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Two Steps Forward

Can we flatten the curve on climate?

We learn from experience, plain and simple. Almost any new skill or knowledge we gain is based in part on what we already know or have experienced. In a classroom setting, experience-based learning differs from rote or didactic learning in that students play a more active role in the process rather than just memorize stuff.

It’s contextual: Experiential learning enables us to figure out what to do with the knowledge we acquire. And it’s additive: The more we experience, the more we can learn. There’s no practical limit to the amount or kind of information that is possible to absorb and internalize.

In that context, what a great learning moment we are currently in!

It’s hard to overstate how much we are experiencing right now, and what we’re learning as a result: What it’s like to isolate ourselves from the rest of society. How to think about the common good while protecting our own well-being and self-interest. How to view a problem simultaneously at the personal, community, national and global scales. What it’s like to be part of a problem that none of us can control, including government at the highest level, but which can’t be remedied without everyone playing their part.

It’s hard to overstate how much we are experiencing right now, and what we’re learning as a result.
A lot already has been written about what the coronavirus pandemic means for climate change — how billions of individual actions affect global problems and their solutions, for example, or the importance of listening to scientists and other experts rather than idealists and ideologues.

We’re also learning about the fearsome abilities of disease vectors to rapidly spread and infect, given the right conditions. We’re learning what it means to be resilient in the face of massive disruption. We’re learning how to live with a clear and present danger while still holding our lives together and looking ahead to the day when it will all have passed.

And, amid all that, we’re learning about the notion of "flattening the curve."

I’ve previously noted that the pandemic is but a dress rehearsal for living in a climate-changing world, but that’s an admittedly fatalistic perspective in which I’d rather not dwell. Instead, I’m finding inspiration in what we’re learning about taking early, concerted action on a catastrophic global problem in order to ensure that we can mitigate its worst impacts.

I probably don’t need to explain the graphic above. It’s a repurposing of the now-well-understood concept of spreading out the impacts of a public health crisis so that those who are here to help — healthcare professionals, first responders, political leaders, community groups — can address the crisis in a sustained, orderly fashion.

It’s a notion that may be oversimplified by this visualization, but it sends a clear and brutal message: Act now or else.

So, my question: Can we extend the "flatten the curve" meme to climate change and make it as ubiquitously understood and accepted as it is for the coronavirus?

I can think of several reasons why flattening the climate curve is a useful, if imperfect, framing:

  • It’s simple to grasp, especially after the pandemic experience: The more we can control the uncontrollable, the better we’ll be able to adapt and weather the impacts.
  • It connotes a shared experience — something that everyone needs to be working towards in order to address the crisis.
  • It’s aspirational yet measurable — a big idea that we can track at any given moment to determine whether we’re moving far enough, fast enough.
  • It creates an umbrella for a vast array of solutions, from personal habits and policy changes to transformational technologies and new systems of commerce.
  • It doesn’t necessarily pick on any one business sector or human activity but leaves it to us to determine, individually and collectively, what needs to be done.
  • It suggests that we — each family, neighborhood and community — need to have a plan in place to address various scenarios and be ready to implement it.
  • It makes it crystal clear that early action will ease later problems.

Differences and downsides

Of course, there are some big differences between the climate curve and the pandemic one. The pandemic was sudden and will be temporal: It seemingly came out of the blue and eventually will move on, although many things no doubt will be different after than before. With climate, everyone knows the impacts are coming — they're already here. And while those impacts will be mostly gradual for a while, they eventually will become severe and persistent, possibly extending for a century or more.

We’ll have to beware of potential downsides of propagating this meme. As people poke their heads out once the pandemic eases, they likely will be resistant to the warning signs of another purported emergency, especially one whose impacts could be a ways off. They may be so fed up with the recent inconveniences — social distancing, toilet paper wars and all the rest — that another "flatten the curve" guideline or mandate could be a source of cynicism, if not outright hostility.

And we’ve still got weeks or months to go until we’re through the worst of this crisis. (Earth Day may be the last thing folks want to hear about later this month.) Timing will be essential.

Still, we should heed, if not seize, the moment, building however possible on this shared experience. For all the detailed scientific understanding about the climate, we have yet to grasp the science of communicating effectively on this topic, countering the myths and misinformation that have frustrated most attempts to engage the public on the climate crisis and embolden them into action.

Can we do it? Should we? I’d love your thoughts.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.

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