Why is the global reaction to the threats of Coronavirus and climate change so different?

Alex Massie, a consultant at the environmental consultancy Eunomia, who develops strategies and action plans for clients who have declared a climate emergency, is offers his view.

International organisations, government, businesses and citizens are making quick and radical changes in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus, the kind of fast action necessary to tackle the climate emergency.

I think there are three reasons we’ve responded to coronavirus in such a different way to the climate emergency, some are more obvious than others.

  1. Firstly the immediacy of the issue because it’s affecting us all today in a variety of ways. The coronavirus outbreak is threatening our health and incomes right now, although the climate emergency is affecting us all at the moment, the threat it poses is often discussed as only becoming a ‘real’ problem in the future e.g. the IPPC special report on climate change indicates the need to reach net-zero between 2040 and 2055 to avoid catastrophic global heating.
  2. Secondly we anticipate that things will broadly return to normal at some point when the coronavirus outbreak is ‘over’. We anticipate a future where we imagine what we were doing before. It’s easier to make radical, uncomfortable changes if you believe they are temporary. This is different to the changes necessary to tackle the climate emergency, these changes will mean saying goodbye to our current lifestyles and embracing a new way of life. Even if that may be better in a number of ways, permanent change is far more challenging to undertake.
  3. Third and maybe most importantly, a huge part of why we have reacted differently to the two threats is our worldview. Tackling coronavirus doesn’t, in the minds of most, threaten our view of how the world works: it’s an external threat that is making it difficult for us to continue our way of life, something we are trying ‘to defeat’. Addressing the climate emergency requires us to change how we view the world – we have to move on from perceiving ourselves as separate from our ecosystems if we are to feel an urgency to act. It’s much more difficult to act in an emergency that challenges your worldview (you may not even see it as an emergency).

These are substantial differences, but the coronavirus response also provides an opportunity to change them.

Rather like extreme weather events in the context of climate change, pandemics such as COVID-19 may well become more frequent in future

And in fact, the parallels may be closer than we at first think. Rather like extreme weather events in the context of climate change, pandemics such as COVID-19 may well become more frequent in future, so those who believe that necessary changes may be temporary may have miscalculated.

In addition, ‘defeating’, or ‘waging war on’, a virus might not help address the underlying causes of such pandemics: some suggest that, as with climate change, our relationship and interaction with nature is at the root of such outbreaks.

It will be interesting to see whether our coronavirus response shifts perceptions so that we are better able to respond to the climate and ecological emergencies.

Governments should be giving particular attention to those adaptations which, necessitated by emergency, would usefully be made habitual over the long-term.


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