Author: Elodie Hut, Caroline Zickgraf, Francois Gemenne, Tatiana Castillo Betancourt, Pierre Ozer, Céline Le Flour

Migration, climate change and public health are three key policy challenges of this early 21st century. Far from being isolated, these challenges are linked with one another, both directly and indirectly. The connections between them have never been as apparent as in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic: borders and immobility played a central role in the response, and COVID-19 has been tied to climate change, for instance, with regards to the temporary positive impact of lockdown measures on CO2 emissions. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, many have suggested that similar measures should be replicated in the fight against climate change, while others have deemed this as misguided and pointed to the potentially counterproductive effects of such claims. Lastly, physical distancing requirements are expected to further complicate responses to climate-related displacement (as recently confirmed in East India and Bangladesh, where Cyclone Amphan struck).  

In addition to such relationships, a uniting feature of these three phenomena is the way they each have been labelled, perceived, and reacted to from a crisis perspective. Crisis framing is not just about how each topic is covered in the media or discussed in the public eye: crisis narratives translate into, and justify, short-term, ad-hoc responses instead of preemptive, integrated approaches that may be more appropriate given the global and systemic nature of these phenomena. The opposite is equally true: emergency measures (e.g. evacuations, lockdowns, state-of-emergency declarations) can also play a role in creating and exacerbating crises. Moreover, measures in each crisis, whether health, climate or migration-related, have resulted in calls for, or the actual, restriction of migration and mobility, whether to contain the spread of a virus, to lower carbon emissions, or to restrict incoming migration flows deemed massive and/or sudden.  

Crisis Narratives: Subjective Insights into the Notion of ‘Crisis’ 

The notion of crisis usually refers to extraordinary circumstances that reflect not only a turning point, but one associated with instability, uncertainty, and urgency. At the same time, by upending existing status quos, they can also present opportunities for critical reflection and change. These pivotal disruptions of normalcy are also bound up in the narratives that are subjectively constructed around them. Crisis narratives are produced and reproduced by multiple actors (e.g. governments, international organisations, media, civil society, the public) through sometimes competing discourses. Recent examples from the migration, climate change and public health policy domains indeed suggest that, in addition to objective elements, crises are often apprehended through their perceived effects.  

The 2015 European “migration crisis”, for instance, aligns with the idea of crises as social and political constructs. Objectively, more than one million migrants arrived in Europe through the Mediterranean Sea (the majority transiting via Turkey through the ‘Eastern Mediterranean Route’) in 2015 and over 1,3 million persons applied for asylum in the EU the same year. Subjectively, national and supra-national government officials presented this as an ‘unprecedented’ crisis of ‘mass’ arrivals of asylum seekers on European soil. This perception of crisis - supporting the idea that the inflow of migrants must be contained at all cost to avoid chaos - prevailed across Europe long after numbers of arrivals by sea and of asylum applications significantly decreased, in 2016 and 2017 respectively (following, amongst other reactive mechanisms, the EU-Turkey Statement). These narratives have had a long-lasting polarizing impact on the European political landscape, as demonstrated by opinion polls indicating that migration had become a major issue of concern for European citizens (surpassing climate change), by the election of nationalist and anti-immigration leaders (e.g. Matteo Salvini in Italy or Sebastian Kurz in Austria), and by the success of the Brexit ‘leave’ vote in 2016. What also became apparent was that the ‘crisis’ held different meanings for different people: should it be labeled as a crisis of ‘refugees’ or of ‘migrants’, as one of ‘reception’ or of ‘asylum’, or as a crisis of the European project? Such terminological debates opposed media outlets (such as Al Jazeera and the BBC), politicians, activists and experts alike, and reinforced the labeling of certain groups of people on the move (according to their legal status, nationality, gender, age, etc.). This further shaped public perceptions regarding which migrants could be deemed (un)deserving, attitudes of inclusion or exclusion towards them and policies implemented to ‘manage’ them. Supported by a securitarian or humanitarian framing, the reproduction of crisis discourses and imagery by the media (through, for instance, images of overcrowded dinghies or of the viral image of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy washed ashore a Turkish beach) contributed to binary representations of migrants as either villains’ or ‘victims’.  

