Moving toward a new and improved normal

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This is the third article in a series intended to cover the Green New Deal: information about local efforts to tackle climate change while addressing social inequalities, local resources and groups working on this and local individuals setting an example for how to address the energy-related elements of the Green New Deal.

That third area was going to focus on this year’s Green Buildings Open House, which was to feature over a dozen homeowners across the county who have figured out ways to completely eliminate their use of fossil fuels in their homes for space and water heating and cooking (with many of them getting most or all their power from on- or off-site solar and their vehicle miles with EVs).

Getting off fossil fuels is the number-one imperative for taking on climate change. But along came COVID-19, and the entire world changed. On a micro level, we have had to postpone the Open House (shooting for early to mid-October). More broadly, we’ve seen an unprecedented response to this virus. Other than a few examples of spring breakers refusing to give up their partying in Florida (and elsewhere), the world is largely on shutdown.

We all understand that’s for the greater good – even if many of us, individually, have little to fear from the coronavirus. We understand that if we don’t stop the spread, we are putting millions of others at serious risk.

As difficult as it may be, some of us can transition to working from home. But millions can’t, and for those, our government is looking at ways to help support them financially so they can keep buying food and paying basic bills when they’re not able to draw a paycheck.

Collectively, we’re responding appropriately to this crisis. Even if it may have taken a bit too long to do so, by and large, we’re getting there.

There are wide varieties of ways people react and respond to a crisis. Partly it depends on how close the crisis is to us – nearby or far away, right now or in the future, affecting me personally and people I know or only affecting strangers.

As the coronavirus has moved closer to us geographically and the threat to our immediate communities has become evident, we have seen our response ramping up. But we also saw a lag in serious preparation because it started out far away.

The impacts of the climate crisis are similarly playing out far away from Tompkins County, and the danger to us personally may seem far into the future. This is one of many reasons we are having a difficult time ramping up our response to the climate crisis – even though we have the information about what could mitigate the impact.

But we know we can act collectively to reduce the impacts of climate change. Some of us have the ability to immediately transition off fossil fuels, and for others, it will be a slower process (because you have a brand new gas-fired boiler or simply can’t afford to upgrade your system right now).

Similar to coronavirus, we know there are vulnerable populations right here in our community who we need to support, both in helping them make the necessary transitions and also in reducing the impacts of an already changing climate that’s only going to get worse before it can get better.

The Green Buildings Open House is a great example of a local resource that can help show people the solutions available. Building and weatherization methods and off-the-shelf appliances that make fossil fuels obsolete include heat pumps (even for heating water!), pellet boilers, super-insulated and properly air-sealed homes, induction cooktops and more.

People are already using these appliances in their homes with great results. If you’re not familiar with any of them, call the Energy and Climate Change Outreach Team at CCETC; we’d be happy to help you understand how they work, and in many cases, how they can save you money while helping save the planet.

We’ll get through the coronavirus. We’re starting to understand that how we act now will determine how many people will suffer before we get to the other side. It’s the same thing with climate change. We need to act now, even though most of us haven’t been directly and drastically affected yet.

So, what lessons are to be learned? Neither of the two serious crises talked about here are short-term. The threat of the coronavirus will be with us for many months, and the climate crisis will be with us for many, many years.

A tornado, on the other hand, is a finite event, and when it’s over, people predictably mobilize to help each other, share what is needed, offer comfort and support, and generally think “not me, us.” But after a short while, things go back to normal.

Estimates now are that things will not go back to normal from the coronavirus for at least 18 months. And when we do get herd immunity and/or a vaccine, “normal” will be different – socially, economically, medically and in other ways.

Eighteen months may be enough time for us to develop new habits – habits of mind and habits of functioning. Research shows that it takes about three months for an individual to consciously change a habit. How long will it take for a society to change a habit? Eighteen months?

If it is true that we will change some habits over the duration of the coronavirus outbreak, then what we are seeing now provides some good lessons.

Guillermo Metz and Anne Rhodes are energy educators with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County. This is the latest installment of the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. For more information about the organization, visit their website at SustainableTompkins.org.

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