COVID-19 pandemic: Last chance to avoid climate catastrophe?

Prudhvi Raj Madhu

The COVID-19 pandemic has evoked an unprecedented global response from governments and businesses. They made remarkable changes and reorganised  the way we work, travel and socialise that didn’t appear possible just a few weeks ago. The human costs of the pandemic are horrifying.

There are two possible approaches that the world could take in the coming few months.

  1. There is a case that the immediate crisis fades away and its economic consequences are devastating. Government could set aside all the long-term aspirations in the pursuit of easy fixes, many of which would have adverse environmental consequences. These include rolling back environmental standards, stimulating the economy by subsidising fossil-fuel-heavy industries and focusing on making more things, rather than using them better
  2. While we come to terms with our new reality, we could seize this moment as a unique window of opportunity to rebuild our society and economy as we want it. With scientists warning we have 10 years left1 to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, this could offer an opportunity to fix the climate crisis before it’s too late.

The COVID-19 could lay the groundwork for the transformation required. We can take the following measures :

  1. Rethink Risk

We have known about the risk of a global pandemic for years, yet we didn’t build a really good response system and succumbed to its pressure. 

Climate change similarly poses a major threat to human lives and urgently requires a comprehensive response. A study2 published in the medical journal the Lancet predicts 500,000 adult deaths caused by climate change by 2050.

Image: The Atlas

If the pandemic teaches us to acknowledge our vulnerability to high impact shocks such as pandemics and climate-related disasters, we will be infinitely better placed to prepare for them.

  1. Listen to global perspectives

The truly global nature of the COVID-19 crisis is forcing us to recognise that we are all in this together. For example, China sending help to Italy represents more than just shifts in the geopolitical landscape; it also shows an overcoming of the sense of “other,” and an acknowledgement that events in one part of the world can affect us all.

The jury is out on whether COVID-19 will prompt the world to choose the route of national isolation or global solidarity, but a growing understanding that we are inherently connected to people in vastly different geographies and circumstances can help build momentum for strong climate action.

  1. Make people the top priority

The COVID-19 pandemic  shows that a large-scale response to a global crisis is possible. We need to harness this wave of compassion and proactivity to protect vulnerable people in all contexts, including those most exposed to climate impacts.

Image: World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2020

  1. Trust Experts

As the significance of the pandemic has dawned on us, the value of knowledge has become increasingly clear. The advice of epidemiologists has gone viral (we’ve all seen the “flatten the curve3” meme), and doctors have been held up as heroes. This might represent a turning point in a trend towards the demise of experts.

We need to listen to climate scientists and policy advisors to win the climate change fight too. A greater trust in experts of all types takes us in the right direction.

  1. Make a cultural shift

Many aspects of the COVID-19 response are similar to the types of changes. we need as part of a comprehensive climate-change response. What is interesting is that many necessary shifts just require a change in culture. For example, neither the surge in cycling and expansion of bike lanes in Bogata4 as citizens avoid public transport, nor the coronavirus work-from-home expirement5, have required any new technology, but instead have relied on new thinking.

It is clear that we have many of the tools to make major advances in addressing climate change; what we need now is the political will to apply them.

Much remains uncertain about what the world will look like when we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, but the fundamental societal changes we are witnessing may well offer us a final chance to avoid a climate catastrophe.

– Prudhvi Raj Madhu