The recent amplification of the climate ‘crisis’ and ‘emergency’ discourses in turn emphasizes the role of crises as perceived ‘turning points’ and means to call for immediate action in response to an existential threat (in this case, climate change and the urgent imperative to limit global warming well below 2 °C). Confirming the momentum gained by this discourse supported by environmental activists, media outlets and scientists alike, 2019 was dubbed ‘the year of climate emergency declarations’ and ‘climate emergency’ became the 2019 Oxford Word of the Year. Yet, as crises are meant to be temporary by nature, the use of this term can seem questionable with regard to anthropogenic climate change as many of its impacts are irreversible, meaning that there is no “going back”. Disaster scenarios - although technically more apt to fit into a definition of ‘crisis’ given their perceived abrupt and distressing nature - also give way to subjective (and sometimes irrational) crisis narratives. This is exemplified by the generalized use of expressions such as ‘calamities’, ‘catastrophes’ or ‘acts of God’ and the diffusion of apocalyptic imagery to represent such events (see the recent Australian megafires). Such depictions contribute to framing disaster events as extraordinary and uncontrollable, and can also turn people’s attention away from the constant efforts that are required to reduce risk and mitigate potential (economic and non-economic) losses through robust multi-sectoral approaches and policies that durably address populations’ exposure and vulnerability to climate-related hazards. At the same time, ‘slow-onset’ impacts of climate change (e.g. land degradation, desertification) are less often apprehended from a crisis perspective by media outlets and the general public. Yet, far from constituting a distant and future risk, these events have already led to emergency-like situations, such as conflicts and/or famine, and have been identified as destabilizing threats at the global scale.  

Unlike its counterparts, the current crisis response to the COVID-19 pandemic follows a more clear-cut procedural, staged approach within an emergency management framework in which global responses are led by an internationally-recognized authority - the World Health Organization - and shaped by prevailing medical practice and standards. Similar to the disaster management cycle, it includes response and recovery phases (in addition to varying levels of preparedness and risk reduction efforts). Performative and discursive elements also play a role in such ‘straightforward’ instances of crisis: Indeed, calling a pandemic a crisis further enhances its materialization as such in the public eye. The COVID-19 context is one of anxiety and uncertainty, sustained, for instance, by the reporting of daily infection and mortality statistics, the qualification of the crisis as ‘unprecedented’, the perceived information overload and the spread of “fake news”. The continual reproduction of doom-and-gloom narratives can even lead to “crisis fatigue” and counterproductive emotional responses, ranging from denying the gravity of the situation, to feelings of increased stress, anxiety and hopelessness due to the perceived magnitude of the problem. 

From Crisis Narratives to Crisis Responses that Restrict Mobility 

Crisis narratives typically foster reactive, emergency measures (and vice versa) that may not alone be the most appropriate or effective course of action given the structural nature of climate change, migration and health-related phenomena and their interconnectedness with wider inequality and governance dynamics. Importantly, such narratives also indirectly or directly contribute to restrictions on human mobility in each of these crises. While closed borders can be perceived as reassuring, open borders are often associated with chaos and danger. 

COVID-19, or any virus for that matter, does not respect borders. Yet, borders have become a hallmark feature in responses to it. It is not just the closure of physical crossing points between States that has defined COVID-19 responses, but also more symbolic acts of bordering: ground-up and top-down xenophobic discourses – encouraged by fear and security-based narratives – pointed their finger at “others” as carriers and transmitters of disease. Some populations have been increasingly targeted by racist prejudice, as shown by the use of the terms ‘Chinese Virus’ or ‘Kung Flu’ to refer to COVID-19 (similar to when Ebola was dubbed “African virus” in 2014). Sudden domestic lockdown measures and international border closures have forced people to confront how prolonged, State-imposed, mobility restrictions can undermine human conditions of existence and wellbeing and reshape the functioning of societies within just a few weeks. Yet, this is something environmental migration scholars and practitioners have been grappling with for years – the plight of 'trapped' or 'immobile' populations in places where natural environments become progressively or suddenly uninhabitable. The current emergency, in fact, is as much about mobility as immobility, which has perhaps never been more evident or more global as it has been these past few months. People all over the world, not just the destitute and the vulnerable, must all navigate a world of (forced) immobility and experience firsthand what it means to be ‘trapped’ or ‘unwelcome’.  

