‘Gray rhinos,’ in author Michele Wucker’s thinking, are dangers that are very likely to hit, and very damaging when they do. She came up with the metaphor as a counterpoint to the popular idea of a black swan, writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s phrase for high impact, but very unlikely, scenarios that are inherently surprising.
The world is being trampled by a gray rhino right now, Wucker says, and another one is barreling toward us. Pandemics and climate change both fit the criteria she lays out in The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore – devastating events we don’t bother to head off, even though we should have seen them coming.
Scientists have been warning of both risks for years. Many of our political leaders, unfortunately, chose to tune them out. In many ways, our societies’ failure to take the steps to prevent a pandemic like COVID-19, or at least prepare for it, parallel our failures on climate change.
In the United States, President Trump pushed to reduce funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just as he has eagerly ripped up his predecessor’s carbon-cutting policies, easing regulations on car companies, power plants and other big polluters. In Britain, a decade of state-shrinking austerity has left the National Health Service and local councils strapped and struggling to cope.
And just as we have continued to build in flood zones as if we have no idea what’s coming, leaders in Europe and America failed to ramp up health care capacity and ventilator production even as the coronavirus tore through China.
Now, finally, they have acted, imposing lockdowns and travel bans, and scrambling to add hospital beds, critical equipment and trained medics to cope with a wave of patients. Although belated, this response will likely save lives. And it demonstrates political systems are able to move swiftly to make big changes when we understand that our health, and the health of the people we love, is on the line.
In a matter of weeks, with ‘flatten the curve’ memes flying around social media, health experts got the traction and public attention that climate scientists and activists have been unable to achieve in decades of trying.
In part, this is because illness is a threat we can all understand, and one we fear viscerally. The dangers of climate change are less familiar, and harder for many to envision, although a future of heat waves, wildfires, floods and storms has already begun to arrive.
And while some – Trump most notably – have downplayed the pandemic’s seriousness, such denial is nowhere near as well-funded and organized as the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long campaign to sow doubt about established climate science. That, of course, is the primary reason for governments’ failures to get serious about climate.
Like COVID-19, the climate crisis is a problem of exponential growth. To head off dire consequences, it is necessary to make big changes before the most severe impacts are visible. In the case of the virus, that means aggressive shutdowns before the caseload explodes; with the climate, it means serious steps to ramp up clean energy and address other emissions sources, like aviation and agriculture, before our world is changed irreversibly.
That, Wucker says, is the biggest lesson we can learn: ‘The faster you act, the more likely you are to succeed. Look at Korea or Taiwan or Singapore,’ where governments moved more quickly and effectively than Western nations to contain the virus.
It’s clear already that COVID-19 is brutally exposing our biggest weaknesses: extreme inequality, shredded safety nets, shrunken public services, insecure gig economy jobs that force many to work through illness, and, in the United States, a broken healthcare system.
It may also present an opportunity to address those problems. ‘We don’t just need public health experts on viruses, and we don’t just need climate change experts,’ said Elizabeth Sawin, co-director of the think tank Climate Interactive. ‘We need a whole society reckoning – what have we lived with and accepted? And what have we, as privileged people, looked away from?’
Change could start with a renewed push for a Green New Deal that wraps many big changes into one package, she said, and economic stimulus that focuses on low-carbon infrastructure and jobs in growing fields like clean energy.
So far, though, most discussion of the pandemic’s environmental ramifications has focused on a more immediate – and temporary – change.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read or listened to people pointing out that the coronavirus pandemic is reducing air pollution. The other day, I overheard a pair of dog walkers discussing it as I strolled past them in a park. I’m an environmental journalist, so friends and colleagues seek me out to share news of this ‘positive’ side effect.
‘BRIGHT SIDE: Coronavirus may actually have SAVED 1,000s of lives as lockdown cleans up world’s air,’ blared one headline. ‘Blue skies across Europe as,’ trumpeted another.
I understand the desire for a silver lining. And it’s true, of course. Emissions do go down when the factories and cars and planes that create them are stilled. Having written a book about air pollution, I know that even a temporary drop brings real benefits, and is surely sparing some of us heart attacks, strokes and even premature death – a sharp irony, given the virus’s more direct toll.
But I can’t help feeling there is something wrong with this framing, and our attraction to the idea that widespread human suffering comes with an environmental upside. It seems to suggest that only a terrible scourge can stop us from sabotaging our well-being and our collective future.
Given our governments’ failure to reverse an inexorable climb in emissions (despite climate scientists’ ever more dire warnings), it can be tempting to think so. But I think this ignores the reality that it is within our power to address the intertwined crises of climate change, air pollution and rising extinctions. And it goes without saying that an illness that is killing thousands, terrifying millions and hammering livelihoods and the global economy is not the best way to do so.
