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The corresponding crises of Covid-19 and climate change: An opportunity for structural changes


Steve Thorne is an engineer internationally experienced in energy and climate change. Lester Malgas is an academic researcher with a background in environmental writing and communications for civil society organisations.

The massive, urgent global response to the Covid-19 pandemic shows that it is possible to bring foresighted leadership to existential threats to humanity. The question is why, with such clear information on the threat available in science, the world has not shown similar urgency to the question of climate change.

The coronavirus pandemic poses an existential threat to human lives and livelihoods. Identified by the World Health Organisation as recently as January 2020 as a cluster of pneumonia outbreaks in Wuhan City, China, the advent and spread of outbreaks has served to highlight global unpreparedness, leadership and governance inadequacies as well as issues of inequality and vulnerability. 

The emergence of the threat precipitated a sense of fear initially, and later, one of global empathy, a sense of acting as a collective, of being in this together.

The Covid-19 pandemic has come at a time when attempts to deal with another existential catastrophe — that of anthropogenic or human-induced climate change — is at a tipping point. These two threats, and the differing responses to them, have prompted numerous reflections on this moment in international history, ranging from matters of personal responsibility to foresighted leadership, from questions of economic overhauls to political will. These twin crises, while menacing and troubling, may hold the seed of appropriate and desirable deep structural changes.

The parallels between climate change and Covid-19 can be plotted, both in their ominous outcomes as well as their underlying causes. We are told by scientists that we are witnessing only the beginnings of the consequences of both crises. Both have already proven deadly, and both are projected to get worse, killing many along the way — directly and indirectly — from sickness to trauma, hunger and conflict, with the poor and most vulnerable at highest risk. 

For both crises, humanity’s subscription to a culture of reckless consumption choices, entrenched within a highly globalised society, serves to increase risk and vulnerability at an exponential rate. Given the current state of knowledge about the causes of both threats, however, there has been a marked difference in responsive leadership. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa has been lauded in the media for showing decisive leadership in early identification of the scale of the threat and clearly communicating the country’s response to the virus, a decisiveness that, to date, is sorely lacking in response to the climate change threat. 

Yet, it is beyond question that the rise in global temperature over the past two centuries is largely attributable to a range of human activities, to the emission of greenhouse gases — the majority from the burning of fossil fuels — as well as destruction of natural sinks of carbon, and that this crisis poses an arguably greater threat to all life forms on earth. 

Global consensus on a plan of action was best articulated in the 2016 Paris Agreement, which aims, ultimately, to limit the global increase in temperature to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels. In the case of the virus, the genesis of the outbreak was allegedly animal-to-human transfer; consumption of possibly bat meat, or pangolin. The global response is aimed at limiting infection rates so that healthcare systems are not overwhelmed while the world races to develop treatments and, hopefully, vaccines to eradicate the virus. 

The diverging responses to these two threats, though, begs the question: how did such a dramatic response to the virus get mobilised so fast, based on so little scientific knowledge, while the overwhelming consensus around climate change has garnered such a comparatively tepid response?

Chief among the reasons may well be disinformation. The climate denial industry is a concerted campaign, well-financed by industrial and political interests, aimed at delaying action on climate change. Spin by climate sceptics has shifted over time, employing progressively more sophisticated methods in attempts to undermine public confidence in the science, by those who would hope to see the continuation of business as usual. Such spin includes the notions that human activity plays no role in climate change, that the concept of climate change is a hoax, or that it is in the financial and funding interests of climate scientists to create an alarmist narrative. These views, however, fly in the face of an overwhelming consensus, based on empirical evidence by experts from various disciplines. 

News about the virus, though, has similarly been subject to disinformation. A proliferation of conspiracy theories, fuelled by social media, has been the order of the day. We’ve seen everything from the accidental release of the virus after being engineered in a Chinese lab, to the anti-vaxxer notion that governments plan to reduce population numbers with the eventual release of a deadly vaccine. Even in official responses, especially on the right, there have been instances of statements akin to corona-denial, with the US president, Donald Trump, saying in March 2020 that the virus is “only a flu”, and that it will “magically go away”. 

Around the same time in Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison came under fire for seemingly encouraging citizens to attend sports events by announcing his intention to attend an upcoming National Rugby League match. These have not been isolated incidents. A number of world leaders, including Brazil’s, Jair Bolsonaro, Madagascar’s Andry Rajoelina and President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, have been referred to as members of an “ostrich alliance” for putting their heads in the sand. News reports indicate that deniers of Covid-19 are following the climate denial playbook. 