This crisis, however, is not and will not be the ‘great equalizer’. In times of pandemics, it is mainly those who are ordinarily cast as “undesirable” who remain disproportionately affected by mobility restrictions and discriminatory speech. Instances of forced immobilization or containment targeting migrant populations under COVID-19 in Europe have included the partial suspension of asylum procedures (in Greece, Belgium and the Netherlands for example), the lockdown of asylum seekers in overcrowded reception centers where physical distancing is near impossible and service provision is critically scaled-down (such as in the infamous camp of Moria in Lesvos) and even, in some cases, illegal pushbacks in direct contravention of the non-refoulement principle (such as in Malta). Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, security-oriented narratives had already been used as a pretext by the EU and national governments to introduce emergency measures focused on deterring, containing, criminalizing and/or externalizing migration. This was the case of the ‘hotspot approach’, a mechanism set out in the 2015 European Agenda for Migration to register and manage arrivals at the EU’s external borders. Overcrowded camps in the Greek Islands quickly became a symbol of the ‘crisis’ and their ongoing existence is a testament to the long-term repercussions of so-called ‘emergency’ measures put in place by the EU when seeking to manage the peak of migrant arrivals five years ago. 

Conversely, the repercussions of the climate ‘crisis’ on border closures and mobility are much less linear and straightforward. It is the crisis rhetoric – rather than crisis-related measures – that seems to indirectly support restrictive immigration measures through, for instance, the instrumentalization of migrants as ‘props to alert to the dangers of climate change’ and the representation of environmental migration as a looming security threat (rather than as the current and urgent reality that it is), including by environmental activists. More overtly, some far-right and anti-immigration politicians and parties (such as Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France) have been promoting ‘eco-nationalism’ or ‘eco-patriotism’ , to push forward political agendas aimed at considerably restricting the movement of people and goods across borders.  

Conclusion: Moving Beyond the Rhetorics of Crisis 


Although migration, climate change, and public health can be subjected to emergencies that are deemed temporary (such as rapid arrivals of migrants, sudden-onset disasters, or epidemics), this does not mean that only short-term, ad hoc measures are needed or should be implemented to address such events. On the contrary, such interventions need to be reconciled with longer-term, preemptive, measures that better correspond to the structural nature of these phenomena.  

As marginalized and vulnerable populations have remained on the losing end when it comes to mobility restrictions, the adverse effects of environmental change and healthcare provisions, it is important to recognize that potential ‘crisis’ events are far from disconnected or fortuitous. We could argue that this ‘colliding of crises’, made apparent by COVID-19, forms, in fact, a continuum of causes and effects which must be treated in an integrated manner. The COVID-19 pandemic risks worsening the precarious living conditions already faced by millions of IDPs and migrants (e.g. in Burkina FasoVenezuela, and Yemen), exacerbating food insecurity for millions (a situation that is already commonplace in the Sahel region due to the effects of climate change, conflict and economic shocks) and derailing much-needed global efforts to tackle climate change as governments focus on economic recovery following the pandemic.  

As long as we refuse to perceive these issues as interconnected and to proactively tackle the deeply entrenched inequalities at the societal level through solidarity mechanisms, we will remain blinded by short-term visions and prone to shocks during forthcoming global ‘crises’. 

Recommended Readings 

Benker, E., Cantat, C., Fine, S., Giraudon, V., Gemenne, F., Jaulin, T., Pécoud, A., Perron, C.; Reddy, M., Savatic, F., Thiollet, H., Wihtol de Wenden, C., “Gouverner les frontières comme politique de vie?", Sciences Po CERI’s website, 04/05/2020,

Cantat, C., Thiollet, H., Pécoud, A. (2020) Migration as crisis. A framework paper.

Ozer, P., Thiry, A., Fallon, C., Blocher, J., de Longueville, F., “Containment in Sierra Leone: the inability of a state to confront Ebola?” The Lancet, 26/09/2014,

Tempus, A., “Are We Thinking About Climate Migration All Wrong?”, Rolling Stone, 14/03/2020,

This article was first published here on The Environmental Migration Portal as part of the

IOM Series on The COVID-19 Pandemic, Migration and the Environment.

About the authors:  

Elodie HUT 

Elodie Hut is a PhD candidate at the Hugo Observatory, where she conducts a thesis in the framework of the H2020 MAGYC project. She is also Co-Editor of the annual volume ‘The State of Environmental Migration’. In her previous role as a research assistant at the Observatory, she conducted research for the MIGRADAPT project. Elodie also worked at the UNHCR and the IOM in South Africa, for GIZ in Senegal, and in a disaster risk reduction consultancy firm in South Africa. Elodie holds a Master’s degree in Humanitarian Action and Law, as well an additional Master’s degree in International Relations from Sciences Po Aix-en Provence (France). 

