When it comes to COVID-19 and climate change, we are failing the Giant Space Squid Test.
If you watched the sci-fi series “Watchmen” or read the classic graphic novel it is based on, you know about the giant space squid. Essentially, a mad scientist concocts a plan to destroy Manhattan by attacking it with a giant squid and blaming it on aliens. If humankind sees it has a common enemy, he reasons, they will band together and avert the far greater threat of global nuclear destruction.
But almost everything about the global response to COVID tells me the squid test is an illusion. Most countries went their own way in fighting the common threat. Here at home, even after it was clear that would go on to 600,000 Americans and counting, too many politicians and average folk refused to take the fairly simple steps to fight it. Refusing to wear a piece of cloth to cover your face became a statement of “liberty.” In Texas and as many as 19 other Republican-led states, politicians are making it illegal to enact basic public health measures. Ignoring the science and their own best interests, millions refuse to get the vaccine. Mobs taunt school administrators who are asking children – children! – to wear masks.
Forget saving humanity – Americans couldn’t band together to save their own kids.
Fighting climate change will require a lot more personal sacrifice and political generosity than wearing a mask. So forgive me if I scoff at those who found a measure of hope amid the dire findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The devastating effects of climate change are coming faster than even the most pessimistic scientists predicted, according to the report. This summer of fires and floods and heat and drought is not a taste of things to come – they’re here.
The good news, apparently, is that it is not too late: Although we can no longer avoid the effects of warming, we can limit the changes in ways that will allow us to adapt. That means switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy and changing the ways we travel, build, grow food and exploit ecosystems.
Each of these steps will rely on political and corporate interests that dwarf the ability of any individual to make a difference. But politicians and business leaders take their cues from voters and consumers – as well as donors and board members. COVID was a dry run for facing global catastrophe. And in some ways we succeeded spectacularly as a species: A safe, effective vaccine was developed in record time. We summoned up the collective will to spend trillions of dollars on mitigation. We marshalled vast, complicated systems to fight back.
And yet we were hobbled by a fractured electorate, inequality, political cynicism and a misinformation industry that is willing to sacrifice human lives to score political victories. I am finding it hard to imagine a Congress that can barely agree on fixing crumbling bridges to come together to save a burning planet.
Others are struggling to remain optimistic in the face of crisis. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, in a JTA essay, says she was having a hard time writing a High Holiday sermon that would give her congregation any hope in these discouraging times. She advises us “to cultivate the ability to look beyond our own despair. The Days of Awe open the door to new beginnings, even when (or especially when) we can’t see our own way back to hope for change. We just have to be like those biblical angels for each other: helping each other see the hope we can’t find alone.”
The IPCC report’s lead author, Claudia Tebaldi, a climate scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said we need to respond to its conclusions like an aging person dealing with declining health.
“You have the choice of spending your time feeling the doom and gloom of getting old … fearing the future,” she told the Washington Post. “Or you can get up every day and remind yourself that that day is likely going to be the best you have … and you better make the best of it.”
In addition to optimism, the other antidote for despair is action. A few years ago, a climate justice activist named Payal Parekh said she drew hope from her work in India’s slums.
“If we give up, nothing can change; sure, maybe we need to rethink our strategy or tactics at times, but we do have agency and we can use crises to increase the size of the movement to be more powerful and effective,” she wrote. “There is no ignoring the pain and suffering, but we can do something about it.”
Sarah Kaplan, the Washington Post reporter, writes that anything the average person does that will reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is a step in the right direction. (Find tips on fighting climate change – and your own despair — here, here and here.) And we can engage with politicians, civic institutions and NGOs backing efforts that will shift the economy away from fossil fuels – “by far the biggest source of planet-warming emissions.”
“And you can do it all knowing that your actions are helping to make the world a little bit cooler and the future a little bit safer,” she writes.
I worry that while we are trying to make ourselves feel better, the planet will continue to get worse.
It’s the “little bit” that scares me. I worry that while we are trying to make ourselves feel better, the planet will continue to get worse. All these perfectly reasonable ways to deal with our personal despair may not go nearly far enough in addressing the real problem. It’s like being diagnosed with a deadly disease and being told by your doctor to check out the self-help section.
I am also reminded of the joke about the two Jews facing the firing squad. One cries out, “I am innocent! Spare me!” The other tells him, “Quiet down! You’ll make them angry!” I feel like I am in front of a firing squad, and the other guy is telling me not to give up hope.
And we’re in Texas.