Sigrid Wright, director of the Community Environmental Council. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Sigrid Wright normally works at breakneck speed. That’s a big reason the organization she leads, the Community Environmental Council, is so successful. But like the rest of us, Wright has been forced to slow down. She’s used the time to reflect on the similarities between the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis, and how the current emergency could help us navigate the even bigger threat to our future. This week, we talked by phone while she stopped by her empty office. The plants desperately needed watering. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you and others start recognizing the parallels between the coronavirus crisis and climate crisis?  From week one, this has been a conversation. And it started with, wow, look what we can do when we decide to mobilize. Partly, it was a WTF? This is what the climate movement’s been asking for for a long time: this World War II level mobilization, calling it an emergency, everyone making sacrifices for the greater good ― all of it. In fact, that first week, there was a banner hanging in Isla Vista that read: “If only we treated climate change the way we’re dealing with COVID-19.” It’s poignant, that statement.

How has staying at home actually helped move the needle on some climate goals?  Well, we see what happens when we stop driving. We’ve been talking about vehicle miles traveled, or VMTs, for years, and it’s a super hard nut to crack. Americans in general and Californians in particular are really attached to our cars, and we also have a very significant jobs-housing imbalance that forces us to live away from our job centers. Santa Barbara County is definitely reflective of those trends.

But here we are, living the experiment of what it looks and feels like to work from home. We’re using Zoom platforms and other team-management platforms, and employers are having to get comfortable with that. Now, the question is going to be whether we can carry that over. In times of drought, for example, we adopted water reduction habits. So what if we started working from home one or two times a month? That’s a 10 percent reduction of cars off the road. That feels doable.

The extreme reduction in air travel has also been really interesting. That’s almost a climate silver bullet because a year of car travel for the average person is basically equivalent to one international flight in terms of carbon intensity. We’ve shown that we don’t have to travel for meetings and gatherings and conferences. That’s one that I think could stick.

What about the examples we’re seeing of the planet already healing itself? Are those potentially lasting things, or just fleeting and unrealistic glimpses of what could be?  This is all, remember, just a half of a minuscule blip in a greater cosmic timeframe. But it is showing humans what is possible. We can actually visualize a different reality ― seeing the Himalayas and the Taj Mahal again, and cleaner air in L.A. It’s a very different story than just talking about it theoretically. To get really metaphysical, that allows us to dream it into being.

It reminds me of using virtual reality to illustrate what sea-level rise would look like in different cities and communities.  Exactly. We are literalizing what would have been metaphors. Every metaphor feels very deep right now. For instance, we are smack in the middle of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, when we anticipated gathering in the greatest way possible to commemorate 50 years of environmentalism. But we are scattered, forced to stay home. That same kind of imagery became the metaphor for the environmental movement 50 years ago when the first Earthrise photo was taken. It went really viral, in the way things could go viral in that time.

It was taken during Apollo 8, this very lonely mission out in space, when we thought we were documenting the moon. Instead, we turned around and looked back and learned about ourselves and our home. It feels like the same thing is emerging here, where we have been forced to go home and turn around and look back at ourselves, and it’s actually the isolation that is reminding us of our connectivity and our humanity.

I sometimes worry that humanity is just a scourge on the planet, that all we do is hurt it. Do you ever feel that way?  No, I don’t buy into that. I don’t think that humans are an anomaly or that we were a mistake. The Pope said recently the coronavirus pandemic could be nature’s response to climate change. I really resonated with that. We have greatly stressed Earth’s resources, but I subscribe more to the belief that we are a species that learns and is about learning about ourselves, and that for whatever reason, this is the path that we have chosen; this is the next lesson that we are learning. 

That’s been a heartache for me around climate change, because we’ve known about it for a long time, we’ve had the information, but we…. It’s kind of like if you’ve ever been in a close relationship with an addict. You’re watching them and telling them: “You’re really on the wrong path, and at some point you’re going to have to get on the right path.” But for whatever reason, that’s the journey that they are on.

What kind of major societal disruptions are we seeing now that the climate crisis could also bring?  I have a feeling this pandemic is going to force a much broader household conversation about the food system, the way that previous crises have got us thinking about the energy system. Disruptions are all along the chain ― not enough workers in the fields, so stuff is being left to rot; tankers of milk just being dumped since they can’t move it along. So we’re seeing empty grocery store shelves for the first time in our lives. We have the food, we have the workers, we have the space, and we have the need. But everything has to get matched up, and it’s a bit of a Rubik’s cube. This is requiring a complete realignment. 

The $2 trillion stimulus package ― will any of that be used to move us to a more sustainable energy system? And isn’t it super frustrating that the climate crisis can’t get that kind of funding?  Unbelievable, right? We have been asking for that kind of stimulus for over a decade. We know what kind of innovation it would drive, how it would be used to put people [in the fossil-fuel industry] back to work, and so forth. You may see some of those themes emerge in the next stimulus package. This first batch just had to get out the door. It might be something for [Rep. Salud Carbajal’s] office to look at.

We’re trusting science to get us through this pandemic. Do you think that will convince climate-denying policymakers to rely more on science to confront the environmental crisis?  When we talk about the curve projections of the pandemic, we’re all over the map. Some models have us peaking in April, some all the way in August, so it’s really difficult to prepare. But on climate, we have decades of data and there’s a lot more agreement on what is likely to be seen. Still, we’ve told ourselves the story that it is far off in the future while the pandemic is an immediate threat. Of course, that’s a fallacy.

So I hope if there’s nothing else to be gained from this, it’s a shift in that mindset. It doesn’t just feel like we are having more and more climate emergencies. We are having more and more emergencies. We don’t know what they are going to be or what they’re going to look like, but thinking about what it means for us functionally ― in terms of our own household preparedness and our societal preparedness ― is really important. That’s why I stopped using the term “social distancing” and instead say “physical distancing.” Because it is that social connectivity that is going to get us through this crisis and the next.

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