Caroline ZICKGRAF 

Dr. Caroline Zickgraf is Deputy Director of the Hugo Observatory and Research Fellow within the MISTY project. She researches the links between human migration and environmental changes, specializing in the issues of immobility in coastal populations and transnational practices between migrants and non-migrants. Dr. Zickgraf is a member of the Advisory Group to the UNFCCC Task Force on Displacement and consults for the World Bank, UNEP, the ICMPD, the FAO, and the Green European Foundation. Additionally, she is Co-Editor of the annual volume ‘The State of Environmental Migration’. She holds a doctorate in political and social sciences from the University of Liège as well as degrees from Leiden University in the Netherlands (MPhil) and Michigan State University in the United States (BA). 

François GEMENNE 

Dr. François Gemenne is the Director of the Hugo Observatory at the University of Liège, where he is a FNRS senior research associate. He is a lead author of the forthcoming 6th IPCC Assessment Report. He has been involved in many international research projects on migration and environmental issues, including EACH-FOR, HELIX, DEVAST and MECLEP. He has also led the Hugo Observatory in its current ongoing projects, including HABITABLEMAGYCMISTY and MIGRADAPT. He holds a joint doctorate in political science from Sciences Po Paris and the University of Liège (Belgium). He also holds a Master’s in Development, Environment and Societies from the University of Louvain, as well as a Master of Research in Political Science from the London School of Economics. 


Tatiana Castillo Betancourt is a Research Assistant at the Hugo Observatory, where she supports the daily activities of the Horizon 2020 MAGYC project and contributes to the preparation of research project proposals. Prior to this, she worked at the UNDP Regional Service Centre for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she co-produced the ‘Scaling Fences: Voices of Irregular African Migrants to Europe’ report. She holds a double Master’s Degree in Economic Development and Growth from Lund University (Sweden) and Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (Spain). She completed her Bachelor’s studies in Economics and Business Administration at Universidad de los Andes in her hometown Bogota, Colombia. 

Pierre OZER 

Dr. Pierre Ozer is an Associate Professor at the University of Liège and the Scientific Coordinator of the Hugo Observatory. His main research interests include desertification processes, natural risk and disaster management, the impacts of environmental changes on public health and adaptation strategies to climate change. He has worked for various institutions such as the University of Genoa, the University of Luxembourg, the FAO in Rome and the Luxembourg University Foundation. He led the Belgian scientific delegation to the United Nations international negotiations to combat desertification (UNCCD COP-9, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2009). Pierre Ozer holds a PhD in Geographical sciences from the University of Liège. 

Céline LE FLOUR 

Céline Le Flour is completing her Master’s degree in International Relations at Sciences Po Strasbourg (France). She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences from the University of Strasbourg where she led sociological research with asylum seekers. As an intern at the Hugo Observatory, she focuses on migration as a climate change adaptation strategy and on the interactions between climate change and migration governance, notably in the framework of the MIGRADAPT project. 

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

Under the exceptional circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the midterm workshop of the T2S programme in 2020 became a virtual event. However, as the organisers themselves quite rightly pointed out, the workshop focus – the politics of transformative research – has become, under these circumstances, even more relevant and timely. Each of the 12 projects in the T2S programme were asked this week to talk about the key concepts of their projects and to share what they are learning in relation to the politics of transformative research, before and since the COVID-19 crisis.

For MISTY, Neil Adger and Carloine Zickgraf together gave a presentation that clearly summarised our project’s objectives, scope and methods, and introduced the team’s initial thinking on Post-COVID pathways to sustainability.

Migration as Transformation

“Is the mobility and movement of labour part of the unsustainability problem? Or is migration a key element of transformation to sustainability?”

Much environmental science focuses, rightly, in Professor Adger’s opinion, on involuntary migration – that is people displaced from their homes because of environmental change or hazards. While important, this is a small part of the migration story. The dominant migration flow is still rural to urban migration into medium and large cities globally. In the fastest growing cities in the world, about two-thirds of their residents are in fact life time migrants. This is where the real story of migration and sustainability lies and where we are focused in this project.

Migration Studies is a cross-disciplinary field that has not been central to the sustainability sciences. Some of its major findings include:

  • ·Migration is more than simply about the flow of labour. Migration is transformative of individuals’ lives and involves decisions that are made for long term social mobility, education and other opportunities.

