Anything to be learned?
With the global spread of the coronavirus disease, and the drastic actions being taken by national governments to try to contain it, it is not surprising to see many asking if there are any lessons to be learned for dealing with climate breakdown.
Some argue that similarities between coronavirus and climate breakdown suggest that we can deal with both in similar ways. We suggest that this is a simplification. Looking at the similarities and distinctions between the two may reveal some of the complications in any such comparisons.
The two phenomenon share certain traits: they are both global in reach; they have no respect for physical or political boundaries; they are unseen, invisible enemies; they rely on science to resolve; they require national and international cooperation; they are going to cost global economies trillions or more than we can count.
While other similarities might be found, they are outweighed by the distinctions.
Coronavirus is an immediate, fast moving, global threat to our health that exploded on the scene and appeared at our front doors in a matter of days or weeks, and the impacts are present and obvious. Climate breakdown has been around for decades and its impacts are unfolding but the really scary consequences are decades in the future.
Climate breakdown is happening because greenhouse gases (GHGs) are spread in the ambient air all over the planet, and they stay there for long periods of time, while coronavirus is transferred from person to person, generally within several feet, for short periods, so isolation of the virus is possible.
Coronavirus will kill thousands to tens of thousands in days or weeks or months. Climate breakdown is an “existential threat” that computer models tell us will kill hundreds of thousands to millions of people in decades, or half a century.
Climate breakdown will be with us forever, while coronavirus likely will depart in a short time – weeks, months, a few years.
Coronavirus is shutting down much of the world’s economy, albeit for a short period – maybe months – while mitgation measures for climate breakdown, like switching to renewable energy from fossil fuels, can transform and strengthen the economy.
While the extent of the impacts of climate breakdown are elusive, difficult to measure, the effects of coronavirus are only too visible.
Coronavirus is primarily a devastating health crisis, while climate breakdown is primarily an environmental disaster (rising seas, droughts, heat waves), which has severe health impacts. Of course, we do not understand all the possible consequences of climate breakdown, which could unleash pandemic diseases across the planet. It has been suggested that air pollution that is exacerbated by climate breakdown increases risks of people getting sick from viruses, including for pneumonia. And climate breakdown can disrupt ecosystems, driving wildlife to places they never were before and forcing contact with other animals and leading to transmission of new pathogens.
Efforts to reduce the impacts of climate breakdown have been undermined for decades by fossil fuel interests with massive amounts of money. Nobody is arguing in favor of more virus, though D. Trump and his malign policies are arguing (back to work!) in favor of protecting the investments of the few over the health of the many.
Coronavirus results in a temporary loss of food supplies on grocery shelves, while climate breakdown threatens food security through extreme weather events and destruction of soil itself, which losses can be global in reach and long-term.
While global in reach, some countries or areas can control coronavirus impacts even if others, including neighbors, ignore the threats and do nothing. On the other hand, one country can take drastic mitigation measures for climate breakdown that can be nullified by greedy, ignorant neighbors or even distant countries that ignore the impacts of climate change.
The coronavirus can be controlled, to some extent, through testing and masks and gloves and social distancing, and maybe a vaccine. Climate breakdown requires a transformation of the world’s energy sources (wind and solar, not fossil) and electric grids; sustainable, denser, walkable cities; plant-based diets; carbon taxes. And much more.
In comparing the two phenomenon, one particular hope may be more of a delusion. Many commentators suggest that what everybody is learning from the coronavirus crisis can be applied to resolve climate breakdown challenges once the virus crisis ends. It is respectfully submitted that there will be few voices calling for more restraint and austerity and sacrifice once the virus is “conquered.” Rather it is likely people will be exhausted, angry, looking to blame someone, longing for security, and desperate to get back to “normal,” or business-as-usual, not to a transformative Green New Deal.
Some suggest that the challenge of coronavirus demonstrates that people can change their behavior when faced with a large and imminent threat. This is of course the Holy Grail of climate breakdown activists. And it is true that the fight against coronavirus has created some modifications of behavior in response to the virus, some of which will even be helpful in overcoming climate breakdown. Less flying and more telecommuting and videoconferencing are several examples. But little behavior change is evident in the young people who flocked to beaches in Florida, and older people who belittled the virus, fed of course by the Virus Denialist D. Trump.
But perhaps the most telling comparison is the argument that we need to fight climate breakdown in the same ways we fought world wars, with full-scale, national mobilization of resources. With the coronavirus, that argument is gaining force with the demand that factories manufacturing certain products (e.g., cars) that are no longer in immediate need be repurposed, by government dictate, to manufacture products that are critical, e.g., ventilators and protective gear for medical personnel and the general public. Once the crisis passes, “normal” production can return.
That argument for national action to fight coronavirus may well result in various forms of war-time-like mobilization. In any event, the argument is being examined and challenged and that is a useful exercise for our eventual dealing with the climate breakdown crisis heading our way.
Finally, perhaps the strongest ray of hope could come from the general public seeing the critical role of science in helping them stay healthy and alive. So much the better for efforts to fight climate breakdown.
Shannon Osaka, “Why don’t we treat climate change like an infectious disease?” Grist (16 March 2020). bit.ly/3brxhgO
Eric Galbraith, “Coronavirus response proves the world can act on climate change,” The Conversation (19 March 2020). bit.ly/2JbxGYC
Neela Banerjee, “Q&A: A Harvard Expert on Environment and Health Discusses Possible Ties Between COVID and Climate,” inside climate news (12 March 2020). bit.ly/3agWbPX
John Schwartz, “Social Distancing? You Might Be Fighting Climate Change, Too: Isolation and other shifts in behavior during the coronavirus outbreak could also alter our greenhouse gas emissions. But will the changes stick?” The New York Times (17 March 2020). nyti.ms/33YppRv
Damian Carrington, “Climate emergency: global action is ‘way off track’ says UN head: Deadly heatwaves, floods and rising hunger far greater threat to world than coronavirus, scientists say,” The Guardian (10 March 2020). bit.ly/2wuBFNi
Dan Gearino, “Coronavirus ‘Really Not the Way You Want To Decrease Emissions’,” inside climate news (11 March 2020). bit.ly/2QOdPml
John Sutter, “The pandemic isn’t fixing climate change,” CNN (27 March 2020). apple.news/AIm68sKAdT9Wu0NzTu8KzPQ