaths are one step removed from carbon emissions, appearing instead as an increased frequency of ‘natural disasters.

“And the slow timescale of climate change — an incremental ratcheting up of global temperatures — allows our expectations to continually adjust as the situation gradually worsens. The abstract connections between emissions and these mortal dangers prevents global climate change from achieving the urgency that the virus has, making everyone more reluctant to accept difficult policy choices.”

Reason #2 – Fast-Moving Threat

“Second, COVID-19 is a new threat that exploded into the global consciousness with obvious urgency while climate change has been on the radar for decades.

“The consequences of inaction on COVID-19 loom on a timescale of weeks rather than decades away for climate change — this is not a problem for future generations, but for everyone living now. The slow, creeping awareness of the climate change threat also allowed the parallel development of professional skeptics, funded by the fossil fuel industry, who were amazingly effective at sowing doubt on the science.

“There was no time for vested interests to mount similar resistance to COVID-19 policy, so governments seem to be acting on the advice of health professionals for the public good.”

Reason #3 – Clear Strategies

“Third, officials from groups like the World Health Organization presented coherent and immediately actionable paths to slowing the spread of COVID-19. Governments were given a straightforward priority list of compelling their citizens to wash more, stop touching, reduce travel and go into some degree of isolation.

“In contrast, the space of possible solutions to climate change is bewilderingly complex, and these solutions touch on nearly all aspects of modern life.

“Even experts don’t agree on exactly what is the best way to bring down carbon emissions while minimizing economic damage. This lack of clarity has contributed to confusion and decision paralysis on the part of policymakers.”

Reason #4 – Ability for Nations to Go It Alone

“And, while responses to COVID-19 require close international collaboration about public health directives, travel and borders, individual nations can take effective action to slow the spread of COVID-19 within their own borders. Even the smallest countries, like Singapore, can ensure the safety of their citizens by making an effective local response to COVID-19.

“In contrast, stabilizing climate requires all nations to reduce their emissions — going it alone doesn’t work. This co-ordination problem may be the toughest hurdle of all when it comes to climate change. There are ideas of how the co-ordination problem could be addressed in stages, but they still require collaboration between an initial group of committed nations.

“While the international response to COVID-19 has been criticized, it still gives us hope that strong climate change policy can be achieved if we manage to overcome the psychological handicaps that keep governments complacent.

“At this point, the policy changes required to mitigate climate change appear far less disruptive — economically, socially and culturally — than the measures being taken right now to tackle COVID-19.

“In fact, carbon dioxide emissions could probably be brought down dramatically through gradual increases in a global carbon price in ways that would be imperceptible in the daily lives of most people.

“When the dust of COVID-19 settles, we should look back at this moment as proof that our societies are not enslaved to fate, and find strength in the demonstrated ability of modern societies to react to global emergencies,” concluded Eric Galbraith and Ross Otto.

COVID-19 response provides hope for countering the Shifting  Baseline Syndrome and Bending the Curve

The Shifting Baseline Syndrome is the commonality between the article above and the Waterbucket News article featuring Dr. Daniel Pauly. Eric Galbraith and Ross Otto are describing the Shifting Baseline Syndrome when they state that “the slow timescale of climate change….allows our expectations to continually adjust as the situation gradually worsens”.

The optimistic view is that we can Bend the Curve in the opposite direction, provided there is political will and commitment by all. The COVID-19 response demonstrates both. Simply put, when there is a will, there is a way.

The goal of shifting to an ecologically functioning and resilient baseline and creating a creekshed legacy would ultimately depend on the nature of change to standards of engineering, planning and financial practice.

The Conversation