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From COVID to the climate crisis: Unleashing our collective power

Updated: Jan 27

50 years ago, 20 million Americans hit the streets for the first Earth Day in 1970 (still the largest civic event in recorded human history). Today, nations are blaming each other instead of working together to effectively tackle the pandemic crisis and the consequent economic recession, the US and China being the main antagonists. That’s not new, right? All species, countries, and geopolitical issues are interconnected. We are witnessing now how the outbreak of a novel coronavirus in China can make the entire world collapse. Like COVID-19, climate change, biodiversity loss, and financial collapses do not observe national or even physical borders. These problems can be managed only through collective action that starts long before they become full-blown crises.

Activists often cite a study arguing that  20 fossil fuel companies are responsible for more than 1/3 of the global carbon footprint. Climate change is a collective problem, but no one really believes that 7.7 billion people can overcome this tragedy just by switching to reusable cups and biking to work. That might be true and frustrating, but we should not pretend that the climate crisis is something that happens to us, that we’re just victims of greedy evil forces beyond our control. If the truth be told, everyone’s emissions contribute to worsening the crisis, and we have a wider scope of action than we think. The climate activists are doing a pretty good job at inspiring righteous anger at obstacles to progress, but it will also need to inspire solidarity, cooperation, the feeling that we’re all in this together as a species.

As strange as it might seem, Coronavirus is bringing that solidarity out. Most people seem to be listening to the experts and doing their part to protect their communities and trusting on their neighbors to do the same. The virus is a reminder that our actions have consequences beyond ourselves, and most of us are trying to avoid doing inadvertent harm to others. After so much debate about the pointlessness of trying to persuade individuals to change their behavior for the common good, the virus is making it happen.

We know from a study carried out by researchers from the Universitat Politècnica de València (UPV), that concentration levels of nitrogen dioxide —one of the main elements responsible for air contamination— have declined 64% in the main Spanish cities after the implementation of the measures decreed to fight against COVID-19. They have fallen most in Barcelona, with an 83% decline. In Madrid, levels have dropped 73% and 64% in Valencia.

The more people adopt a personal ethic of climate responsibility, the more pressure our leaders will feel to embrace that ethic. While the virus has momentarily flattened the emissions curve, bending it permanently will require individual  and  systemic change. While government policies can promote climate-friendly consumer choices, consumers still have to choose them for the policies to work. It is vital we take this responsibility very seriously; we have to act as individuals to unleash the collective power.

Pollution, like social distancing, is a choice. Our choice. The virus has taught us that in an emergency situation, we can change our behaviors in ways we never imagined possible—not just by teleworking and refraining business travel (new climate-friendly habits that will hopefully continue after the pandemic) but by making big sacrifices in our lives to save others.

In addition to taking action together, we can also use this moment to look forward and seek ways to make society more equitable and resilient. This is a time to reassess business as usual in every dimension, including those that drive climate change. 

Addressing the challenges of climate change will require major technological advancement and shifts in collective human behavior. Responses to the current pandemic indicate that societies are up to the task. As Rafael Reif, president of the Massachussets Institute of Technology (MIT), notes: "Every emergency reveals that “impossible” things are actually doable. In this case, our society just demonstrated that it can choose to change more and faster than we ever imagined".

With this post, we would like to send love and support to all of you who are struggling during these hard times. We are proving that we are capable of doing unimaginable things. Coronavirus has been a call of duty that proves that we are able to tackle problems that seem beyond our capabilities. It is time for us to rethink the way we are dealing with climate change, not as individuals anymore but as a collective that multiplies our efforts. Its time for us to stop putting our trust on others and start acting ourselves.

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