Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Comment: Lessons from the plague: An approach to climate change

• “Liberate Michigan!” – Donald Trump said on Twitter to armed protesters demanding Michigan ignore health guidelines and re-open the economy • “Be kind, be calm, be safe.” – Dr. Bonnie Henry The evidence is overwhelming.
Calvin Sandborn teaches environmental law at the University of Victoria

• “Liberate Michigan!”
– Donald Trump said on Twitter to armed protesters demanding Michigan ignore health guidelines and re-open the economy

• “Be kind, be calm, be safe.”
– Dr. Bonnie Henry

The evidence is overwhelming. The best strategy for beating COVID-19 is to combine good science with kindness. The same rational and empathetic approach is needed to stop climate change.

B.C. has one of the best COVID track records in the world — largely because provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry delivered scientific facts along with relentless reminders to be thoughtful of others.

In sharp contrast, the U.S. has the most cases and deaths in the world — largely because President Donald Trump denied the science and urged Americans to abandon empathy.

On the science front, he dismissed COVID concerns as a “hoax,” argued flu was more dangerous, and hawked snake oil cures. On the empathy front, he was worse. When health officials urged people to stay home or mask up to protect the vulnerable, Trump urged people to focus instead on self, grievance and blame. The result? The country with the most advanced medical technology in the world faces an out-of-control pandemic. Americans today are truly pitiable — unable to unite and take the simple individual steps necessary to protect their community. Tens of thousands will die because the minor inconvenience of wearing a mask is deemed more important than the lives of neighbours.

It turns out that bad science and failure of empathy is a particularly lethal combination.

A similar dynamic is at play with climate change, the long-term threat that dwarfs the dangers of COVID. The world has failed to deal with climate change for the same two reasons that the U.S. failed on COVID. We have failed to heed the consensus science that predicts an imminent climate catastrophe. And, as Greta Thunberg has pointed out, we have failed to empathize with our own great grandchildren — and the world of disease, drought, storms, wildfire, mass migration, political instability and war that awaits them. Our refusal to walk in their shoes is the greatest moral failure of our age.

Yet I am hopeful our pandemic experience could change all this.

First, the COVID experience should renew respect for good science. For more than 30 years, fossil fuel corporate fog machines have run a disinformation campaign against inconvenient scientific facts — and funded politicians to claim that climate change is another “hoax”. But the pandemic — with its more immediate connection between actions and fatal consequence — has vividly demonstrated the danger of substituting conspiracy theories and “alternative facts” for actual scientific fact.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel summed it up: “You cannot fight a pandemic with lies and disinformation any more than you can fight it with hate.”

Every day, principled scientists such as Henry and Dr. Anthony Fauci re-instill public reliance on sound science. Soon, a successful race for a vaccine — like the race for a polio vaccine in the 1950s and the 1960s space race — should restore public trust in science. And good science clearly demands urgent action on climate change.

Just as important, the pandemic has taught us the critical importance of kindness, of fellow-feeling, of community. There’s a reason why Henry’s first public health injunction is “Be kind.” We are all inter-connected, and we have to think about others in order for the community to be healthy.

We may bridle at putting on a mask, but we now know that selfish actions in a pandemic can kill a neighbour’s grandfather, give a friend a stroke. Similarly, we may bridle at giving up air travel and reducing car use, but if we love future children we must act on climate change.

Our sense of community and kindness has deteriorated, particularly in the U.S. — shattered by decades of media that shifted the social paradigm from former president Franklin Roosevelt’s “I am my brother’s keeper” to the Trumpian “Every dog for itself.” Rush Limbaugh, Survivor, The Apprentice and professional wrestling have taught that people are either winners or losers, and you must not be a loser. Kick others off the island before they kick you off.

But the pandemic has vividly demonstrated that the Golden Rule is a better health measure. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is superior social policy. We all win when we act on objective facts, and are kind to others — including our imperilled grandchildren.

Calvin Sandborn teaches environmental law at the University of Victoria, and is the author of Becoming the Kind Father, a book on male anger.