The Graduate Center’s CHANGE series last week addressed “Climate Action After COVID-19.” The pandemic has provided us with a glimpse into a cleaner future because of changed, mainly reduced, transportation and consumption modes. But will these patterns last? Are they enough? Is simply going back to some status quo ante enough? As Stephanie Pincetl of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and one of the last night’s speakers said, “Carbon emissions are causing climate change — sorry to remind everyone of that … Airplane fares should be triple what they are … We need to move back to cause and effect.” Can we hold off climate change by changing individual behaviors, or are deeper, systemic overhauls necessary? These considerations were at the crux of last week’s discussion.


In addition to Pincetl, the event’s speakers included Stephen Hammer, adviser to the World Bank Group on climate change issues, , and Patricia Romero-Lankao, senior research scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. William Solecki, professor of geography at Hunter College and of earth and environmental sciences at The Graduate Center and director emeritus of the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities, moderated the discussion.

Solecki guided the conversation with a range of comprehensive questions on actual, potential, or necessary change on a series of COVID-19 effects interlocking with climate change.

In response to the first set of questions concerning consumption patterns, Romero-Lankao said, “Looking at personal consumption is not enough. We need to address structural factors moving us in one direction another.”

The other panelists spoke about climate change and its effects on and from cities as well as the tie between climate change and inequality, governance, and finance.

As has been well established in The Graduate Center’s  CHANGE series, COVID-19 exacerbates preexisting patterns of inequality and challenges decision- and policy-making in a democracy for adequate responses. Climate change likewise perpetuates existing inequalities and presents threats to democratic governments.

“Look at where the COVID job losses have occurred,” Hammer urged the audience. “Are we putting money into those communities? Or are we putting money where employment has continued?”

The combined challenges of COVID-19 and climate change are global. Poorer island nations on lockdown, for example, are hard hit by declining international tourism on which they are dependent. Without major course overhauls that lessen their dependency on tourism they may face humanitarian devastation.

On this and other issues, the conversation represented the major competing perspectives concerning capitalism’s ability and democracy’s capacity to regulate its impact on the biosphere that makes it possible. Please watch the entire conversation in the video link above or on The Graduate Center’s YouTube page.