Yonatan Neril
Founder and director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

Confronting coronavirus, curbing climate change

How much can the world do when we take a threat seriously! If China and S. Korea can arrest the spread of COVID-19, curbing climate change is surely possible

Let’s compare humanity’s response to the coronavirus to its response to climate change. The coronavirus generates fear of a clear and present danger, activates our survival instinct, and mobilizes people to act. Coronavirus is the terrorist equivalent of nature. Why? Because it generates an acute fear that it could happen to me, and it could happen right away. And only two times in living memory have airlines mostly shut down and economies slowed down due to a threat. One was after 9/11, and the other is now.

The fear of coronavirus spreading has motivated people and governments to take drastic actions many would have considered unimaginable just a month ago. The coronavirus has infected hundreds of thousands of people and killed tens of thousands. In response, governments have closed borders, businesses and schools. India, a country of 1.3 billion people, is on lockdown.

Our situation puts in stark relief the fact that many people are fully invested in fighting coronavirus, and very apathetic about addressing climate change. We throw everything at the coronavirus and little at climate change.

The reason this is strange is because climate change is actually far more dangerous than coronavirus. Climate change is responsible for more severe hurricanes, droughts, and fires, which have killed hundreds of thousands of people and produced millions of refugees. The Guardian cited a “2018 report from the World Health Organization, which predicted that between 2030 and 2050, global warming would cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year from heat stress, malnutrition, malaria and diarrhea. But Misha Coleman, one of the report’s authors, stressed that deaths were already occurring.” Climate chaos is a more accurate term. In the coming decades, climate change threatens to wreak havoc the likes of which we have never seen and make the coronavirus look like a walk in the park.

And yet, every year, people release increasing amounts of climate change causing gases, by flying more and eating more meat. Climate change is a blind spot of human psychology. Climate change is perceived as a long-term threat and therefore people are not mobilizing like with coronavirus. As The New York Times reported, “Elke Weber, a behavioral scientist at Princeton University, said that makes climate science, which deals in future probabilities, ‘hard to process and hard for us to be afraid of. We are evolutionarily wired for taking care of the here and now. We are bad at these decisions that require planning for the future.’ ” The article noted that “Precisely because we are bad as individuals at thinking about tomorrow, economists and psychologists say it’s all the more important to have leaders enact policies that enable us to protect ourselves against future risk.”

The coronavirus transferred from one caged pangolin in a wildlife market in China to one person. Now we can see the impact that has on most people on the planet. Hopefully we can start to believe that the choices we make in our lives like flying and eating meat do affect others across the planet.

And now we have seen how much the world can do when we take a threat seriously. What seemed impossible–slowing and even stopping the spread of a virus– has now shown to be possible. In the past two weeks, China has had virtually no new cases of infection. South Korea has also succeeded in arresting the spread of the virus. This should give us hope that curbing climate change is possible. It is within our ability. It’s just a matter of will. Do we want to unleash a destabilized world of extreme storms, droughts, and fires, or do we want to continue with our current lifestyle in the short term? For which do we have a stronger will? And what about caring for the younger generation?

That’s where religion comes in. Religious leaders can help people to think long term, moderate consumption, and care about other people and creatures. The Book of Proverbs (29:18) highlights the importance of long-term thinking: “Without vision, the people perish.” The response to climate change and the ecological crisis can be motivated by more than fear but also by love for God’s creation and for other creatures. Religion can step up to the plate at this key moment where everything hangs in the balance. If you are connected to a church or synagogue or mosque, ask your clergy to speak to how religion can promote sustainability. You can use your power as a member of a house of worship to make a difference, since most clergy don’t speak on this topic.

What can we learn from the coronavirus in regards to how to curb climate change? Here are three takeaways of spiritual awakening and behavioral change that the coronavirus is messaging, beyond the fear and hysteria.

First, we are all connected and interdependent. How I live my life affects other people all over the planet. That includes animals too– like the bats and pangolins from where the virus emerged. Second, we don’t have to travel as much. Video conferencing works.

Third, we can live more simply and slow down. We don’t have to move so far and travel so far to be happy or productive. The coronavirus is messaging to us to slow down. Why does earth have a fever? Because our material desire is off the charts, because we’re moving fast flying around the world, and because we’re racing to deliver consumer products. We are overheated, and we have overheated the earth. Climate change is making viruses worse. Diseases are getting worse on an overheated planet. And this will continue to happen and to get worse. What’s a key symptom of the virus? Fever. The virus makes people feel the heat on an overheated planet.

Fourth, when there is a big problem, we take action. We need to address this issue then we have a fighting chance. The time is now.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and its Jewish Eco Seminars branch. Raised in California, Yonatan completed an M.A. and B.A. from Stanford University with a global environmental focus , and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He speaks internationally on religion and the environment, and co-organized twelve interfaith environmental conferences in Israel and the U.S. He is the lead author and general editor of three books on Jewish environmental ethics, including Eco Bible, a bestseller in several Amazon Kindle categories. He lives with his wife, Shana and their two children in Jerusalem.
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