A climate change communicator, analyst, and author, Susan speaks and publishes widely on current topics in climate change and climate communication. Among her accomplishments: she was the Senior Science Writer on the first three U.S. National Climate Assessments, authoritative reports written in plain language to better inform policymakers and the public about climate change and its effects on our nation.
Q: Are there parallels between the coronavirus pandemic and climate change?
Yes, there are some strong parallels. Despite research and warnings that systemic shocks to the healthcare system (and the markets) from a pandemic were likely, we were not prepared, did respond quickly enough to the early signals, and are now living with the repercussions. There are obvious parallels here with climate change.
The coronavirus crisis reveals what an enormous problem you can have when you don’t take the warnings of experts seriously, when you fail to stress-test systems for worst-case scenarios, and when you put off taking action. This is as true for business as it is for the broader society. Our businesses and communities need to be resilient to shocks. The way to build resilience is through preparation, and the first steps are understanding and quantifying risks. This is why the work of The Climate Service in assessing risks and putting a price tag on them is so important.
Q: Are there any overlaps between climate change and the coronavirus that could have serious societal impacts?
One of the realities of climate change that we may see unfold in the coming weeks and months as the pandemic continues is an increase in so-called compound events. These are major events occurring simultaneously that interact with each other to cause impacts that can overwhelm our systems.
For example, parts of the U.S. Midwest are expected to soon see torrential rain and flooding events, which are becoming more common due to climate change. And the U.S. West may begin to see the beginning of wildfire season, which is growing longer and more severe due to climate change. How will we quickly shelter people who must evacuate due to fires and floods while ensuring the social distancing the pandemic requires? How will we respond to these events while many of our first responders are occupied with aiding the growing number of virus victims, or if they, themselves, are sick. As a result, the human toll, as well as market impacts from such disasters, will be much greater.
Another interesting overlap is that people exposed to air pollution from vehicles, coal- or gas-burning power plants, and oil refineries are more likely to be infected by and suffer bad outcomes from the coronavirus. So moving away from fossil fuel use and toward clean energy, as we would do to address climate change, means less air pollution, reducing our vulnerability to the coronavirus and other similar diseases.
Q: What can we learn from the pandemic that could be applied to climate change communications?
News outlets and major technology companies have, generally speaking, been vigilant about quashing misinformation about the coronavirus. This could provide important lessons on fighting conspiracy theories and misinformation about climate change. An obvious lesson from the pandemic that applies equally to climate change is the importance of listening to and trusting the experts.
Overall, the current crisis is revealing how profoundly systemic shocks and lack of resilience can affect us. Unfortunately, people, like markets, tend to think short term rather than long term. As a result, they often balk at the short-term costs of resilience and mitigation, even though these costs pale in comparison to those we will face if we fail to tackle climate change and prepare for it.