What if the Public Panicked About Climate Change Like They’re Doing Over Coronavirus?

In this Feb. 28, 2020 photo, rows of hand sanitizer are seen empty at a Walgreens in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Shelves sold out of hand sanitizer. Image: John Roark—The Idaho Post-Register/AP

For those of us who work in the climate world the fact that most Americans don’t view the climate crisis as an urgent threat is a big frustration. While there’s a 97% consensus among scientists that anthropogenic climate change is occurring and the fact that no part of the United States will come out unaffected, it’s still not very well understood by the public.

So with the coronavirus outbreak upon us, people are understandably panicking but it begs the question, what if they cared this much climate change? This isn’t to say that the public shouldn’t take coronavirus seriously, they absolutely should, but “panic buying” of goods like water, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer shows that people are willing to take action, but only when the media robustly and consistently reports on a threat.

For instance, a new study has revealed that air pollution claims nearly 9 million lives around the world prematurely each year–cutting short livespans by 3 years, yet there wasn’t any tv coverage of this stat that we could find. And here in the United States, about half of the premature deaths caused by poor air quality are linked to pollutants that blow in from other states which is claiming 100,00 needless lives each year. According to the American Lung Association, 4 in 10 Americans are living with unhealthy levels of air pollution largely due to dirty sources of energy and transportation. Yet this threat, that many of us face each and every day, goes tragically underreported.

What’s Going On: We wrote earlier this week that the mainstream media’s coverage of climate change and environmental issues is absolutely dismal. If Americans are viewing coverage of climate issues it’s usually piecemeal, out of context and can vary across media outlets.

However, when it comes to the coronavirus, there’s been such a spike of coverage that it’s created a full-on panic among the public. Americans are seeing coverage of the virus across multiple media platforms in a consistent manner, which is bringing awareness and driving public concern. On the other hand, you’ve probably seen very little coverage that NOAA predicts this year’s flooding in the Midwest could rival last year’s catastrophic floods that claimed lives and also helped spread disease to livestock and people.

Another underreported health threat? The fact that this record-breaking warm winter will drive a boom in ticks that spread a multitude of very serious diseases.

Why This Matters: Coronavirus is scary and has been a rapidly-escalating threat, whereas climate change is a steady (but very much increasing) drumbeat of warning. However, Americans have largely been able to tune out climate change–they’re concerned but most aren’t panicking about it. And sure, pandemics are terrifying but by the numbers, climate change and pollution are claiming far more lives every year.

The difference? People care about the issues that they’re exposed to, and if climate change isn’t being talked about on tv (where most Americans get their news) then how can we possibly expect them to take climate change as seriously as they need?

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