What Coronavirus Teaches us about Climate Change

Barely three months in, 2020 has been a harrowing year. New Year dawned in Australia in an apocalyptic red haze as an area of land comparable to England went up in flames and over a billion animals with it; the world teetered on the brink of war after the killing of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani; a new pandemic which started in a Chinese wet market began to spread across the globe like a proverbial wildfire.

According to the World Heath Organisation (WHO), there have been 105,500 cases of COVID-19 (coronavirus) and 3,584 deaths from the disease as of March 8. The overall mortality rate of the disease stands at 3.4%, however evidence suggests that unless you are older or have an underlying health condition then you are more at risk of serious complications.

Unsanitary conditions in a wet market like this one in Shenzen, China, are believed to have been the source of COVID-19.
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Daniel Case

What has made the COVID-19 outbreak remarkable is not the number of cases or deaths, nor the speed of transmission, but the dramatic measures undertaken by governments to contain the outbreak and slow its spread. This ranged from the cessation of flights to affected countries, to quarantining entire provinces. The Chinese government locked down the entire Hubei province where the disease emerged, restricting the movements of 50 million people. In a similarly dramatic action on 8 March 2020, the Italian government placed a quarter of the country’s population, including important economic centres like Milan, under quarantine.

These drastic actions come as Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus of the WHO called on governments to act decisively to “save lives now”. While many countries have taken extreme measures, such as closing schools in Japan or Saudi Arabia barring foreign pilgrims from entering the country, this raises one burning question which needs to be answered urgently:

Where is this drastic action for dealing with the climate crisis?

The answer lies in a mixture of economic incentives and psychological barriers.

Coronavirus poses a significant threat to the economy of our globalised world. If a factory which makes car parts closes down in China, that can have knock-on effects further down the supply chain, affecting both companies and consumers. If too many people are ill and cannot go to work, that can slow economic growth and even trigger a recession. In a world which is still reeling from the 2008 financial crash, predictions from the Office for Economic Coordination and Development (OECD) that global economic growth could halve and plunge vulnerable countries into recessions are a serious cause for concern.

A bushfire-ravaged Australian landscape. Source: TerriAnneAllen, pixabay.com

However, although climate change is a phenomenon with the potential to cause a catastrophic global economic crisis, short-term economic interests have always trumped long term fears when it came to enacting meaningful change. Powerful industrial groups, including fossil fuel companies, have long lobbied against climate action to protect their profit margins. Even as his own country burned, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to scale back new coal mines, calling doing so “job destroying”. Similarly, US President Donald Trump announced that the “unfair economic burden” on the American economy. This is in spite of findings such as those from the University of California, Berkley, that every 1°C rise in global average temperature would cost 1.2% of GDP and increase global economic inequality.

This highlights a key factor which explains the difference between the psychological responses people have had to the Coronavirus outbreak and climate change: their timescale.

A pandemic disease is a clear, fast moving threat. The Guardian and New York Times run live-blogs documenting every new development, from cases in new countries to deaths and government statements. Our phones alert us as the number of cases worldwide or in our own countries reaches a new milestone. It’s easy to understand why the public have responded by panic-buying hand-gel and non-perishable foods when they’re bombarded with speculation about when schools will close and supply chains being disrupted. People have even been clearing supermarket shelves of toilet paper.

Climate change is a more gradual process than the spread of a disease, so it is much harder to create that sense of urgency which spurs governments to take drastic action. Although a majority of Americans believe climate change will harm people in the United States, less than half the population of the vast majority of counties believe it will affect them personally. The answer why lies in how humans have evolved to assess risk. We are much better at reacting to and dealing with immediate, unambiguous threat like a pandemic disease, than a more abstract, less immediate challenge such as the climate crisis.

The challenge of coronavirus most be dealt with, but we cannot afford to lose time in the battle against the climate emergency. Stopping the spread of the virus has already caused the United Nations to cancel meetings ahead of the Glasgow Climate Summit in November, widely considered to be the most important summit since Paris in 2015.

Had we acted decisively to reduce climate emissions decades ago instead of prioritising short-term economic benefits, we may not be in the precarious position we are in today.

For more information on the COVID-19 outbreak please click here to read updates and recommendations from the WHO.

All data is correct as of March 8 2020.

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