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Covid-19 may be just what climate change needs

Big jolts wake us up and force us to act today. Gina Williams looks at how the Covid-19 pandemic might give us the chance to redesign our society to combat climate change.

Imagine waking up one morning and your whole world has changed. What was once up, was now down. For a lot of New Zealanders, we don’t need to imagine, because this was our Saturday morning. It’s when Jacinda Ardern went from friendly Facebook FYIs about coronavirus to formally addressing the press gallery from behind a plinth. 

By Saturday afternoon, ‘she’ll be right’ changed to it probably won’t be. It seemed that everything was closing down. Cancelled. Restricted. Not allowed. Postponed. Let go. We were to stay away. Isolate. Work from home. Socially distance. Dial-in. But, keep calm and carry on.    

For those of us who weren’t in denial that the world was ending, by Sunday morning we’d become addicts to the 24-hour news cycle. We inhaled every news update, got our fix on the latest push notification and nothing could satisfy us. Refresh. Scroll. Refresh. We couldn’t get enough. Every piece of breaking news was being fired around and we discussed new policies to negotiate daily life. Grocery shopping. Kids' sport. The dinner on Thursday. Gym classes.  

Overnight, life suddenly became like a dystopian Christmas holiday. We were all holed up at home with our families and started eating canned beans and doing Instagram Lives, just to stay sane. It was only Tuesday.  

We’re already seeing data from NASA that points to China’s greenhouse gas emissions decreasing since coronavirus made itself known. We can keep the momentum going.  

There’s nothing like a jolt to make you sit up and take notice. For my entire life, climate change has suffered from being the ultimate slow burn. Even its rebrand late last year to a climate crisis didn’t flag it as urgent. A meme doing the rounds at the moment says something along the lines of, ‘climate change needs coronavirus’ publicist’, and to some extent this is true. Our brains are full of cognitive biases that prevent us from taking it seriously. 

We know that our emotional brains are hardwired to operate in the present moment.

It’s often challenging for us to comprehend the consequences of our actions today, on our future selves. As a general rule, we tend to worry about new risks, as opposed to older, more familiar ones. We also act on information that’s the most recent, versus spending the time to step back and properly analyse. That’s a reason why insurance sales tend to go up in extreme weather events. Our biases are also why our brains have adapted to operate on a level of auto-pilot that helps us to conserve energy and not agonise over every single decision. Biases can also make us habitual creatures and lead us to inertia or continuing on with what we’ve always done. 

But, big jolts, by their very nature, wake us up and force us to act today. For a lot of us, 2020 has been a lot and we’re only three months deep. Where I live we’re still technically in a drought, while simultaneously a lot of the world has experienced flooding and Australia has had its most destructive natural disaster in recent memory. On top of our biases that are getting in the way, in our minds, climate change is more of a distant, abstract concept and we find it hard to link it to related events in the here and now. 

Now’s not the time for feeling helpless and overwhelmed. Let’s take control back.

In the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday she mentioned that we’ll have to get used to a "new normal". It probably looks a lot like working from the kitchen table, drinking instant coffee and finding time on our hands, not having to commute. Yes, we could pick up the guitar, or learn a new language. 

But, I’d like to propose another, more noble pursuit. How about we all use this pause from auto-pilot to contemplate how we can redesign our society to combat climate change? After all, we’re already seeing data from NASA that points to China’s greenhouse gas emissions decreasing since coronavirus made itself known. We can keep the momentum going.  

Yesterday morning I watched Renee Redzepi, co-owner of the remarkably radical restaurant Noma do an Instagram Live and he reflected, “How do we want to use this crisis to take care of the bigger crises that lay ahead? Let’s refocus with purpose.” 

Even though the impacts of climate change are inevitable, we still have time to turn things around. We could support New Zealand businesses who care about us, our environment and our economy, we could learn about true cost accounting, we could join a committee, grow organic veggies in the back garden, or even sketch up entirely new ways of working and being. 

Now’s not the time for feeling helpless and overwhelmed. Let’s take control back and no, I don’t mean hoard a load of toilet paper. Let’s be bold. Let’s rewrite the rulebook and design a new normal that helps us weather the storms not just now, but on the horizon. We could think of this crisis as the worst thing to ever happen to humanity. Or, reframe it as the greatest. 

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