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America Has Failed the Existential-Crisis Test

What the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic means for the global fight against climate change

Win McNamee/Getty Images

In March and April, as a shell-shocked planet tried to deal with a deadly pandemic no one understood, some people in the climate community found a silver lining: At least the world was united in trying to solve the problem.

Even in the United States, where many Republican leaders ignore or deny scientific truths about global warming, experts’ recommendations about the coronavirus were taken seriously. Stay-at-home orders were issued and largely adhered to in many states, and cities issued eviction moratoriums to make sure people could stay in their homes. Congress passed the $2 trillion Cares Act, cushioning many American families from the economic crash. Businesses ordered employees to work from home or otherwise established strict procedures; conventions and sports leagues were canceled. Ordinary people did what they could, from making masks to donating time or money to mutual aid organizations. And the media covered Covid-19, appropriately, as the biggest story in the world.

It was the kind of all-hands-on-deck approach that we should have seen the world take to climate change years ago. “We need to show the same determination and unity against climate change as against COVID-19,” the head of the United Nation’s World Meteorological Organization said on Earth Day in April. Leah Stokes, a climate policy researcher in California, told the Los Angeles Times she hoped the pandemic would “wake people up” and get them to listen to scientists. “If anything has given me hope when it comes to climate, it’s this massive mobilization across the planet to tackle this pandemic,” Kathy Castor, the Florida Democrat who chairs the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, said in April. “That gives me hope that we will be able to attack the other, more slow-moving crisis that is the climate crisis.”

But as the weeks have dragged on, the Covid-19 response is less a cause for hope than despair. If the early stages of the pandemic provided lessons on how a more unified world might address climate change, the current moment is demonstrating just how far away we are from being able to come together to solve a planetary crisis. The pandemic is a test, and we’re failing it.

The failures are most obvious in America. The Trump administration didn’t come up with a detailed plan for how to reopen the economy, but the problem runs much deeper than just an executive branch run by buffoons. Key provisions in the Cares Act are set to expire at the end of July, potentially triggering another economic meltdown unless our sclerotic Senate can find its way to enacting additional relief. And some Republican governors seem to have joined the conservative war against masks. Now, with more than 120,000 Americans already dead from the virus, cases are rising again as states loosen restrictions.

The U.S. isn’t the only powerful country failing this test. China’s deny-and-obfuscate strategy at the outset helped speed the coronavirus’s spread around the world. Russia’s official stance that it has gotten Covid under control belies its likely catastrophic death and case totals. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s response to the crisis has mirrored Trump’s, with similarly disastrous results. And India’s poorly funded health system and widespread poverty mean that it is heading into a nightmare.

These nations—not those in Europe, which has mounted a stunning turnaround since March—are the company America keeps in pandemic infamy. While most Americans support commonsense disease-fighting measures like masks and stay-at-home orders, a substantial minority refuse to change their behavior even in small ways. But the problem is less the actions of individual people than state and federal leaders who don’t listen to evidence. Until very recently, the Republican governor of Arizona refused to allow local governments to require mask-wearing, even as cases in the state surged. In Washington, D.C., Trump has promised a “very generous” stimulus, but Mitch McConnell has vowed not to extend enhanced unemployment benefits. Senate Republicans reportedly are also reluctant to include aid to state and local governments on the grounds that Democrats would benefit.

If comparisons between the pandemic and climate change are valid, America’s response to the former is dispiriting to the fight against the latter. Just as most people agree on how to fight the coronavirus, a large majority of Americans support measures to combat global warming. But thanks to a number of anti-democratic features of American democracy, that consensus has not trickled up to the country’s political leaders, who have failed to treat the climate emergency with anything approaching urgency. If the federal government reacts to the greatest public health crisis in a century with half-measures, what could possibly convince it to react sufficiently to climate change? If governors won’t demand their citizens wear masks to save lives, will they be willing to get people to reduce their carbon footprints? If so many authoritarian and authoritarian-adjacent governments (including Trump’s) react to a pandemic with denial, what can we expect as the climate crisis worsens?

Leah Stokes, the climate researcher, emphasized that a Democratic administration—or even a different Republican one—would do far better on climate than the current regime. The world can beat global warming if it invests the resources in the fight, she told me over the phone. The problem is that “people do not fully understand the scale of the crisis,” she said. “And perhaps the same could be said for Covid. Maybe there’s some kind of protection mechanism in people to not fully grapple with how dire the situation is. And with climate change. I think that’s definitely the case.”

The global effort to reverse climate change is not already lost. Just as it’s not too late for the U.S. to improve its pandemic response and save lives, it’s not too late to enact policies to slow global warming. Until an effective vaccine is widely available, we’re likely going to have to rely on a patchwork of policies and personal choices to mitigate the pandemic’s damage; similarly, we’re never going to definitively “win” the fight against climate change. Instead, we need to continue to push for measures that reduce emissions and provide assistance to communities suffering from floods, fires, heat waves, and rising seas.

But the pandemic is showing us how difficult it will be to enact those measures, and how poorly prepared the political class is for genuine crises. Our systems have failed in the face of the coronavirus. Greater failures may yet come, unless we elect more leaders who are committed to putting science-based policy above political saber-rattling. Americans must vote like their life depends on it—because it just might.