Toilet paper wars, empty supermarket shelves, entire countries in lockdown: The ongoing pandemic of the Corona virus has resulted in panic and rising death tolls, and extraordinary measures in response to that. Up until now, 159 countries and territories have reported cases of the virus. For a moment I was tempted to look for a silver lining in all this chaos. In several countries, most shops and airports are closed, and many people have committed to social distancing and self-isolating in order to stop the spreading of the virus. It seems a bit like the world is put on hold for a short while. And this is noticeable in terms of emissions. We’ve seen a significant fall in emissions these past couple of months: In February, the global air traffic decreased by almost 5% and the aviation industry is predicting even more significant losses due to public health concerns. The figure below shows the decrease of nitrogen dioxide, a gas emitted by industrial facilities, motor vehicles and power plants, over China ever since the outbreak of Covid-19.
The virus can be lethal and cheering it for the sake of a healthier planet is nothing more than eco-fascism. But besides that, a temporary drop in greenhouse gas emissions and other contaminants is not even necessarily good for the climate nor the environment. Disasters might put the economy and therefore emissions on hold, but they most likely won’t lead to large-scale and long-term changes that are required to prevent a planetary collapse. Similar events in the past have shown that the positive effect on global warming is anyway only short term, affecting the climate crisis in the most minimal ways, and as soon as the economy bounces back, emissions will increase again. If anything, the virus outbreak will lead to even more global warming, because whenever economic growth becomes a priority, which it certainly will become after the corona crisis, climate concerns and environmental agendas will be pushed into the background. During economic downturns, the investments into sustainable projects or clean energy usually take a backseat. Furthermore, financial and health fears divert public attention from climate related concerns. So Covid-19’s ultimate climate legacy is a major slowdown of our efforts to stop global warming.
Another question is why aren’t we panicking as much about climate change as we panic about the virus? Both are global emergencies that have killed and will continue to kill on a mass scale, destabilizing societies and economies especially in regions that lack infrastructure and resources to cope with the consequences. In both cases, we’ve received clear warnings and instructions about what to do. Although some countries and cities have formally declared a climate emergency, their actions are rather disappointing and mobilization does not even come close to what we have seen with the corona virus. And last year, the broadcast networks ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox covered climate change just 0.7% of the time. For many, the climate crisis seems like a distant problem, especially because the West doesn’t experience the consequences too much yet. But the WHO expects climate change to be the cause of about 250.000 early deaths per year in the next decades, many of which will be attributed to childhood undernutrition. So why is that not making the news headlines? Perhaps if the media would constantly be releasing updated death tolls and criticizing world leaders for their inaction, the general public would take climate change more seriously.
The Corona virus has shown that quick mobilization is possible. In times of acute danger, we can make any kind of societal change necessary to protect ourselves. We, or more so our governments, just have to come to the realization that climate change is an acute danger. And perhaps this is a chance to experiment with more environmentally friendly ways of doing things – for example by falling back on virtual conferences, lowering the amount of air travel, and so on. Maybe we realize that adjusting our carbon-intensive lifestyles to global crises is actually quite doable. While the corona virus continues to spread, the focus will remain on health and supply chains. But once we overcome this crisis, the process of fundamentally altering our behavior and lifestyles in regard to climate change can hopefully be carried forward not only by climate action advocated but the general public.