  • · Migration is also transformative of societies. Yet many of the dynamics are omitted in models of sustainability that assume people are rooted in one place and don’t make major changes during their lifecourse.

  • · And migration is, of course, highly politicized, especially with regard to international movement. Like many issues of public policy, it has been discussed in terms of security and threats to nation states, but particularly so in the past twenty years.

MISTY is trying to bring some of these ideas into these models of sustainability. We are tackling these issues in three prongs:

Migration and Sustainability

Conceptual and empirical modelling of migration-sustainability relationships

First, we are examining economic, social and environmental sustainability indicators, and hypothesising how they are affected by labour, human capital and resource demands associated with migration.

We are calibrating this at country level for 130 countries where we have data on internal migration flows, and on bi-lateral international flows.

Identity & Lifecourse

Indepth analysis of how migration affects sustainability transitions at individual and community scales

In six cities globally, we are collecting primary data with cohorts of migrants (and non-migrants) on the lived experience, place and meaning of sustainability.

We are doing this in various ways. First an in depth qualitative look, over the past six months, with small cohort of migrants across the six cities about what sustainability, community, and identity means for them.

We have planned a larger comparative survey more on behavioural aspects, but this is currently postponed.

The COVID crisis has altered peoples’ lives drastically. For migration, there are two related elements:

1. the implied blame of the ‘others’ in transporting and importing the COVID virus, and divisive politics around biosecurity.

2. the prolonged economic shock that potentially disproportionately affects migrant or insecure workers.

We are directly investigating how this plays out, using the first phase of data as a baseline and re-interviewing this cohort this month and keeping up with them over the next year or more to find out how the COVID crisis has affected migrant populations in different contexts and ultimately how this affects identity, community and transitions to sustainability.


Analysis of the politics and formal governance of migration in relation to environmental governance and regimes

MISTY investigates the political aspects of migration and sustainability particularly through its third research theme: governance. In this we ask: “What are the connections between the governance of migration and the governance of sustainability?” And, “How do local policies address the role of migration in the transformation towards sustainability?”

Here we address both horizontal and vertical governance divides and potential incoherence between governance dimensions and fora, such as the integration of migration issues within UNFCCC processes, where the environment-migration link has received more attention that in, for example, migration governance and policy, where environmental and sustainability dimensions have been put on the backburner so to speak.

We also consider the vertical dimension, as city governance perspectives of migration towards sustainability can differ dramatically from their national level and international discourses.

We do this methodologically via a mixed method approach, using discourse analysis, interviews, and participatory research approaches such as photo elicitation.

Partnerships and Impact

Ensuring the impact of MISTY throughout its duration, and not only at its conclusion, is fundamental to achieving our objectives.We therefore engage in both top-down and bottom-up approaches.

Caroline Zickgraf presenting at a COP25 side event in Madrid last year

From a top down, we engage with policymakers, delegates, and international organisations, through, for example, participation in COP, with migration organisations and processes like the GCM, and SDGs.

Underlining the importance of local actors and interests, we recently concluded a complementary research partnering with the Mayors Migration Council and C40 Cities Climate Leadership group seeking to advise on the vulnerability of migrants but also their potential to be sustainable actors and residents, not just the victims of unsustainability or climate impacts.

Next Steps for MISTY

Moving forward, on top of implementing our research design, we are looking towards what transformations to sustainability will look like in the critical coming years for migrants, migration policies, and inclusive sustainable action. Certainly, in order to ensure an impact of MISTY, we have to consider how this picture is and will change with COVID-19, and what that means for migrants and mobility more broadly.

Transforming towards sustainability is clearly multi-dimensional, and COVID-19 has exposed any number of inequalities, not least of which for vulnerable migrants. What mobility and migration will look like, and how they are perceived, will undoubtedly be impacted by new biosecurity and economic concerns. Migrants are often scapegoated, whether blamed for the spread of COVID-19, conflating migration with travel and general global mobility patterns, or seen as economic threats. This scapegoating brings with it political ramifications: from restrictive migration policies or bans on permanent migration, deportation measures, and in the long run with a looming economic downturn, the decreased demand for labour migration. With this in mind, the coming years will be critical in determining how and to what extent transformations take place towards sustainability, and if and how they will be inclusive.

This text is an abridged version of the presentation given by Neil Adger and Caroline Zickgraf on behalf of MISTY for the T2S mid-term meeting held virtually on 2nd June, 2020.


