What coronavirus is teaching us about climate change

Coronavirus is a climate change story, even in Goshen, Indiana.

As Glenn Gilbert, director of facilities at Goshen College, monitors energy production and consumption on the Goshen College campus from his house, he reports that at 1 p.m. on a Friday, energy consumption is down to 270 kilowatts. 

“That would be typical of three o’clock in the morning,” Gilbert said. “Yeah, the campus is pretty empty right now.”

And City Forester Aaron Kingsley, who began his role as director of environmental resilience for the city of Goshen this past January, notes decreased air pollution on a global scale and increased engagement with green spaces.

“There is an ecological environmental benefit to the way that we are stopping,” Kingsley said, as 42 states are now under Stay-At-Home orders, including Indiana.

But Gilbert and Kingsley see the link between the pandemic and climate change going beyond current energy and air quality statistics. This is a link grounded in human behavior, where newly uncovered vulnerabilities in resources and resilience during the pandemic only raise more questions about how humans will work to respond to the larger impending crisis of climate change.

“It’s not in my crisis management manual, what we are going to do about climate change,” said Gilbert, a member of the Crisis Management Team at GC. 

Gilbert and five other members of the team have been meeting since Feb. 4 in response to COVID-19, but what began as a weekly meeting soon turned into twice-a-day starting March 12. Three days later, students were asked to return home by Thursday, March 19. 

22 students currently remain on campus, according to Chad Coleman, director of campus safety and housing operations and co-leader of the Crisis Management Team.

The Crisis Management Team has existed for more than 20 years, according to Gilbert, but dealing with a pandemic, let alone the impacts of climate change, is new. 

“There are ways that decisions we made three weeks ago seem like no-brainers now,” said Jodi Beyeler, co-leader of the Crisis Management Team and vice president for communications and people strategy. “And yet they’re really hard at the moment because you’re fundamentally changing the way people operate and you don’t have all the answers about how to do that.”

Goshen College approved changes to an academic policy for the spring semester on April 1, allowing students to opt for credit/no-credit in their classes. And on April 8, President Rebecca Stoltzfus confirmed a virtual commencement for the class of 2020. 

“We’ve often joked how our email threads and meeting agendas will be requested by campus historians some day for the Mennonite Historical Library,” Coleman said.

As the team works to respond to the crisis, goals of reducing the spread, keeping students and staff safe, supporting continuing education and dealing with financial impact guide this unprecedented work. 

“How far is our society capable of changing before it feels unrecognizable to us,” said Jonathon Schramm, associate professor of sustainability and environmental education at Goshen College. 

The same is true for climate change.

“I think one reason responding to climate change has been difficult for the world is just that it can be hard to imagine a different set-up of life as being better than the one we know, even if we know the current one is flawed,” he said.

Kingsley agrees.

Goshen is a city with enough resources to deal with the pandemic, according to Kingsley. But to add a tornado or massive flood disaster in the midst of this pandemic movement is “something else altogether,” he said.

“This is a mini moment that is fraught with urgency and is revealing issues about vulnerabilities in our resilience, both at the global and local level, in precisely the way that I think climate change will do for us,” he said. 

The #flattenthecurve movement, which gained traction in February with a graph by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, encouraged people to self-isolate and stay at home in hopes of slowing down the spread of COVID-19.

A new graph produced by Sustainable Fashion Forum replaces the “healthcare system capacity” line with “Earth’s capacity.”

“Flattening the curve is exactly what we’re after in terms of climate change, and the curve is typically expressed in terms of global temperature rise,” Kingsley said.

While Schramm agrees, he notes that the current pandemic is an acute problem, but climate change is a chronic one.

“In either case, acting early and preventatively is better than acting later and reactively,” Schramm said. “And this is especially true for pandemics and climate change.”

Kingsley and Schramm point out one big difference between the pandemic and climate change: timing. People are being moved to respond to the pandemic because they have to; it is happening right now, and it’s visible.

“The issue of climate change is still that it is too slow. It’s too slow-moving,” Kingsley said.

Which is why Kingsley sees this time in quarantine as an invitation to start paying attention to how we are dealing with this crisis, “which is unlike any other within living memory,” he said.

“What are the things that are working for us during the pandemic?” Kingsley said. “It’s our green space, it’s our green infrastructure, it’s the stuff that doesn’t require much or any kind of human input. That’s something to really hold on to and build a resilient community around.”

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Written by Mackenzie Miller, Executive Editor

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