Today, as this column is being written (June 1), is the official opening of a hurricane season that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has estimated will be quite active. It comes, as scientists have predicted and proved, that increasing heat stored in the oceans and atmosphere bring increasingly severe storms, floods and droughts.

The coronavirus pandemic is colliding with the climate crisis. In some ways, we are poised to learn from this collision. In other ways, many around the world, including in our country, will suffer its aftereffects.

The pandemic is already teaching us to listen to the scientists, and there is some reason to believe this is a lesson learned. I am not a social scientist, but it is my understanding that it has historically been a truism that humans have a finite capacity for worry, and that a new huge worry will displace, or diminish, an old worry.

For example, a survey from Yale and George Mason universities, conducted April 7 through 17, when most of the nation was sheltering in place, compared attitudes at this time to attitudes during the Great Recession from 2008 through 2010. During the Great Recession, public acceptance of the reality of the climate crisis and its causes dropped by 14 percent.

However, the onset of the pandemic has apparently not resulted in a loss of the public’s knowledge of or concern for the climate crisis. In their words, the climate crisis has become a “durable worry” with nearly three-quarters of people responding to the survey indicating the climate crisis is real and we need to act on it now.

There are also some signs that the admonition to “be prepared” has taken hold in many of the agencies and organizations given the job of responding to hurricanes and other disasters, in many cases altering key assumptions and adopting new response strategies.

It starts from an understanding that, for example, just before a hurricane strikes in Florida people may be confused by contradictory messages. Stay at home and practice social distancing to avoid the coronavirus, but evacuate and go to a crowded emergency shelter where there is safety from the storm but potential exposure to the virus.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have been working on guidelines for these situations. In addition to figuring out how to safely shelter huge numbers of evacuees and provide food, restrooms and other necessities, they along with many of the organizations planning for involvement in responding to a disaster while in the middle of a pandemic are thinking through the collision and have identified what may turn out to be the most significant vulnerability: a lack of a sufficient number of volunteers.

The National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters anticipates that one effect of the coronavirus on disaster relief will be a 50 percent reduction in the number of volunteers, the people who distribute food and supplies and help clear debris.

Significantly, the Salvation Army indicates that 75 percent of their volunteers are age 65 or older. The Red Cross and other relief organizations share this estimate and, given that this age group is the most vulnerable to the virus, relief agencies indicate they will be reluctant to ask them to come help.

Further casting light on the collision of the pandemic with the climate crisis, organizations such as the Salvation Army have taken a huge hit to their budgets due to the closure of their stores and loss of sales. And loss of funding extends to cities and counties, since federal law requires local governments to put up a 25-percent match for federal emergency funds and volunteer services can count towards that obligation.

We sometimes forget the role seniors play in our communities, volunteering with food banks, becoming docents at museums, helping hospitals and medical facilities run smoothly, tutoring school kids, helping with disasters, and literally dozens and dozens of other activities. The time and expertise donated by seniors is a critical component in maintaining the vibrancy and cohesion of our communities.

A lifetime ago, I worked at the Secretary of State’s office in the Elections Division. It was true then, and it’s true now, that the overwhelming percentage of people who volunteer to work at polling places on election day are senior citizens. Elections are a key element of determining our future in terms of the climate crisis. A reduction in the number of these stalwart workers who are one of the foundational pillars of the infrastructure of our democracy will be a significant challenge to continuing the fair and efficient conduct of our elections.

Taken together, this adds up to a senior moment for our country, or, put another way, a moment to understand one of the connections between the coronavirus and the climate crisis. It’s becoming commonly understood that policies enacted after the pandemic is controlled will, for better or for worse, shape the course of the climate crisis and also have collateral effects on how we are able to respond to future disasters.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to

Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise

Published online on June 03, 2020 | Printed in the June 03, 2020 edition on page A3