The full set of PowerPoint slides for the MISTY presentation can be found here on the T2S website.

Updated: Sep 17, 2020

Author: François Gemenne

A black swan and some white swans: Pitfalls and opportunities for climate action in times of pandemic

Sightings of black swans are uncommon. It is a rare animal, which lives primarily in Australia. In prospective theory, this is how is called an event whose likelihood is very low, but whose consequences are devastating [1]. Was the Covid-19 pandemic a black swan? Of course it could have been anticipated. Of course there were reports, warnings and even a TED talk by Bill Gates. But governments were caught off-guard: they had strategic stocks of oil, but no strategic stocks of masks.

In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, many governments have been implementing urgent, costly and radical measures to slow down the spread of the virus. Many of these measures resulted in very significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric pollution — some of them sparing lives, as a result of lower levels of air pollution. World’s greenhouse gas emissions are down for the first time in ten years; international traffic is down 65%. And the white swans were back in the canals of Venice — or rather of Burano, near Venice, as a matter of fact.

White swans in Burano, Italy.

Though the global impact of the pandemic on climate change will be difficult to assess, one thing is certain: it is possible for world leaders to take urgent and radical measures in the face of an imminent threat, and for the populations to accept them. Yet we haven’t been able, so far, to take similar measures to confront climate change, despite repeated calls from activists and scientists alike to declare a state of ‘climate emergency’.

In the midst of the sanitary crisis, many were prompt to point out the similarities between climate change and the pandemic. Both were global crises, requiring urgent responses on the basis of scientific advice. Therefore, many activists were quick to suggest that the measures implemented to fight against the spread of the pandemic had to be replicated to slow down climate change: ‘we must respond to climate change like we’re responding to coronavirus’, argued many activists. Others went a step further and claimed the pandemic was an ‘ultimatum of nature’, a ‘revenge of the Earth’ or even ‘good news for the environment’. #WeAreTheProblem was a popular hashtag on social media as many countries were in lockdown, as if the pandemic were eventually a way for nature to reclaim its rights. Yet one needs to cautious with such rhetoric.

A narrative for the crisis

Though there are still uncertainties regarding its exact origin — a bat, a pangolin? — it is now established that the Covid-19 is a zoonosis — that is, a disease transmitted to humans by wild animals. This is the case of about 75% of emerging infectious diseases [2], and this was the case of most of recent epidemics, from HIV-AIDS to Ebola. The reason why such zoonoses emerge has a lot to do with biodiversity loss, and especially deforestation, which brings wildlife closer to human settlements. There’s thus a strong pedagogical value in this crisis: people can realise that biodiversity loss is not just an issue for wildlife and ecosystems, but has dramatic human consequences. Biodiversity scholars and IPBES had been insisting on this for ages, to no avail. Furthermore, recent research shows that the propagation of the virus could have been accelerated by atmospheric pollution [3]. Now the crisis is a life-size experience of what researchers had been warning about.

The other side of the story is that people are now also able to witness the impact that their activities had on the environment: the sky is bluer, the water is cleaner.

The impacts of climate change on health are no less important: the spread of infectious diseases like malaria or dengue depends heavily on heat and humidity, which are both deeply affected by climate change. There is ample scientific evidence that climate change bears some significant health impacts. Every year, the annual report of The Lancet Countdown Initiative reviews these impacts, which range from cardio-vascular troubles to allergies and infectious diseases, such as dengue or malaria [4]. The World Health Organization reckons that climate change could claim 250 000 additional lives per year between 2030 and 2050 [5]. In the worst case scenario, the melting of the permafrost could release scores of unknown viruses and bacteria [6].

One should be careful, however, not to say that the virus is a ‘message of nature’: the virus has no political agenda. It is not a curse, nor a punishment. And saying so would be deeply insensitive to those suffering from the crisis. The virus is no curse, no punishment. It is neither a ‘virus of globalisation’ nor a ‘Chinese virus’. There are however many lessons that can be drawn from the crisis, and in particular lessons for how we communicate about climate change.

Some lessons for the communication of climate change

Why don’t we treat climate change with the same urgency? To put it simply: because we are less afraid of climate change than we are of the coronavirus. We see the virus as a near and present danger. We are all afraid (or should be afraid) of contracting the virus personally, while climate change still seems perceived as a concern for others — for the next generation, or far-away countries. Celebrities and heads of states were sick because of Covid-19: if they were affected, then no one was safe, irrelevant of how wealthy and powerful you were.

