What COVID-19 Teaches about Climate Change and Ourselves

Zachary Vereb

We are re-sharing essays submitted to ‘The Reflection Pond,’ the opinion section of this past year’s ISEE newsletter. This submission was part of s series on Covid-19 and Environmental Ethics.

Half Full or Half Empty? 2020 has been quite the year, almost like a crash in slow motion. Yet much was predictable. Had we heeded warnings from the scientific community, we would, perhaps, have been more prepared. After all, we’ve been told that pandemic-like events become more likely in a warmer, globalized world. So, what’s going on? Well, take a look at the social mood. It’s a gloomy state of things. Just as a glass of water predictably heats up in the muggy Florida summer, we sweat and lose our train of thought. The connections between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change—connections that should be readily apparent—are hardly acknowledged, at least by non-experts.

A Half Empty Glass. The COVID-19 burnout we feel in 2020 connects with a widespread climate nihilism, informing the mood of many philosophers and laypersons about the state of the world. If the previous decade, crowned with 2020, could be represented by a philosopher, we might have to choose the pessimist Schopenhauer. From this perspective, both the pandemic and the climate crisis show us that we are in no way capable of thinking collectively and for the long term; we are hopelessly selfish and shortsighted. In short, the glass appears not only half empty, but half full of undrinkable tar. Though the tar does make for good poetry, as Schopenhauer will tell you.

A Half Full Glass. Yet, at the same time, the optimist declares that the pandemic is a blessing in disguise. It is, as it were, the cunning hand of nature working through us. After all, who can deny that quarantines helped environments to recover, reduced smog, and lowered—if only temporarily—carbon footprints. From the optimistic vantage, COVID-19 reveals we can in fact come together, that some jobs can be done more efficiently, and that we are in it for the long haul. Our optimist might also turn into a misanthrope, bitter after seeing humans bungle this opportunity to learn and change. Nature will move on. Humans, perhaps not. For her, the glass is half full—not of tar, but of unpotable water. And for our optimist, it is also half full, but we hardly know for how long.

A Glass and a Boundary. Unfortunately, optimism isn’t the way either. It doesn’t fit the mood. It’s tone deaf. Is there a middle way—a way for mediating pessimism and nihilism with the optimism of some environmentalists? I present here some food for thought, food that might sit nicely next to that glass of water in the hot Florida heat: this pandemic presents an opportunity to teach us about climate change and, more importantly, ourselves.

Looking at the Glass Again. Let us, as environmental philosophers, appropriate the questions Kant returned to again and again. Yes, I mean Immanuel Kant. While Kant is sometimes seen as a bane to environmentalists and animal welfarists, hear me out. It may be fruitful for us to consider Kant’s four questions of philosophy as a heuristic for thinking about our predicament. Maybe they can help us think about viewing the glass anew:

What can we know?
What should we do?
What may we hope for?
What is a human being?

This is no time for a foray into epistemology (or epidemiology). Kant’s first question presses us to rethink how we understand ourselves as embedded in a dynamic earth-system. If this sounds wild, just recall that Kant himself wrote, in his early days, about atmospheres, climates, and earthquakes. The question becomes: what can we learn about the connections between pandemics and climate? This naturally leads us into the question of what we should do about it. Kant’s universalism and enlightenment cosmopolitanism seem relevant for mediating the two extreme sides of the glass. We are, first and foremost, citizens of the world—a universal community. Progress for that community is real, but only if we believe in it and make it a reality.

Next: what may we hope for regarding our predicament, without succumbing to defeatism or magical thinking? Our hope can only be rationally sustained if we stay grounded and receptive to new information. Lastly, we are pressed to consider who we are and who we want to become. Each question intimates the next, and this final one integrates them all. What does it mean to be human in the Anthropocene? Perhaps the way we answer this will give us a clue for how to move forward.

Philosophy and Humanity. Kant’s questions are timely. If this pandemic is, as some have said, a dress rehearsal for our climate future, then answering questions about how to understand the pandemic requires us to think deeply about human values. This is a task for which philosophy is, indeed, quite suited. Let’s start there.

Zachary Vereb is Visiting Assistant Professor of Public Policy Leadership at the University of Mississippi.