The eerie parallel between COVID-19 and the climate crisis: lessons we can learn

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/12/climate/climate-change-coronavirus-lessons.html

It’s been a month now since I’ve returned home from the university dorms, only leaving the house for essential reasons, like exercising or doing groceries. It feels like it has been forever since we were able to spend time in groups and go out for a drink at a café, and the world as we know it has changed immensely over the span of a few weeks. Easter weekend has just passed, the date U.S. President Donald Trump aimed to have the country opened again after its COVID-19 lockdown. The situation still seems very far from normality, but where are we now? And how has COVID-19 affected the environment? Are there lessons we can learn from the current pandemic in tackling climate change? I’d like to delve deeper into these issues.

Where are we now?

As of Easter Sunday, April 12th 2020, there have been 1,787,766 confirmed cases and 109,691 deaths worldwide due to COVID-19, and widespread widespread job losses, causing huge damage to the global economy.

How has COVID-19 affected the environment?

It has been impossible to ignore the numerous news articles and blogposts describing the fish returning to clear waters in Venetian canals, reduction in air pollution, and dramatic drops in greenhouse gas emissions. Nitrogen dioxide, a gas produced by combustion engines that causes respiratory problems, has been seen to decline in China since January, according to the European Space Agency. In March, coinciding with their lockdown, Italy experienced similar patterns. Additionally, fine soot particles are 20-30% lower than in previous years. If we take a look at carbon dioxide, a research team at Columbia found an 8-10% drop over New York in March 2020 compared to the same month a year prior. In China, it is estimated that industrial shutdowns caused a 25% drop in emissions of CO2 in February, compared to 2019.

http://www.esa.int/ESA_Multimedia/Images/2020/03/Nitrogen_dioxide_concentrations_over_Italy

These values, although substantial, have been stirring up a lot of controversy. A 2011 study measuring carbon dioxide levels based on ice cores revealed that past global wars and epidemics did leave subtle marks on atmospheric CO2 levels, but it is clear that small changes are currently not going to alleviate the climate crisis. The pandemic will also eventually result in large amounts of medical and hazardous waste, contributing to existing environmental issues. Scientists and researchers are trying to spread the word that the climate needs sustained reductions in emissions; a global, temporary lockdown due to a pandemic will not be enough. Any environmental benefits that arise from the global pandemic are likely to be fleeting and negligible.

Nonetheless, comparisons have been drawn between both crises, primarily as both are widescale disrupters with grave consequences on human health, food security, agricultural security, political and economic stability. While comparing the two crises, it is essential to note their differing timescales and immediacy. As Victor Galaz, from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, puts it, “the Corona crisis is a 100-meter race and the climate crisis is a marathon. We have to run both at the same time”. If we have to battle both crises simultaneously, we might as well learn from mistakes and build on successes.

https://www.downtoearth.org.in/cartoon/simply-put-coronavirus-vs-climate-change-69803

Are there lessons we can learn from the current pandemic in tackling climate change?

Denial Stage

A key similarity between climate change and COVID-19 is the initial widespread state of denial. Climate change denialists claimed humans had no role in the destruction of the environment; the average European citizen thought COVID-19 would not affect them a month ago. Several countries have shown astonishing denial of the global pandemic, but this switch from denial to acceptance to action has occurred in a matter of weeks, differing greatly from our current climate crisis. To name a few examples, U.S. senators have stated they would prefer people dying over their economy dying, Turkmenistan has officially banned the word “coronavirus”, Brazilian president Bolsonaro has claimed the risks of coronavirus were overblown, and Boris Johnson did little early on to tackle coronavirus, while now recently discharged from the ICU after enduring the virus himself. We have experienced this exact stage in the climate change discussion, but stretched over a much longer period of time. Initially, the anthropogenic cause of climate change was heavily denied, but after more scientific evidence arose, it became clear the issue could no longer be avoided. Since the consequences of climate change are much less direct than those of the coronavirus, action has been heavily delayed.

Implications of crises

Upon delving deeper into the implications of both crises, more similarities seem to arise, as well as more opportunities for learning. It is highly uncertain what the future will look like, and therefore the implications are difficult to predict. For COVID-19, the two main unknowns are how long the pandemic is bound to last, and how countries’ economies will bounce back. Both situations will require major economic disruptions or reconstructions, and it seems as though many countries and leaders are not quite ready to do so.

