Competing For Urgency: Coronavirus And Climate Change 

Holly Barsham

Coronavirus is dominating headlines worldwide, having caused over 100,000 infections and 3,500 deaths so far. The stock market has taken a plunge, with the S&P Index falling 12% since mid-February, eliminating roughly $3 trillion in wealth. No signs indicate its impacts will lessen anytime soon. Meanwhile, governments worldwide are grappling with strategies to respond with. China has locked down cities and enforced a quarantine on millions of citizens, Italy has quarantined a quarter of its population, and the U.S. rushed an $8.3 billion spending bill through congress on 6 March 2020. Outside of the government, the public is panicking worldwide. One of the strategies employed has been to cancel events where many people converge from different nationalities. Last week, events including TED2020 (Vancouver), the London Book Fair and the Tokyo Marathon have all been cancelled. But notably, Greta Thunberg’s weekly climate strike went ahead, taking place on 6 March 2020, in Brussels. 

“It is shameful that for so long the climate and environmental emergency has been ignored. We are still in a crisis that has never once been treated like a crisis,” Thunberg told the demonstrators in a speech. Accompanying this sentiment is a scattering of opinion pieces noting that governments can respond to emergencies of public health and economic concern, criticising that the climate crisis has not caused the same urgent reaction. The climate crisis has killed millions. According to the WHO, pollution causes an estimated seven million premature deaths annually. These past few months have seen no shortage of climate disasters, from the wildfires in Australia to the floods in East Africa. Even in the past days, there have been reports of weather related devastation. In Brazil, torrential rain prompted landslides that have claimed 21 lives in Sao Paulo state. These extreme weather events are only going to increase in frequency as climate change progresses and scientists almost universally agree that humans are responsible for it. 

If extreme weather events are not enough of a threat, then increased likelihood of conflict around the world should be. The Atlantic Council, a U.S-based think tank, recently released a report on the geopolitical consequences of climate change. Its authors categorise climate change as a “threat multiplier,” producing a new struggle over the shipping passages in the melting Arctic fought amongst established powers. The need to limit the growth in global temperature to 1.5 degrees has never been stronger. Yet, in an ironic twist, the UN cancelled a key climate meeting in Bonn, Germany, in an effort to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus. Why have governments failed to act in the same urgent manner? What would happen if they did? 

Coronavirus is an emergent issue which has become a global problem at a record pace. The WHO was first notified of a collection of pneumonia cases in Wuhan Province on 31 December 2019, and the virus was officially named “Covid-19”  on 11 February 2020. It is a respiratory pathogen, making hubs of people fertile grounds for transmission. By contrast, the fact that human action causes climate change has been known since the 1960s, and the intergovernmental panel on Climate Change was first established in 1988. Coronavirus is also more measurable. The number of people with the disease, showing symptoms and dying (3.4% of infected persons so far) can be classified. The varied impacts of climate change are harder to isolate. For example, the Atlantic Council report highlights that climate change infuses new conflict factors into the global geopolitical environment, such as competition for freshwater. While the responses to coronavirus are likely to have far-ranging impacts, climate change is explicitly global and intangible in nature.

So why have governments struggled to respond in the same way? Basic human psychology offers some explanation for this. Paul Slovic is a University of Oregon psychologist and the president of Decision Research, an international group of investigators who study decision-making and risk. He contends that “when it comes to acting on problems, the lure of our current comforts and conveniences will often cause us to act contrary to our values.” Even if this risk is not far in the future, then an “optimism bias” still acts, meaning people perceive their personal risk to a disaster to be lower than that of their peers. This problem is worse for climate change, where those feeling the impacts are not, in most cases, those causing the majority of the pollution. Behavioural factors are also exacerbated by the different coverage climate change has received. In 2019, American broadcast networks covered climate change just 0.7% of the time. By contrast, the panic over coronavirus has caused stocks to plunge and air-travel is at a historic low. It has been visualised and personalised, both important reasons to prompt a reaction, offers a Harvard Scholar on Public Health, David Ropeik. “[People] ask what the weather is today, where I live, and how it’s going to affect me,” he says.

History suggests the media doesn’t support acting on climate change. It is a heavily politicised issue, and there is money to be made in its denial. Since 1988 just 100 firms are responsible for 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Carbon Majors Report, released in 2017. Many of these are big oil companies, who have been funding the science of climate denial since first uncovering the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. Exxon Mobil (ranked 5th)  was first warned of the dangerous impacts of burning fossil fuels in 1977, by their senior scientist James Black. Yet, Exxon alone has spent more than $240m on public relations in this area in the past two decades, propagating rumours that climate change is not related to human activity or that it is a globalist hoax. 

Despite the political problems and difficulties behind creating a global action plan on climate change, what would this agenda look like if put into practice? Responses to coronavirus are enforced experiments in behavioural change, where people are flying less, buying less, and working from home. Although a climate change action plan may not be as drastic, it could encourage the same actions. For example, levying a higher tax on frequent fliers. Most important is the defunding of fossil fuels, which would eventually reshape the global economy. China’s emissions have dropped by 25% amid this crisis and these reductions can be sustained for the climate crisis plan. Government actions are now seen through the lens of the coronavirus outbreak, and the climate crisis could provide a similar prism. State-led investment in fossil fuels could be slashed and investment into green energies hiked. Regulations on business could be tightened, incentivizing a new generation of sustainable enterprises. Local production would be prioritised and principles of recycling, and waste reduction will become key to business strategies. Workers could be urgently retrained to equip them with the skills to build these new economies. The ubiquitous nature of climate change means the policies to combat it are far-ranging. They require a shift in all areas of policy.

It must be stressed that coronavirus is not positive for the people. While the fast actions of governments and citizens around the world have a by-product of reducing emissions, they also hurt the most vulnerable, such as the millions of workers in China. Jon Erikson, an ecological economist at the University of Vermont, stresses that governments must use this “five-to-ten year window” to “completely transform the economy so that the worst side of the contraction can be reduced so that we can protect those who are most vulnerable.” The panic of ‘crisis mode’ seen currently is not necessary for responding to the climate crisis, but its sense of urgency is. In the name of global peace, prosperity, and equality a plan must be brought to life as soon as possible.