What COVID-19 can teach us about the climate crisis

The response to the pandemic demonstrates the power of sweeping policy changes and individual action

Dannetta thinks our rapid response to COVID-19 signals hope for the climate crisis.
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The world is in the midst of what could become the deadliest global pandemic in living memory. Even as we lack adequate testing capabilities, global cases of COVID-19 have surpassed 500,000, doubling in the past week.

This epidemic has prompted a drastic and far-reaching shift in how we conduct business, how we manage our resources, and how we live our daily lives—demonstrating a willingness and an ability to dramatically alter thestatus quo in order to fight a global crisis.

Governments have been proactive and forward-thinking in providing funds and making aggressive policy decisions, and individuals have demonstrated (for the most part) a remarkable willingness to curb our daily behaviour in order to do our part.
 
But nobody has seen this sense of urgency when it comes to fighting the climate crisis.

In the face of COVID-19, governments have mobilized vast sums of money for emergency management. The Canadian government has already pledged over $1.1 billion in its federal budget to combat the pandemic in various ways, including investing $275 million in scientific research.

Policy-makers have also been proactive in mandating social distancing. Ontario’s government moved to prohibit all organized public gatherings of 50 people or more. Multiple provinces have directed all schools, restaurants, bars, and non-essential businesses to close.

At the individual level, people worldwide are curbing their behaviour to staunch the growth of the virus, specifically through social distancing and self-isolation. Social media platforms have been inundated with calls to stay home and avoid large gatherings. 
 
This urgency isn’t present in the face of the scientific community’s climate warnings.

Climate scientists tell us that global greenhouse gas emissions must be cut in half over the next decade and that global average temperatures must not rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels. Failure could mean crisis—such as large-scale flooding, wildfires,and droughts—as early as 2040.

Despite these climate crises, we have collectively done nothing of substance.
 
A report from the United Nations Environment Program in 2019 stated that under our current emissions trajectories, global average temperatures are expected to rise 3.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100, more than double what climate scientists tell us is safe and sustainable.

There must be a reason why the response to the coronavirus has been so immediate and strong, while the response to the climate crisis has been so weak and belated.
 
Perhaps it’s because the world’s most affluent populations have not yet been forced to confront the reality of climate change.

The climate crisis, so far, has mostly killed, displaced, or directly affected communities of colour or impoverished communities. Notwithstanding the recent wildfires in Australia, California, and British Columbia, the ‘Western world’—mainly Europe and North America—has so far been largely spared the deadliest and most dramatic effects of a warming planet.

Our relative distance from theclimate crisis has therefore allowed us to postpone panic. We’re not confronted with the harsh reality of inaction on a day-to-day basis. We’re not yet seeing up close the negative impacts that ignoring the climate crisis can and will have on us. We’re still operating under the collective delusion that we’ll be fine.

In contrast to the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has reached deep into the heart of the privileged world. The worst outbreaks so far have been centred in some of the most economically developed nations on the planet, such as the United States, Italy, Spain, South Korea, and China.
 
The immediacy of this public health crisis, the rising case count and death toll, and the visible indicators of an oncoming economic recession have shocked and scared us into action.
 
The same cannot be said for the climate crisis. But, when it strikes in earnest, it will not discriminate based on race or class or national origin.
 
The Western world will not be exempt from rising sea levels. The wealthy will not be able to purchase a reprieve from devastating wildfires.
 
In fact, we’ve already witnessed the beginnings of this new reality.

Record heatwaves in June and July of last year killed over 1,400 people in France. Last fall, parts of the Florida Keys were flooded for over three months, destroying the local communities. A devastating bushfire season in Australia burned 27 million acres of wilderness, killed at least 29 people, destroyed 2,500 homes, and killed an estimated 1.25 billion animals.

These kinds of climate-related catastrophes will only increase in frequency, severity, and deadliness as emissions grow and global average temperatures rise.
 
But the response to COVID-19 can give us hope in the face of an oncoming climate apocalypse. The pandemic has shown the world what we, as human beings, are collectively capable of.
 
Governments are capable of making rapid, sweeping, aggressive, and proactive change based on science and expertise. Financial support is easy to come by when we perceive a crisis as an existential threat. Individuals are willing and able to dramatically alter their daily behaviour for the greater good of their fellow human beings.

The world is facing a global, existential threat. We need to start acting like that’s the case before it’s too late.
 
Luca Dannetta is a third-year history student.

 

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