In my last article, I kicked off this mini-series on the relationship between the Corona pandemic and the fight against climate change. Today, I am taking a closer look at the differences and parallels between these two global crises.
A time lag of ten days or ten years
As the YouTube channel Our Changing Climate wittingly points out, one of the big differences between climate change and the current pandemic is their relation to time. When comparing cause and effect, we observe a delay of about five to ten days between getting infected with the new Corona virus and disease symptoms to emerge; this is the incubation period. Give it another three weeks and most human immune systems have fought it off .
A greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide (CO2) on the other hand, has a delay between its emission and temperature response of more than a decade. That means that the current drop in emissions as a result of lower economic activity, will only show up in the warming trend much later – if at all. Most greenhouse gases, once released, also stick around for much longer than a virus in a human body. CO2, for example, stays in the atmosphere for at least a hundred years, having a long-lasting warming effect on our planet.
There is not only a difference in the delay between cause and effect, but also between action and reward. When China enforced a lockdown of Wuhan, the city where the new Corona virus seems to originate, the number of new infections started dropping significantly after about 10 days. Decisive action pays off fast. Social distancing measures are therefore accepted and obeyed by the majority of people, despite their grotesque proportions. Not so much for environmental measures: even if we slow down our emissions of potent greenhouse gases massively from now onwards, we have locked ourselves in for quite some warming already.
Acting fast, acting slow
Not surprisingly, the response to the global pandemic stands in sharp contrast to the response to climate change. Only three months ago, the new Corona virus was discovered in Wuhan and today half of the world is in a lockdown never seen in recent history. Most sectors of the economy have strongly reduced activity or are shut down altogether. Meanwhile, the essence of climate science is settled since the seventies. Despite an enormous amount of people working on alternatives that allow us to continue modern life while respecting our planetary boundaries, such as new agricultural practices and low-carbon transportation and electricity production, the world hasn’t been able to live up to the challenge.
In fact, the political response in some countries to keep COVID-19 at bay is the wet dream of every climate activist. Quick, decisive, large-scale action. Politicians that not only acknowldge science, but even use it as the base for their decisions. People’s health and wellbeing is being prioritised over the economy. Wow. Apparently, it is possible.
It has been a long time coming
Despite the differences between the Corona pandemic and the climate crisis, there are also several parallels. First of all, both crises have been a long time coming. For those who wanted to listen (clearly, too little), Bill Gates warned in 2015 to get ready for the ticking pandemic time bomb in a TED talk. He was not alone and he was not the first. Epidemiologists and health experts have been warning the public and politicians for years. Instead, medical spending was cut, research grants stopped, and task forces dissolved.
Ever since James Hansen testified in the US congress about the human impact on the planetary greenhouse gas housekeeping in 1988, the world has pushed most of the hard decisions forward. Climate change was, just like the message of epidemiologists, an ‘inconvenient truth’.
We are not all in the same boat
Another similarity can be found in the way the pandemic, and the necessary response to ‘flatten its curve’, is impacting different groups in society. It hits vulnerable families and communities most, much like climate change does.
Myself and many of you are the lucky ones: we have jobs that allow us to work from home. Most of us have access to proper healthcare infrastructure, and although it might be under pressure, things will probably turn out okay. There is still food on the table, men are not mobilised to go to war, we don’t have to shelter for drone strikes. Yes, for some it is an enormously stressful period, for others a very boring one. But it is not the end of the world.
It is the employees and day-labourers with temporary contracts (or no contract at all) that are being sacked. It is the waste collectors and construction workers that are forced to leave the house despite the contamination risk. It is the families with no means to join online schooling or an alcoholic father that are plunged into chaos. Developing nations with poor healthcare infrastructure simply don’t have the means to process a wave of sick people, or the necessary stocks of protective gear for their nurses and doctors. Heck, even countries like Spain and Italy can’t handle it anymore. The anyways jerky economic development of emerging markets will be completely disrupted.
So no, we aren’t all in the same boat. What a bullshit. A whole bunch of people are going through hell right now. Some are coping pretty good given the circumstances. A selected few are setting themselves up to make loads of money out of this crisis (but more on that in the next article).
We need global companionship and solidarity
Another parallel between the climate and corona crisis is the need for global collaboration to confront the challenge at hand. And the lack thereof. What the hell are they waiting for? Except for a Russian and Chinese team of doctors and nurses that were sent to support Italy’s struggling healthcare system, we have seen barely any sign of global companionship and solidarity.
Quite the opposite: in Europe, leadership and guidance from the Commission was nowhere to be found in the first weeks after the arrival of the pandemic on the continent. Each country, sometimes clumsy, developed their own response, closed borders, hoarded equipment. In a matter of a week: exit free movement of people and goods, the core principles of the European Union. So far European brotherhood.
Climate change, too, requires a coordinated global and structural intervention. If we can’t work together on a clearly defined common enemy like the Corona virus, where everyone stands to win, why would we in the much more complicated, long-term and at times controversial climate change debate? And yet, we’ll have to.
In light of the climate crisis, what lessons can be learnt from the struggle to dam in a global pandemic? First, that swift and bold action is very much possible. Second, that the public and their leaders are still willing to listen to science, as long as they are convinced of the urgency at hand. Third, as always, the bottom half of our society is impacted most. We need to develop a way to support the least prepared for a crisis and show global solidarity, to prevent a bloodbath. Fourth: the global geopolitical constellation is drastically changing. The US turns inwards and China is eagerly waiting to take its place as master of ceremony. And fifth: we need to come up with a plan for when this corona mayhem starts cooling down. Because that’s when the real work starts. But that’s for the next article.
Stay healthy and take care!