What is COVID-19 teaching us about solving the climate crisis?
COVID-19 has rapidly changed the world we live in, as governments rightly prioritise our safety and wellbeing and ask us all to stay home. One of the upshots, for those of us lucky enough to be well, is that we now have plenty of time to reflect. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has spent time in lockdown thinking about what the new, but hopefully temporary, world order means for the climate and environmental crisis.
I’ve been noticing, in particular, many analogies between the two crises. Here are three of the biggest:
- They’re global in scale and experts have been sounding the warnings for years
It was not just the stuff of dystopian Hollywood fantasies: global health experts have long known that there was going to be a pandemic. Following recent localised epidemics – Ebola, MERS, SERS – epidemiologists and others, like Gro Harlem Brundtland and Bill Gates, were warning that the world needed to prepare for a highly infectious, airborne virus pandemic. If it didn’t, they cautioned, the economy could be severely damaged and many people could die. This will be dispiritingly familiar to climate scientists and campaigners who have shouted warnings into the void for decades. It has only been in the past few years that the general public and politicians have started to understand the issue, heed the warnings and move towards solutions.
- They’re caused, at least in part, by disrespect for our natural support systems
Inefficiencies in the global economy encourage the clearing of land for logging, resource extraction and agriculture, all of which are important drivers of climate change. These activities also lead to more, and more unusual, species interactions. As global health expert Alanna Shaikh notes: “When we burn and plough the Amazon rainforest so that we can have cheap land for ranching, when the last of the African bush gets converted to farms, when wild animals in China are hunted to extinction, human beings come into contact with wildlife populations that they’ve never come into contact with before, and those populations have new kinds of diseases: bacteria, viruses, stuff we’re not ready for.” What’s more, pathogens are particularly likely to jump from bats or rats to humans, and these are the animals that thrive when natural habitats are disturbed.
- They require international efforts to solve them, on a scale that before seemed impossible
The current coronavirus pandemic has seen society transformed almost overnight with unthinkable levels of state intervention across the world to ward off the worst, including from those governments previously inclined to shrink the state. These responses have been made with little hesitation.The phenomenal human and economic costs of the current intervention has shown us that, in the case of future pandemics, as with climate change, prevention will be necessary. In 2016, the US’s National Academy of Medicine’s Commission on a Global Health Risk Framework estimated that investing around $4.5 billion per year would make the world much safer from the threat of pandemics, and this stacked up well compared to the cost of being unprepared. During the 21st century, they said, global pandemics could cost in excess of $6 trillion, with an expected loss of more than $60 billion per year. The economic case for tackling climate change follows the same logic. Nicholas Stern and others have said that spending two per cent of GDP now can prevent the worst impacts, and the cost of not dealing with it will be far, far greater: at least five per cent and potentially as much as 14 per cent of GDP, if wider impacts like health are included in the calculations.
Coronavirus shutdown is not what climate action looks like
But there are differences, of course. Perhaps the starkest is that the response to COVID-19 is nothing like what a successful response to climate change will look like. Some, especially in America, have suggested that climate activists are rejoicing at the global shutdown caused by the virus. That is patently ludicrous. Despite the many warnings, the pandemic has caught us unawares and required immediate extreme measures that will come at a price to the economy, as well as people’s health, livelihoods and their communities.
Solving climate change, though urgent, is still going to be a long game. That means, with planning, that we will not have to suddenly shut down factories and other workplaces and stop all flights, let alone lock ourselves inside. Some things we do will need to change (notably we should buy fewer but better things and, yes, we should fly less), but factories, transport and societal norms will be able to function in a sustainable way in future. The important word is ‘transition’, allowing us to protect livelihoods and communities. Many things in this future will actually be better. Green Alliance has plenty of evidence, for instance, that it could lead to more localised and resilient food supply chains, a switch to efficient industries providing thousands of high quality new jobs around the country, and of course cleaner air, more comfortable homes that are cheaper to run, and healthier diets and lifestyles.
What lessons are we learning now?
Apart from reinforcing the idea that prevention is definitely better than the cure when it comes to climate change, there will be other valuable things to learn from the pandemic over the coming weeks.
For now, the three important lessons we should take from this current crisis, that will be relevant to our efforts to avoid the worst in future, are:
- Listen to the experts.
Coronavirus has seen a welcome return of respect for experts. The government has insisted it has been “guided by the science” at every stage, and it was the startling academic modelling from Imperial College suggesting up to half a million people could die in the UK that jarred it into taking much more drastic action. A similar respect should be given to what the scientists and economists are telling us about climate change.
- People are willing to change.
There was a bit of a stumble in the UK’s response to coronavirus when unclear government guidance was left dangerously open to interpretation and people carried on gathering. But most people here, as elsewhere, have now shown that they’re willing to change their behaviour drastically to protect others. What these relatively short term actions might mean for the long term behaviour changes needed to protect our planet isn’t clear, but it does give hope that people will alter their actions where they see the need. And politicians would do well to listen to what the representative citizens taking part in Climate Assembly UK say they are willing to do and the policies they want the government to adopt. (The pandemic prevented the final weekend assembly taking place, but it is still expected to report.)
- The economy has to work for both people and the planet.
To prevent climate change and future pandemics, we need an economy that doesn’t rely on pushing or exceeding planetary boundaries to function. But we also need to ensure that no one is left behind. COVID-19 has proved remarkably egalitarian. It has been indiscriminate in its infection of the upper reaches of both government and royalty as well as thousands of others in the past week alone. But it is notable that – regardless of what tone deaf celebrities might tell us – the well-off are better able to cope with the virus and the resultant shutdown. That’s not only because they have large gardens and multiple rooms, or even different homes, to choose from when self isolating. Their job security and financial reserves will also make it easier for them to cope. This is likewise true for nation states, with great variation in the ability of health services across the world to manage. With both crises, the most vulnerable people and countries must be supported if the problems are to be effectively solved for all of us, and this can only be achieved through more, not less, international co-operation.