Both the current COVID-19 outbreak and climate change are examples of what are known as “wicked problems”: complex challenges faced by humankind, with no easy solution and involving many stakeholders, often with competing priorities. But apart from their obvious dangers to humanity, what connects these two phenomena?
The exponential spread of the new coronavirus and the threat of climate change are caused by features of modern life, in particular globalisation and over-consumption. An epidemic that may have been largely contained within one area of China was spread rapidly around the world by international travellers, accustomed to crossing oceans for business meetings and hopping continents for weekend breaks. Meanwhile, our 24-hour demand for entertainment and consumer goods gave the virus ample opportunities to circulate in bars, restaurants, shopping centres, cinemas and other venues. An epidemic became a pandemic, due to our insatiable consumerism. Ironically, this consumerist drive reached its pinnacle in our first response to the virus: panic buying.
Of course, this way of life has now come to an abrupt halt. Governments have caught on, with varying levels of urgency, to the means by which coronavirus is spread, limiting travel and closing all but what they deem the most essential consumer outlets. There’s no doubt that coronavirus poses a grave threat to both our lives and our way of life. And yet, so does climate change. So where’s the equivalent response?
Millions of people are killed, displaced, or simply made miserable and poor every year by climate change. In less developed countries, and increasingly in the richer ones too, climate change is already hitting hard. Presuming we get coronavirus under control, climate change is going to be the greatest threat any of us face in our lifetime. Yet it doesn’t have the bullet-train urgency of a pandemic, nor does it have neat, easily digested scientific graphs and explanations. Nonetheless, it is steaming down the track and the driver is fast asleep.
The certain and tragic outcome of this pandemic will be many deaths, coupled with an economic downturn lasting years. On an individual level, the loss of life, security and income will hit hard in millions of households. Yet the environment won’t grieve for us any more than the virus will. The inevitable months of lockdown, and the longer-term downturn in economic growth, may just give the natural world, and our climate system, the breathing space it needs to begin to recover from the hurt we have caused it.
If coronavirus has already taught us anything, it is that humankind is capable of coming together in a timely, heroic and shared effort when our lives and livelihoods are threatened. We have quickly adapted to new privations and made huge sacrifices, albeit on a (hopefully) temporary scale, to nip the current crisis in the bud. If only we could see climate change for the monumental hazard that it is, we would likewise be willing to make political and lifestyle changes to stem its onslaught.
Luckily, the sacrifices we must accept to combat climate change are small compared to the huge steps we have each taken to stop coronavirus. Climate scientists do not expect us to stay behind locked doors, stop spending time with our loves ones, or prevent us going to the hairdresser or theatre. Ending the climate crisis involves a concerted effort from each of us, sure. But the changes are far less drastic: Eat locally produced food and less meat. Fly less. Stop buying disposable plastic crap and other non-essentials that have been flown thousands of miles across the Earth. Reuse and recycle. Take public transport. Lobby your government to produce renewable energy. Plant trees. At no point will the climate insist that we all “STAY INDOORS”. Unless, that is, it becomes too hot to go outside.
The willingness of almost all citizens to take major actions to limit the spread of the coronavirus is impressive, and we ought to congratulate ourselves. It makes me optimistic that we can take the less drastic steps required to end the climate crisis too.
A version of this article was published on 27 March 2020 at https://saphiafleurycom.wordpress.com/
Following a 12-year career at Amnesty International, Saphia Fleury now conducts research into climate change migration at the UK’s Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull. Follow her work @SaphiaFleury