A meme has been going around social media reading, “climate change needs coronavirus’s publicist.” The truth is, everyone who is treating coronavirus as an emergency is its publicist. Humans are social creatures. We look to one another to assess the seriousness of situations and decide whether or not to enter “emergency mode.”
People wearing masks and gloves in public have been particularly effective at conveying the emergency — clearly, something is very wrong. The media have been reporting on coronavirus non-stop, and it seems like everyone is posting about it on social media. People are changing their behavior, socially isolating and pressuring others to do the same, with varying degrees of success and urgency. All of this lets government leaders know people are concerned and want to see action.
It’s working. Societal shifts that would have been considered impossible before the world heard of COVID-19 are now, very quickly, becoming reality. Right now, cities and states around the U.S. are shutting down bars, restaurants and sports games — even postponing the primaries. Spain has nationalized its private hospitals. The French government has partnered with perfume manufacturers to rapidly produce hand sanitizer. Massive funding is being unlocked to deal with different elements of the emergency, including, in many countries, taking care of workers whose incomes are disrupted. Respirator parts are being printed on 3-D printers. Countries are collaborating in new ways.
What we are seeing is the power of “emergency mode” — a fundamentally different mode of functioning that individuals and groups can enter during an emergency. Effectiveness, innovation and speed become the watchwords. Business as usual is over. Competing priorities fall away and we focus like a laser on achieving safety.
In a climate emergency response, governments would halt the expansion of the fossil fuel infrastructure and work to phase out our current fossil fuel capacity. The government would work with businesses and the public to coordinate a massive zero-carbon scale-up. Displaced workers and vulnerable communities would be protected. All hands would be on deck; everyone who needs a job would be offered one as part of the climate mobilization.
Given that the accelerating climate emergency puts us all at dire risk, combined with the fact that the virus is crashing our economy, this type of green investment is just common sense. But this kind of necessary, emergency speed transformation is not happening — particularly in the fight against climate change. Global governments are stuck in the incrementalism of imagining that they can carry on as usual, rather than mobilizing to protect humanity and the living world.
This lack of response can be linked to the fossil fuel industry’s decades of well-funded climate denial propaganda, as well as the devastating lack of emergency coverage and conversation that the climate has received. Broadcast network TV news allotted less than four hours to climate change coverage in 2019. Large swaths of people aren’t displaying their concern visibly. It is our job — the job of all of us — to break out of “normal mode” and move society into emergency mode.
We need to get loud. Most Americans are alarmed by the climate emergency but don’t talk about it because they feel like it will make people uncomfortable or they should leave it to scientists and experts. Silence, inadvertently, sends the signal that things are fine and normal and that we are not worried. To change this perception, we should talk about the climate emergency every day — and talk about it in personal, not scientific, terms. We should also talk about our fear for the future, our anger, grief and hope.
As a clinical psychologist, I know the value of simply expressing oneself, getting thoughts out of our heads and addressing looming anxieties. As a movement leader, I know how incredibly politically impactful these conversations are.
To fundamentally reshape our society and economy to meet the climate emergency, we need to start with fundamentally reshaping our own lives and behaviors. Not just to reduce our personal emissions, but, more importantly, to build power and momentum for this emergency response. Young people are going on school strikes. Volunteer organizers have won over 1,400 declarations of climate emergency from governments around the world. There is a growing movement of people who, like me, have left their careers to try to protect humanity and the living world.
Both the climate emergency and the coronavirus are global phenomena showing us that our fates are interconnected. We all need to socially distance to keep ourselves and others safe. We all need to talk about the climate emergency, join the climate emergency movement and initiate a global race to zero emissions.
We can rise and defeat both the coronavirus and the climate emergency. But first, we need to recognize the climate emergency for what it is — an existential threat to all of us.
Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD, is the founding director of The Climate Mobilization. She is the author of the forthcoming self-help book Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth.