The global COVID-19 pandemic is, without a doubt, the defining event of 2020. Every country in the world has experienced dramatic changes in everyday life and faced one of the worst economic crises in their history. A few months ago, most people considered the idea of lockdown, with its tremendous impacts on socioeconomic life, to be simply unimaginable. When the lockdown happened in Wuhan, China, the first epicentre of the virus, people in the West thought that a total lockdown would be impossible in a liberal democracy. Even when the virus forced Italy to implement a nationwide lockdown, countries such as the U.K. and the U.S remained reluctant to take serious action. A few weeks afterward, the spread of COVID-19 has completely overwhelmed the U.S and European countries, killing thousands and exhausting hospitals’ resources. What lessons can we learn from the pandemic to help us address climate change, another great threat that has long been side-lined, before it is too late?
Several countries, such as South Korea and Taiwan, successfully contained the virus’ spread by taking early and aggressive measures, . Both South Korea and Taiwan focused on tracking, screening passengers on flights from China, and implementing intensive testing and contact tracing systems. Communications to the public were clear and transparent, ensuring citizens to be well-informed and willing to take basic public health measures such as wearing masks. These responses were possible because these countries had established systems and protocols in preparation for such an event and a good coordination between the government, local health centres, and public health agencies.
The results of these policies highlight the importance of early action, transparency, coordination, and robust planning. Jeremy Farrar, a member of the British government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, ‘I think from the early days in February, if not in late January, it was obvious this infection was going to be very serious, and it was going to affect more than just the region of Asia… I think it was very clear that this was going to be an unprecedented event.’ Despite concern from scientists, the U.K’s response lacked most of the characteristics listed above.
The New Statesman finds that the U.K. took 10 days after its first death to cancel public events and close schools. Even on 11 March, the day the WHO declared a global pandemic, 57,000 people attended the Cheltenham Festival, and two days later a football match in Liverpool gathered 52,000 spectators, including 3,000 from severely affected Spain. As the U.K. lost its chance to stop the disease at an early stage, it abandoned contact tracing in March and seemed to adopt an unproven strategy for ‘herd immunity’, which was only abandoned when epidemiological modeling showed it could result in around 250,000 deaths. The modeler, Prof. Neil Ferguson, told the Commons Science Select Committee in June that ‘had we introduced lockdown measures a week earlier, we would have reduced the final death toll by at least half’.
There have been numerous other issues with the U.K.’s response, from a lack of adequate guidance for care homes that led to many being ravaged by the disease, to a lack of data-sharing that has hindered local authorities’ ability to respond to outbreaks. These are serious problems, some of which the U.K. still has not dealt with properly. However, rather than give an exhaustive account of the crisis so far, I would like to focus on some of the broader lessons we can take from the pandemic, particularly regarding climate change.
While few of us in 2019 could have imagined how things would be just a few months later, the pandemic was not, in fact, as unexpected as it seemed. For years, scientists had been warning of the increasing likelihood of a new virus emerging to cause a pandemic. In September 2019, a report compiled at the request of the U.N. secretary-general stated that ‘preparedness is hampered by the lack of continued political will at all levels … although national leaders respond to health crises when fear and panic grow strong enough, most countries do not devote the consistent energy and resources needed to keep outbreaks from escalating into disasters.’ Even Bill Gates had spoken of the urgent need to prepare for epidemics in 2018.
Nevertheless, little was being done to address this urgent threat. According to David Alexander, Professor of Disaster Risk Reduction at University College London (UCL), pandemic preparation involves “telling governments what they don’t want to know, to spend money they don’t have, on something they don’t think will happen.” Unsurprisingly, both the U.K and U.S failed to address their lack of preparation, and in fact, made it worse as the U.S. National Security Council directorate for Global Health, Security, and Bio-defence was dissolved in 2018, and Boris Johnson abolished the U.K government’s Anti-Pandemic Committee (the threats, hazards, resilience and blue contingency committee) shortly after coming to power.
Climate change is an existential issue for humanity, and for decades the scientific consensus has been that urgent action is needed to prevent it from progressing further. But, much like pandemic preparation, very little meaningful action has been taken to address this threat. Fossil fuels were subsidised by $5.2 trillion globally in 2017, 6.4% of the world’s gross domestic product, according to the IMF. Public transport, renewable energy and sustainable waste disposal remain underfunded, deforestation has accelerated despite the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests, and biodiversity is catastrophically falling as endangered species face poaching and the destruction of their habitats, which only increases the chance of further pandemics. The colossal amounts of money invested in unsustainable industries allow them to lobby politicians and finance climate change denialism, and Forbes estimates that $200 million was spent by oil and gas companies on lobbying to derail or block climate-related policies.
Despite this bleak outlook, it is easy to think that inevitably there will be a ‘tipping point,’ where governments will finally take significant steps to solve the crisis before all is lost. The reality is that ecological tipping points are likely to come much sooner than expected. An article in Nature identified a range of potential tipping points, ranging from the loss of ice sheets to droughts and forest fires, that could accelerate the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Given the estimated 500 gigatonne CO2 emission budget humanity has left to have a 50:50 chance of staying under 1.5°C warming, emissions from thawed permafrost and the dieback of boreal forests and the Amazon could emit several hundred gigatons in of themselves. The world is on course for over 3.0°C of global warming by 2100 with current policies, an outcome that would be cataclysmic and most likely irreversible, with billions of people potentially made into climate refugees.
The COVID-19 pandemic gives us a glimpse of what happens when scientists’ warnings are ignored. As a group of scientists argued in an article in Current Biology, there are three lessons from the pandemic that apply to the climate crisis: early action is invaluable, decision-makers must act in the interests of society as a whole (i.e., not putting wealth over the needs of the vulnerable), and delaying action in the hope of supporting the economy can lead to reduced prosperity as well as costing lives.
I would argue that it has also shown that the idea that there must be consensus before action will result in disaster. Even after thousands have died, there are still people who deny or downplay the risks of the virus, or believe that their individual wants (for example, refusing to wear a mask) matter more than other people’s lives. Rather than argue with climate-deniers, the environmentally-conscious must find strategies to overcome the stranglehold they have over contemporary politics.
The pandemic shows how critical it is to genuinely listen to scientists, and act meaningfully on their advice in a transparent and accountable manner. Science should not be paid lip-service or used as a shield for poorly made decisions. Finally, it has shown the need to stop being complacent. It is not enough to believe that a problem like climate change will simply disappear or can be left to deal with in the future. Climate change is already here, and there can be no waiting. The thousands of lives lost to COVID-19 are a testament to the folly of delayed action, and a failure to deal with climate change will result in many more.
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