Cities under lockdown. Tens of thousands dead. People wearing masks and avoiding their own family. Millions joining the unemployment rolls. Only essential stores and businesses operating. Demand for oil so low that producers have to pay to get rid of it. No schools, no sports, no movies.
Imagine walking into a time machine on New Year’s Day and walking out a mere 100 days later. It would be like dropping into a zombie flick at the one-hour mark. Who would believe it? What could possibly have happened? You’d get back into the DeLorean and ask Doc to smack the flux capacitor with a wrench.
That is the thing about crises. They are hard to believe until they happen. And when they happen, it is hard to believe we didn’t see them coming or better prepare ourselves.
Experts are not immune. I remember stepping into a small boat in Kiribati eight years ago, thinking I was a little fatigued from three weeks of the equatorial heat. I spent the next week barely conscious, stranded on an outer island with no medical care, using the few lucid moments made possible by my local friends feeding me coconut water wondering how I missed the very early signs of dengue fever. Signs I knew, signs that I had learned in grad school.
Even with the evidence right in front of us, our imagination often fails. You know on paper that something can happen, but you don’t imagine that it really will.
Failure of the imagination is, to me, the central thing that unites climate change and the novel coronavirus pandemic.
To be clear, the two global crises have different problem dynamics, in terms of the type of fear they inspire, their time scale, and the link between cause and effect. The pandemic represents what risk perception experts call a “dread” risk. We see it as an immediate, catastrophic threat to our health and to that of our family. Tracing of cause and effect is possible. The direct impact of pandemic decisions we make – or do not make – can be apparent within 14 days. Practicing physical distancing not only helps protect the entire community, it directly protects you and your family from the virus.
Climate change is different. It is a crisis not because of the immediate impact of our actions, but because the actions we choose over the next decade or so will have impacts for decades and centuries beyond. The temporal lag decreases the sense of dread and immediacy for many people. It is about our legacy as much as it is about us. Like with the pandemic, our actions influence the system as a whole, but an individual action cannot be linked to an individual impact. Climate scientists can estimate the contribution of human-caused climate change to an extreme event, but your neighbour choosing to drive an old-school Hummer cannot be directly blamed for the heavy rainfall on your street last week.
Because of these differences in the problem dynamics, we have to be careful drawing lessons from the successes of the pandemic response for the fight against climate change. The political will to take dramatic action (albeit late), the public willingness to sacrifice personal freedoms and comforts, and the overall speed and scale of the response are related to the immediate, catastrophic fears brought on by the pandemic and the greater ability to see cause and effect.
The collective failure to imagine the extent of the pandemic and the extent of our response is, however, very instructive for climate change.
Only public health experts were prepared to envision our current scenario, and even public health experts were slow to warn of this scenario becoming a reality. We were all slow to act because we couldn’t imagine this would really happen. Now that it is happening, it is hard to imagine not taking the precautionary measures. How were we that dense? How didn’t we see this coming, despite the clear warnings from experts and from the parts of the world exposed first?
Sound familiar? People say that climate change is a failure of our politics, of our market, of our technologies, of our morality. To me, it is a similar failure of the imagination. At first, a failure to imagine it could happen or happen soon. Now, a failure to imagine we can really do something about it.
Like the pandemic, we’re not learning enough from the vulnerable places that have experienced severe impacts, nor from the proactive places that took early action to limit the impacts. Every severe coastal flooding event, every severe heat wave, is a Wuhan-level early warning to the rest of the world. And every company that reduces reliance on fossil fuels, every town that prepares for sea-level rise, is a South Korea-level early example for the rest of the world.
We are so rooted in a certain way of powering our lives, fueling our movement, and heating our homes that we have been slow to imagine and embrace a different future.
Change is a threat to those in power and those unable to envision a transition to an alternative world. Fossil fuel interests are scared of losing power, losing ‘market share,’ and losing money, and many of the rest of us are scared of losing jobs, losing livelihoods, or losing what we know. Those with power, whether in government or in industry, have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and quashing imaginations. It is a worldview of constraints, not possibilities.
Take my home of Canada as an example. The government, the banks, and others have struggled to imagine a future without oil and gas as a major industry. They have been stuck in a centuries-old British view of Canada as a source of raw extractable resources: the new colony, existing residents be damned, was a place to extract resources, not a place to develop. First trees, then crops and fish, then minerals, then oil and gas. We now threaten to keep doubling down on the past, investing in fossil fuel projects that are incompatible with a low carbon future.
At the same time, Canada is rich in other natural resources: wind, water, and sun. Canada in principle has the resources to power all of North America’s homes, factories, and businesses, all using renewable electricity. We also have the educational system to train people to, for example, develop and spread energy storage and transmission technologies. What we’re missing is the collective imagination, the willingness to see that a different future is possible, and the guts to chart a different course.
This matters because people chronically underestimate our capacity for change. How many of us would have imagined, just fifteen years ago, that we would carry a device in our pockets that functioned as a phone, library, general store, newspaper, music repository, movie theatre, radio, alarm clock, health monitor, global map, tour guide, homing device, and, if you live in Vancouver, the key to hundreds of cars in a shared network? In January, who would imagined that in three months people would be quarantined in their homes, or that the oil supply would have outstripped demand?
Imagination alone will not save us from climate change. We need to be realistic. We are highly likely to see continued impacts from climate change for decades to come. We are unlikely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to avoid 1.5°C of global warming, the lower temperature threshold in the Paris Climate Agreement. Avoiding 2°C of global warming will also be a tremendous challenge. Regardless, the more we do to reduce emissions, the less the planet will warm, and the less that people will suffer. That’s the key message from the scientific community.
My instinct as a scientist is to talk about those numbers and data and equations. After all, I came to science as a vocation because I liked math and physics, and thought I could apply it to the world. Granted I also came to science, and I’m not the only one, as a way to hold onto my inner child, the one who looked up at the sky and wondered what was out there, and what was possible.
We need those imaginations now. We need to envision what the solutions will bring. Imagine a future with quiet and clean downtown streets, not because of a pandemic, but because electric vehicles produce little sound and little pollution. With cleaner and clearer skies, because we have eliminated smog generated from burning coal and other fossil fuels. With birds chirping, because we have restored landscapes to uptake carbon from the atmosphere.
Most of the solutions to climate change also happen to make the world a healthier place for people. A safe, healthy place is what we all want right now.