In both cases, it is clear that efforts to save the situation are almost always put in place too late, after experts’ doomsday warnings are proven true; societies must learn to value early warnings.  Both the climate crisis and COVID-19 are an ultimate collective action problem, but too often the need for collective action turns into an excuse for inaction. The challenges are increasingly global in nature and will also require systemic, collaborative solutions. Coronavirus has led to social distancing, grounded flights, and closed borders; climate change must lead to cleaner technologies, wiser investments, and revised economic structures. If state intervention deems to be successful in combatting the coronavirus, similar principles should be applied aggressively in tackling the climate crisis.

Moments of crisis = moments of opportunity

Moments of crisis are always moments of opportunity. In the coming months, many essential decisions will be made and the world as we know it is bound to change. These changes can be for the better, but only if we do not return to our “business as usual” situation. It is crucial that a post-COVID recovery plan is ambitious, one that perhaps rethinks our current economy and begins to focus on the health of people and our planet, rather than growth. Now is the time for a new “normal”, with our environment at the center.

3 thoughts on “The eerie parallel between COVID-19 and the climate crisis: lessons we can learn

  1. Thank you @malaauwen for your blogpost! I think comparing the corona crisis and the climate crisis is interesting, but there are many misconceptions involved, as you also point out. The different time scales and the direct impact of corona vs. the indirect impact of climate change is very important to keep in mind. I was wondering though, if both crisis aren’t (partially) attributable to the same cause.

    One very big driver of climate change is agriculture. Not only cattle, which are a huge source of methane, but also deforestation and land-use change, result in an increase of greenhouse gases. The virus has emerged due to genetic monocultures of domestic animals. It seems like the agricultural business has some work to do… My question to you is, or anyone who would like to take part in this discussion, do you think that COVID-19 may result in us having to rebuild our global food system? There has been much talk on how this is not the last pandemic to threaten our livelihoods. Will it be possible to change our global food system, moving away from industrialised agriculture? And if so, do you think such a change is possible within years time? Not only are the impacts of climate change increasing, the risk of yet another pandemic is right around the corner.

    Ending on a slightly more positive note: there are so much potential to realise within the agricultural sector. Shifting away from our current global food system will result in countless benefits, ranging from increased food security and relieving hunger, optimising resource and residue use, to increasing the nutritional value of our food! Therefore, farmers, NGOs, agri-businesses and governments should be inspired and act together to transform our global food system and move us one step closer to a sustainable world.

    Like

  2. Thank you @carolinamarghidan for starting this very interesting discussion. Agriculture is definitely a crucial component of the climate crisis, that I had not discussed within my blogpost. Like you point out, the sector is a major driver of deforestation, land-use change, and both direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions. I find it difficult to say that there is a link between COVID-19 and having to rebuild our global food system after this crisis, as there is much more complexity to both issues at hand.

    I definitely believe a major shift away from industrialized agriculture will need to take place in the years to come, but I am unsure whether this will occur as a result of COVID-19. Currently, the focus is on rebuilding both the global healthcare system and the global economy – two areas which seem to be more important in these circumstances. Of course, I am also a firm believer that in rebuilding the global economy, major changes can be made to restructuring traditional frameworks, as was also discussed in Tomas and Mathilde’s podcast. Perhaps within this restructuring, there is room for rethinking the global food system. To say that this change is possible within a few years’ time is perhaps too optimistic, but discussing and rethinking the issue should definitely start now.

    Like

  3. Hi Merel!

    Thanks for this really interesting blog post. I think this is something that has been on all of our minds this past couple weeks, so it’s good that you’re bringing attention to it!

    Something that I struggle with throughout this process is how we’re going to be able to sustain focus on the climate crisis throughout this pandemic. Many of my friends and acquaintances in the “bubble” of climate groups have been discussing how this is a time of opportunity and a time for us to critical;y restructure and examine our economy (see, for example, this article from the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/27/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-climate-change.html).

    However, I wonder if this is an overly optimistic view. In times of fear and massive unrest, we have never taken the opportunity to drastically restructure the global economy or look critically at our consumption. Look at the 2008 economic crisis – of course, this happened under different circumstances, but I think the unrest and uncertainty caused was on a similar scale. Rather than using it as an opportunity to restructure our economic systems, we stuck even closer to the status quo than ever before, too afraid to make radical changes at a time when so many things in our lives were under threat. Our emissions soared as a result (https://www.nature.com/articles/nclimate1332). Do you think things will be any different in this crisis? I am trying to be optimistic, but when I remember the days of the 2008 economic crisis, I am not so sure.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s