To be fair, of the two threats, the climate change trajectory is on a much slower burn than this virus. Describing what he refers to as “slow violence,” environmental scholar Rob Nixon has classed climate change among the “slowly unfolding environmental catastrophes”, that are “dispersed across time and space” and which “occurs gradually and out of sight”. According to Nixon, the gradual and incremental nature of these cumulative forms of destruction — distributed in parts per million so as to be almost invisible — can hinder our efforts to mobilise and act decisively. 

Transcending multiple decades, as it does, climate change calls for adopting long-term policy decisions that tend to be unpalatable to politicians with short term re-election ambitions. And so, the tin-can that is climate policy action gets repeatedly kicked down the road for an “after me, the storm” generation to face, if indeed they survive. 

Climate change is an intergenerational threat, as highlighted by Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist who issued a stinging rebuke to world leaders, and recently described climate change as being “as urgent as the coronavirus.” The system of Nationally Determined Contributions volunteered under the Paris Agreement, while a start in achieving almost universal commitments, is proving patently insufficient. We are already facing the reality that some of the forecasts warned of and are on a track to experience catastrophic climate change impacts thanks to the flimsiness of the current level of climate ambition. Our need to adapt to a changing climate is irrefutable no matter what we do to mitigate global warming from here on.

The necessary investments in the mitigation of greenhouse gases and adaptation to the impacts of climate change have long been deferred, with fiscal spending being withheld even for matters ostensibly marked “urgent”, rather than “important”. The virus, by comparison, has mobilised massive resources quickly – with more than $2-trillion to $3-trillion raised in a matter of weeks by the US alone. Much of this is earmarked to ride out the economic slowdown while confronting the virus and ensuring that corporates emerge in reasonable shape so that they are able to continue an unsustainable business-as-usual model when the economy reopens. 

According to a BBC report in May 2020, the Asian Development Bank estimated the cost of the virus to the global economy at $5.8-trillion to $8.8-trillion.  In contrast, in November 2019, Morgan Stanley published research that concluded that to reach “net zero” emissions will require $50-trillion in investment by 2050. Of course, these cost estimates are not exhaustive in what they cover, nor do they even compare apples with apples. They are instructive, however, as to the scale of action required to address each of the crises from our current vantage point. 

Both crises require upfront investment in the science surrounding them, the key to understanding what the threat is, how it is evolving and what is required to mitigate it and/or adapt to our “altered” environment. In the case of climate change, such investment includes early investment in technologies and behavioural change. According to scientists and modellers, such as those serving on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, this strategy for shifting the emissions trajectory — equivalent to flattening the curve in Covid-19 parlance — presents the least-cost option. 

In the case of the virus, the toolbox will contain primarily non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as travel restrictions, personal protective equipment, physical distancing, testing and tracing, isolation, ventilation and incubation. The identification of treatments, vaccine research and trials proceed in parallel with some hopeful reports of early breakthroughs and trials. Failure to flatten the curves, whether emissions trajectories or infection rates, will result in accelerated loss of life and damage to economies. 

Projections for the future, in the case of the virus, suggest a critical mass of recovered cases less likely to experience further infections, the development of vaccines and optimistic estimates of eventual decline in a matter of months. The prognosis for climate change, however, is unequivocally more ominous, involving runaway scenarios with accelerated feedback loops, such as the melting of ancient ice caps, the breakdown of weather and ocean systems and the decimation of forests and biodiversity, to name a few. Climate change has and will negatively affect many unless we act now with the ambition required by climate science. 

The global scale of the two threats, however, denotes that at some point their paths converge. Response measures to the virus have significantly impacted on the human consumption of goods and services that have their own embodied emissions footprints. The virus, by default, is achieving reductions, both in emissions and economic growth, through the necessary shutdowns, reduced mobility, loss of employment opportunities, morbidity and mortality. 

This convergence has not gone unnoticed, as evidenced by the abundance of media reports plotting a relationship between environmental and climate change benefits on one hand, and coronavirus response measures on the other. Such news ranges from photo essays depicting various animals from around the globe — raccoons, jackals, mountain goats, buffalo — exploring seemingly deserted proximate urban spaces, to media reports about the clarity and calmness of Venice’s waters in the time of corona. Then there’s the hard data. A scientific journal article in Nature Climate Change reports that fossil fuel carbon emissions could decrease by a record 2.5 billion tonnes and that as of early April 2020 and daily global greenhouse gas emissions are down by 17% compared to the same period in 2019. In some countries, lockdown measures reportedly caused emissions to drop by as much as 26%.