We are well aware that Covid-19 is a threat for ourselves, while climate change remains perceived as a threat that will mostly affect others, in future generations or in far-away countries. We are afraid of getting contaminated with the virus, while we don’t see climate change as contagious.

Here it is important to ponder as to why we maintain such psychological distance with climate change, and the responsibility we hold as researchers. Climate models are calibrated on the long-run, and policy objectives target 2050 or 2100. Rather than putting forward a short-term objective, the Paris Agreement insists on a long-term objective, a maximum temperature by 2100, a date that far exceeds the lifetime of much of those who are reading the present text — and certainly of all those who signed the Paris Agreement itself. On the contrary, we were presented with daily curves of the Covid-19 spread: how many had died, how many were in intensive care in hospitals, etc. We had daily figures for the Covid-19; we have curves that stretch until the end of the century for climate change.

Similarly, while industrialised countries are badly hit by the pandemics, research has consistently stressed that countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts were developing countries, or that the poorest, most marginalised populations would be disproportionately affected by climate impacts. While these facts are indisputable, they also create a social distance between climate change and those who should act to contain it. We can expect an immediate benefit for ourselves of the measures we take against the coronavirus; we can’t expect the same for climate change. The effect of the measures we take against climate change will materialise only in the future, and first in developing countries.

This suggests that we should insist more on the immediate consequences of climate change, and less on the long-term objectives. In an op-ed published in The Guardian in late January 2020, George Monbiot suggested dropping these long-term objectives — which he found to be counter-productive — to adopt instead a maximalist approach [7] This maximalist approach is the one adopted by most governments in the face of the Covid-19 crisis: they don’t seek to reduce the infection rate by a certain percentage, but rather to ‘flatten the curve’ as much as possible. They don’t seek to achieve a maximum number of deaths, but rather to reduce the death rate as much as possible. It would seem shocking to do otherwise; yet this is what we do re climate change. And this is how the radical measures of containment are justified — without these, there’s a fear that the crisis would become unmanageable for hospitals and health services.

A looming disaster for climate action

We often hear it said, in certain circles, that the current crisis would be “good for the climate and the environment,” or that we ought “to apply the same measures against climate change.” Not only is this utterly insensitive to the very complicated situation that many families are living through right now, not to mention the staff on the front line, but it’s also completely wrong and stupid. On the contrary, I think that the current lockdown is likely to have devastating consequences for climate action, if these consequences are not urgently mitigated. Five reasons justify this claim:

1. First, all crises so for have been followed by a rebound effect of greenhouse gas emissions so far. This was the case following the economic and financial crisis of 2008–2009, this is likely to be the case again this time, even though some economists [8] might be right when they argue that this crisis is likely to induce a long economic recession, unable to make up for the emissions saved in 2020. Here we are stuck between two narratives, and neither of them is desirable: if the emissions rebound to a higher level, this will push us further away from the objectives of the Paris Agreement. And if they rebound to a lower level, than it will mean that we have entered a long-lasting economic recession.

2. Second, governments will have to inject billions of euros, dollars and yuan to reboost the economy. In the absence of ‘shovel-ready’ plans to finance low-carbon investments, they are likely to throw a buoy to the industries most affected by the crisis, including those depending of fossil fuels. This is already the case in many countries: in Canada, in the US or in France. While the price of a barrel of oil is at the lowest and the recovery plan could be an opportunity to plan a low-carbon economy, we risk doing exactly the opposite and offering a lifeline to the fossil fuel industries.

3. Many governments and industries are trying to seize this opportunity to challenge climate change measures in the name of economic recovery. The Czech Republic and Poland are already calling for the abandonment of the European Green New Deal. Lobbying for environmental regulations to be lifted is intense: in the US, the EPA has indefinitely suspended the enforcement of sanctions for violations against environmental regulations. This could set us 15 or 20 years back.

4. International cooperation is in tatters. In the face of a global crisis, governments chose to apply national, uncoordinated responses. Many closed their borders; others stole masks from one another on airport runways. International organisations have been considerably weakened by the crisis, and yet more international cooperation will be needed against climate change (and other pandemics as well). Paradoxically, the health measures recommended against the coronavirus are the exact opposite to those needed against climate change: more cooperation, more exchanges will be needed. The usefulness of closing the borders to stop the spread of the virus can be disputed [9], but there’s no question that closed borders will not stop climate change.

