Covid-19’s Climate Legacy: A Slowdown Of Our Efforts To Stop Global Warming

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.

2 thoughts on “Covid-19’s Climate Legacy: A Slowdown Of Our Efforts To Stop Global Warming

  1. Hi jennystooock, thank you for this blog post on this important and very actual topic!
    The problem with the media is, they need something attractive and extreme on their headlines. With the virus it’s very clear: everyone can get affected and if you do you will get certain symptoms. With climate change it’s less clear: not everyone is affected, and even the people affected or deaths resulted from climate change are not directly visible and spread over so many different sectors. This makes it harder and less interesting for the media to address climate change at the scale at which they are reporting about COVID-19. However, traditional media is competing with our own strong voices: social media! Through social platforms opinions are being communicated easy & fast. I would like to think that once our economy will recover, people will continue to make sustainable decisions in their lives. But, it is easy to fall back in old patterns. Do you think people might really start changing their behaviours after things business returns back to usual? If this fundamental ‘lifestyle change’ is to be carried forward, what do you think could be ways in which this change should be promoted/addressed? I am very curious to hear your opinion!

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  2. Hi Jenny!

    Nice post, also glad you made a point about ecofascism.

    I think something difficult with comparing the public’s response to COVID-19 versus the public’s response to climate change comes in both people’s perception of immediate risk to themselves and the seriousness of the actions that need to be taken.

    As Bart talked about in his lecture today, deaths related to climate change are indirect in nature. Nobody’s autopsy report would have a cause of death listed as “climate change”, it would be from drowning, or heatstroke, or starvation. This means that the link between climate change and death is not going to be as clear in the public’s minds, which makes me concerned that the level of urgency we see in the current COVID-19 movement will not be easily replicated within the climate movement.

    I also think some difficulties will arise in the seriousness of the measures that need to be taken. While the lockdown currently seen in many countries seems harsh compared to our normal patterns of daily life, we are assured that it will have an end date within a year or two; nobody now thinks that schools or restaurants will be closed until the end of time. With climate change, our actions need to have a greater level of permanence – we can’t simply stop emitting for 6 months and then return to life as usual. These two aspects of the COVID-19 movement, in my opinion, make it very difficult to link responses to these two situations. I would be really interested to hear what you think about them!

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