Among the key insights from these reports is how quickly government regulations were approved and how profoundly they brought about shifts in global patterns of energy demand. Experts, however, have warned against prematurely breaking out the streamers and champagne. Such policy instruments, they say, have to be seen in the context of the emergency which the pandemic constitutes, as short-term and temporary, offering up haemorrhaging economies with loss of livelihoods in exchange for flattened infection curves. 

Notwithstanding the incidental drop in emissions from the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the policies were not aimed at reducing carbon emissions. They fall significantly short of the deep structural policies required to bring carbon budgets into alignment with the scale of the problem. Troublingly, the unprecedented drop in emissions from lockdowns also raises the spectre of subsequent flare-ups —similar to what happened following the financial recession of 2008 — as governments seek to kick-start an economic recovery. In the US, for instance, the current administration has moved to ease and even reverse environmental regulations on the construction of pipelines and other infrastructure such as roads and airports. Many of the world’s governments have bailed out sectors and industries that serve only to deepen their dependence on fossil fuels.

Another insight is how the lockdown paradigm has demonstrated a menu of desirable behavioural opportunities for the individual. More and more people are awakening to the benefits of working from home, cutting out the need for commuting, traffic and spending on fuel. Online meetings are increasingly negating the need for the ± 100,000 commercial flights that made up the pre-lockdown daily average. Those who cannot work from home, have sought alternative ways to travel, such as walking, cycling and e-biking, which will remain desirable into the long term, for both environmental and health reasons, including air quality and social distancing. Bicycle stores have been selling out on both sides of the Atlantic. 

As hopeful and encouraging as these insights and actions may be, they don’t take us very far down the road we are required boldly to go. We need the implementation of deep structural policies that work as multipliers to social awareness and behavioural change. We need the pedestrian-friendly urban spaces, with the bike lanes, as well as safe and reliable public transport systems that work for everyone. 

Information and communication around Covid-19 has been decidedly sketchy at times. That’s not even counting the disinformation and conspiracy theories about technologies such as 5G. Economists, epidemiologists and policymakers are divided on which path to chart forward.  Political leaders, having congratulated the powers that be for shifting the rate of infection, are now looking to reopen economies fully, albeit slowly, watching out for “spikes” in infection with reactive risk re-calibrated regulations at the ready, we are told. 

The narrative is shifting, in this case from protecting the health workers and frontline infrastructure, to carrying the cost of opening the economy. After months of lockdown, people are entering into a more dangerous environment than when the original shutdown commenced. People are now facing up to the understated trade-offs where (some) life is to be sacrificed for the economy. The question will be, what is going to be too much, too little or too late for the economic reboot? All this is happening in contradiction to what appears to be varying “expert” advice which told us that this would only be implemented when the rate of new infections slowed. The trigger for the timing of lockdown relief is based on insufficient data, with only a few percent of the population tested and with neither dedicated treatment nor verified vaccines in sight. 

By comparison, the climate change crisis is far better understood and the treatment known. However, we are doing little about it. The novelty of the threat posed by the virus, and the urgency of prudent response measures, stands in stark contrast to rallying cries pertaining to climate action. These are seen more and more as a tired alarm and attention spans have eroded in the wake of denial and disinformation which seeks to capitalise on levels of uncertainty in science and forecasting. The discourse around climate change has shifted, most recently, from what is required by the science to the competition between fossil fuels and renewable energy. 

South Africa is a country rich in coal. Here, as in other fossil-based energy economies, the response to climate change is not comprehensive. Notwithstanding reported plans for more coal-based and costly nuclear electricity generation, the South African government is not given to climate denial. Science is in the decision-making mix and climate change is not considered a “hoax”. A complicating issue in South Africa is competing and essential economic equity issues. For example, black economic empowerment has been a success story in the coal business – a fact which may temper appetite for a just transition from coal to more decentralised energy systems dominated by renewables and energy efficiency. 

There is no doubt that the virus provides the rationale and opportunity to design, reform, strategise, and implement policies based on science and make the necessary investments in mitigation of, and preparation for, current and future epidemics and crises before they are upon us. It is no surprise that there has been renewed global support for what various stakeholders are calling a “Green New Deal” at this time. 

The arrival of the virus has spurred a global consciousness that we can do better, and need to better — both collectively and individually—in how we deal with an array of issues, including global warming. Climate change and the virus are here. They present threats requiring personal responsibility, increased global empathy, foresighted leadership, changes in consumption choices and in economies and political will. The virus may yet prove such a window for charting and implementing the deep structural policy shifts required to deliver a more sustainable future. DM


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