Pitfalls and opportunities for climate action in times of pandemic
Updated: Sep 17
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 . 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.
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 , 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 . 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 . The World Health Organization reckons that climate change could claim 250 000 additional lives per year between 2030 and 2050 . In the worst case scenario, the melting of the permafrost could release scores of unknown viruses and bacteria .
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  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  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 , 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.
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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