The assumption that only a pandemic could force us to change our ways carries a hint of the notion that ‘human beings are the plague or the virus, and if we weren’t here it would all be better,’ Sawin said.
What’s more, we must remember why acting on these crises matters. I care about both climate change and air pollution because I care about human beings, and I want a future where we can thrive. Not one in which we, and our children and grandchildren, are forced from the places we love by rising seas and must endure droughts, storms, wildfires and other extreme events.
In reality, it is not our individual choices but the fossil-fuel-based system we are locked into that means our everyday actions inevitably create both air pollution and carbon emissions, Sawin points out. ‘We don’t have to be on lockdown to not pollute the world. We have to do some political change and some investment change’ to shift our societies toward cleaner, healthier energy sources, so we all have better options.
The shorter-term drops in pollution I keep hearing about, on the other hand – satellite images showing air quality improving around the world – are unlikely to outlast the pandemic. When this frightening time has passed, and people get in their cars and return to work, those emissions will bounce right back. Indeed, if public transport feels risky, driving’s footprint could grow.
China has long tended to rev up its most polluting industries to boost the economy in the face of slowdown. So its factories may well make up for lost time by pumping out more carbon than before. And other nations could follow suit (although the expected recession may keep emissions flat for a while longer).
Still, some of the changes the outbreak has triggered may prove lasting, in a way that reduces emissions in the future.
The shifts most likely to endure after a crisis like this one are often those that were already underway before it began, said Amy Myers Jaffe, director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations.
‘Trends that were happening anyway can get accelerated by a crisis,’ she said. That could mean businesses realizing some of the conferences staff had been flying to are not as critical as many thought, and meetings can often accomplish as much by video as in person.
And if travel bans, tighter borders and other virus-related disruptions create shortages of drugs, medical equipment or other vital goods, countries and companies may ramp up domestic production to reduce exposure to the risks of global supply chains, Jaffe said. That would hit the growth of global freight, a highly polluting sector.
‘Maybe people will realize that supporting local food makes sense, and eating fruits and vegetables out of season by flying them all around the world in highly refrigerated containers doesn’t make sense in a climate change-pressured world,’ she said.
The same goes for remote work. Many employees have long been hungry for the flexibility not just to work from home in the same city where their company is based, but to live farther away, perhaps in a smaller town where the cost of living is lower, or near a spouse’s job, said Prithwiraj Choudhury, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. Companies may now see such arrangements are more workable than they thought, he said. They also save money, since offices can be smaller, or dispensed with altogether.
But there are pressures pushing the other way too. The hit to credit markets could make investment in infrastructure difficult, and that will likely slow efforts to ramp up renewable power. Indeed, Bloomberg New Energy Finance has already downgraded its forecast for 2020 solar power growth.
There’s also a danger that leaders preoccupied with the pandemic may lose what little focus they had on climate policy. The United Nations and Britain postponed a critical global climate summit that had been scheduled for November, as its host venue, the Glasgow exhibition centre, is converted into a temporary COVID-19 hospital.
To my mind, though, the real question about COVID-19’s long-term environmental impact is what lessons we choose to learn from it, and how and where we apply them.
Teenage activist Bella Lack wrote recently that the pandemic ‘reminds us that although we’ve been to the moon, created the internet, concocted miraculous cures and conceived complex cultures, we’re still bound to the laws of the natural world and will never be exempt from the havoc we wreak upon it.’
Awareness of that shared vulnerability can be useful. In part, it means realizing that just because a scenario sounds like it’s been lifted from a dystopic science fiction film doesn’t mean it can’t come to pass.
But there’s a more positive aspect too. ‘I think we’ll learn some lessons about ourselves: That we can do hard things, that we have courage when it matters, that we will sacrifice for the well-being of people we don’t know,’ Sawin said. ‘Like seeing the Earth from space decades ago, this is a shared human experience that is transcending nations and cultures and languages.’
And while the losses the pandemic is exacting are terrible, Sawin believes that after it has passed we can use what we have gone through to ‘connect all the moments of insight that people are having, and help people see that climate change is in some ways the same. It’s the same in that we have to act before the world is unlivable, it’s the same in that we have to act across all sectors, all countries, it’s the same in that individuals have to act but political leaders have to act too.’
Perhaps the fear and grief the coronavirus has inflicted will shake us out of our complacency about the other gray rhino heading our way. If we finally begin to listen to scientists’ warnings, and get serious about heading off the even more terrifying threat of climate change, we will at least have taken something meaningful from this awful time.
Image © Tim Dennell