The coronavirus pandemic is changing our lives in so many ways and it is also changing our environment—for the better. As we isolate indoors, animals and nature are flourishing outdoors. The polluted sky is clearing and parents are looking out their windows at a world and a future that could be better post-pandemic. This could be a turning point for our children, the earth and their future—but only if we learn from this moment.
We've said it before here at Motherly: We won't go back to normal, we want better than normal. When the threat of the virus wanes we must remember the inequality it revealed and how it made sustainable living not just a trend, but an absolute necessity.
As kids, we all learned to reduce, reuse and recycle but a culture of consumption saw a generation turn its back on the Three Rs. But now that we're home, witnessing how the world can change when fewer cars are on the roads, planes are grounded and when newly frugal consumers choose longevity over convenience we're coming back to them. Millennial parents are baking their own bread instead of buying loaves wrapped in plastic, we're communicating with colleagues remotely instead of commuting to an air-conditioned office and we can change our habits for the sake of kids' health and their futures.
Our children have always been worried about climate change
Being home with our kids more means we are hearing their concerns more often, and so many of them are anxious not only about the pandemic but also about climate change. Seeing animals return to America's National Parks and adults switch to sustainable alternatives to disposable household products is a welcome sight to the majority of American teens who fear climate change.
In early February environment and energy reporter Jason Plautz noted an unnerving anecdote in a piece for the Washington Post, writing: "A psychiatrist I interviewed told me [an underage] patient had confessed that she secretly wished a pandemic would strike to ease stress on the planet."
That teen did not wish COVID-19 into existence, but young people like her are helping stop it while appreciating this opportunity for a cultural reset. According to UNICEF, "the last few years have seen young people around the world raising their voices on an unprecedented scale, asking adults and leaders to protect them from climate change. Now, by staying inside and taking their climate marches online, young people are showing solidarity with the older members of society, who are more vulnerable to the virus, by helping to stop the spread."
Teens understand these issues in a way that little kids cannot, but younger children, too, are worried about the consequences of a world in which Amazon packages of cheap plastic goods arrive quickly but progress to reduce the burning of fossil fuels is painfully slow.
What COVID-19 and climate change have in common
The novel coronavirus and unchecked carbon emissions both have the potential to change our world for the worse in different ways, but according to UNICEF the two issues have important similarities. As the organization noted in a news release this week, "both climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic require us to listen to experts, to unite behind the science."
The lessons plans UNICEF created for parents to use on Earth Day can also help young children understand the pandemic. William Finnegan is a PhD Candidate at the University of Oxford, and he is encouraging parents to consider making climate change part of their distance learning plan if it isn't already. Finnegan writes: "Climate change is an interdisciplinary subject that both school children and adults think is important. And as we deal with the current crisis—which is also having its own effects on the environment—there is perhaps no better time to think about how to avoid the next, potentially even greater one."
Focus on hope when talking to your kids
The stats show kids are anxious about climate change, and now is not the time for adults to make that worse. We can talk to kids about climate change and the pandemic without scaring them, and research suggests we should.
A study out of Sweden found that when kids experience 'constructive hope' for climate change and see the role they can play in helping the Earth they're positively influenced to take on environmentally protective behavior, but when their hope for the future comes through denial of science or an uncritical belief that everything will work out somehow the positive impact isn't there. When kids get overwhelmed, unconstructive hope can turn into pessimism.
"It's important to counteract the nihilism and the hopelessness that people feel," registered psychologist Christine Korol, the director of the Vancouver Anxiety Centre, told CTV News."Hopelessness is the big enemy of solving any problem, including climate change. When we're talking about children, we need to give them hope."
Parents can encourage kids to be hopeful by helping kids consider the positive side-effects of the pandemic, and what lessons their family and their country can take away from this time.
How to take action
According to Dr. Aaron Bernstein, a Pediatric Hospitalist at Boston Children's Hospital and the Interim Director of The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the world needs "to take climate action to prevent the next pandemic."
He says "many of the root causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics."
We can start with small actions at home:
- Consider fewer meat dishes when menu planning, and consider getting meat from a sustainable source when you do include it. If that's not financially feasible right now, consider more dishes with legumes and other pulses as a cheap and healthy alternative to meat. "Large livestock farms can also serve as a source for spillover of infections from animals to people," says Bernstein. "Less demand for animal meat and more sustainable animal husbandry could decrease emerging infectious disease risk and lower greenhouse gas emissions."
- Try gardening or growing a small amount of food to help your kids connect with their food.
- Have your kids do a disposability audit: How many products in your grocery order are disposable? Have your kids look through your list and involve them in creating or sourcing alternatives to things like paper towels, plastic water bottles and straws.
- Talk about your carbon footprint and how you can work together as a family to reduce it.
The pandemic and sustainability are linked says Bernstein, who testified before Congress last year regarding how child health is impacted by climate change. "We've had a few shots over the bow here – SARS, MERS, COVID, Ebola. We need to hear what nature is trying to tell us, which is clear: let's be smarter about how we do business with the biosphere and stop disrupting the climate we depend on," says Bernstein.
Deforestation and other consequences of unsustainable human practices and making it easier for diseases to spread and air pollution and social inequality are making vulnerable groups more vulnerable.
A cultural shift in consumption can be the legacy of the lockdown
We're using less of everything these days as we mind our shrinking savings accounts and recommendations of public health authorities. From paper coffee cups to milk to utilities, consumption is down.
"U.S. electricity use on March 27, 2020 was 3% lower than on March 27, 2019" Peter Fox-Penner, the Director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy, and Professor of Practice at Boston University's Questrom School of Business explains for The Conversation.
According to Fox-Penner, recessions reduce the demand for power greatly. He says the 2008 recession "reduced power demand in the United States by about 10 years' worth of growth."
Fox-Penner worries that the pandemic is having a harmful impact on the production of renewable energy components, like solar panels, but says in the long term people will still be looking for toward carbon-free energy when we emerge from the pandemic.
The world will be different after this pandemic. But it's going to be better, too.