5. Finally, the social acceptability of many environmental measures is likely to be questioned after the lockdown. This is especially the case if the narrative of a ‘crisis that is good for the climate’ continue to be so present in the news cycle. The current lockdown measures are likely to encourage the idea that the fight against climate change requires a complete shutdown of the economy. Later, I seriously doubt that we’ll look back on the lockdown period as a blessed time, as in “of course it was a bit painful, but it was great for the climate.” There is a real risk of the massive rejection of climate change measures if it is said, as some green activists are saying right now, that we should “do the same for the climate.”

Opportunities for climate action

With these caveats in mind, one also needs to recognize that the current crisis holds many opportunities for climate action. I see four opportunities in particular — for each of them, I formulate a specific recommendation for climate action.

1. First, many work or travel habits are likely to subsist after this crisis. Teleworking is likely to become more common, while some cities have already expanded their bike lanes. But this also holds bad news for climate action: car-sharing is likely to decline, and so will the use of public transport. Most importantly, will many are hoping for a change of economic model after the crisis, most will be keen to return to the world they knew before the crisis. This is a normal reaction: in times of crisis, the past is reassuring, while the future holds many uncertainties.

2. The confinement measures taken against Covid-19 represent a remarkable display of solidarity: we put the economy to a complete standstill to protect the lives of the elderly and most fragile in our societies. But this solidarity was often confined to national borders: the challenge for climate change will now need to build on this renewed intra-national solidarity and project it beyond national borders.

3. The crisis can also be an opportunity to revive what we have in common. In many regards, the virus can exacerbate inequalities, but can also be a driver of greater social cohesion. Marginalized populations — the homeless or the migrants, to name just a few — have been forgotten in our handling of the crisis. This puts them at great risk, but this also puts society as a whole at risk: no one is safe until everyone is safe. Therefore, those who have been marginalized in society can become clusters of infection: greater social cohesion becomes an imperative for public health.

4. With the economic reboost package, governments will have at their disposal a massive tool of economic planning. For years, governments had been lamenting that they had lost control over the economy, or that they had no economic leverage. For the first time in years, governments will regain some sort of control over the economy — debts, austerity or deficits seem to have become secondary concerns. This is a historical opportunity. Many economic interests will try and play this at their advantage, especially from the fossil fuel industries. But this is also an opportunity to boost the emergence of a low-carbon economy.


Climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic share many characteristics: both are of global nature, requiring radical responses on the basis of scientific assessments. In both cases, these responses are required first and foremost to protect the most vulnerable. Let’s not assume however that the measures deployed against the pandemic can be replicated as such to fight climate change. Climate change is not like the coronavirus: despite their similarities, climate change will require different solutions. But the coronavirus crisis tells us it is possible to take urgent, costly and radical measures, and provides some opportunities to renew climate action. But there are also many vested interests that would just like for these opportunities to be wasted.

[1] Taleb N. N. 2007. The Black Swan. New York: Random House.

[2] UNEP (2016) UNEP Frontiers 2016 Report. Nairobi: UNEP.

[3] Ogen, Y. (2020). Assessing nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels as a contributing factor to coronavirus (COVID-19) fatality. Science of The Total Environment, 726, 138605.

[4] Watts, N., Amann, M., Arnell, N., Ayeb-Karlsson, S., Belesova, K., Boykoff, M., … Montgomery, H. (2019). The 2019 report of The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: ensuring that the health of a child born today is not defined by a changing climate. The Lancet, 394(10211), 1836–1878.


[6] Gemenne F., Rankovic A. and Atelier de Cartographie de Sciences Po (2019) Atlas de l’Anthropocène. Paris: Presses de Sciences Po.

[7] Monbiot G. (2020) « Let’s abandon climate targets, and do something completely different », The Guardian, 29 January 2020.

[8] See De Perthuis C. (2020) « Comment le Covid-19 modifie les perspectives de l’action climatique », 2 April 2020. Online :

Liebreich M. (2020) « Covid-19 — The Low-Carbon Crisis », 26 April 2020. On line:

[9] Chinazzi, M., Davis, J. T., Ajelli, M., Gioannini, C., Litvinova, M., Merler, S., … Vespignani, A. (2020). The effect of travel restrictions on the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Science, eaba9757.

This article was written by François Gemenne, and was first posted here on Medium.

François Gemenne is a FNRS senior research associate at the University of Liège, where he is the Director of the Hugo Observatory, University of Liège, Belgium


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