Social Distancing? You Might Be Fighting Climate Change, Too

Will any of the low-carbon behaviors that people have adopted persist after the crisis passes? Charles Duhigg, the author of “The Power of Habit” and a former New York Times reporter, said habits built over lifetimes are hard to shake. “As soon as the environment becomes stable again, the habit starts to reassert itself” unless there is a “powerful reward” to the new behavior.

Mr. Duhigg said that while there is no set time for a habit to form or change, some cultural habits could, if the pandemic response lasts long enough, take hold. One example: shaking hands. “I could see other kinds of behavior replacing that habit, or maybe just diminishing,” and wondered aloud whether his own children might one day think “hand shaking is a weird, old-timey thing.”

Some practices, like videoconferencing and telecommuting, may gain ground, Mr. Duhigg said, for a reward of saved time and trouble. He expressed doubts, however, that leisure travel behavior would see a similar shift. “It seems unlikely to me that people will say, ‘You know, I loved not taking vacations. I learned staying at home with my kids is so rewarding!’”

Dr. Nicholas, who makes an effort to fly less for conferences, said the best result of this epidemic could be “finding new ways to work and collaborate and learn and study and share, with less physical travel,” she said.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said that the disease, for all of the pain and destruction it is causing, can teach important lessons. “It’s unfortunate to learn it this way, but we’re learning we can do a whole lot more today in terms of what we do, how we do it and where we do it.”

“Never waste even a tragic crisis,” he said.

For more climate news sign up for the Climate Fwd: newsletter or follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.