As bad as this is, the coronavirus pandemic embodies a silver lining — the opportunity for a global self-correction. The correction has lessons related to our pace of life, our short-sighted “self-interests” that are blind to long-term self-interests, the reality that we are all connected, and the fact that facts and science must trump politics and ego.

The World Health Organization had/has a plan for a pandemic virus. The legally binding revision, signed by 196 countries including the U.S., stipulated that the WHO would serve as a central coordinating body, but many countries did not follow the plan and did not heed the warnings of the WHO. Rather than understand our connectedness, countries chose to do as they pleased.

On another level, this virus has given us the opportunity to live at a different pace — not only for our health and sanity, but for our survival as a species. We all have been guilty of sacrificing our ability to enjoy life’s simple pleasures in the midst of our busy-ness, which this virus is re-teaching us to appreciate with long walks, cooking, conversations and appreciation of each other. 

Perhaps this is also our opportunity to take a step back, understand the global predicament that we are in with COVID-19 and the climate crisis, and create the mental, emotional and spiritual space to think about the world beyond self and make our collective future a priority.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated in a recent landmark report that we are setting ourselves up for a world of worsening food shortages, droughts, extreme weather events, wildfires, related human suffering and death, and $54 trillion in economic damage if global temperatures surpass a 1.5 degree Celsius increase above preindustrial levels by 2040. To prevent a 1.5 degree Celsius increase in warming, greenhouse pollution must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050. We’re not even close.

The coronavirus pandemic may likely be a dress rehearsal for future climate crisis consequences that will make this current pandemic seem like child’s play in retrospect. We need to get through this current pandemic, support our businesses and institutions, honor our frontline workers, grieve our losses, and pull together to solve the immediate crisis at hand. 

But make no mistake, if we don’t learn to collaborate on pressing global issues, make adjustments in how we are using Earth’s resources, and take the time to do so now, then we simply are rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic as we go about our daily to-do lists.

Our businesses and institutions must make commitments and plans now — as some are — to develop timelines and strategies for reaching net zero energy within our buildings; achieving zero emissions related to all energy, transportation, and waste in advance of the recommended science-based timelines; and shift rapidly toward a 100 percent renewable energy economy. 

If we allow the coronavirus pandemic’s silver lining to wake us up toward planning and action now for the future, then this episode will have taught us valuable lessons that give us the chance to position ourselves for a more hopeful future for our children and the next generations.

Gary Cuneen is the founder and executive director of Seven Generations Ahead, a 19-year-old sustainable communities nonprofit based in Oak Park, working to combat the climate crisis.

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