- Global action to halt the spread of COVID-19 has triggered demand for a similar urgency to mitigate the climate crisis.
- However, this linkage is fundamentally flawed in its basic assumption regarding the timescale within which these hazards impact the human society, writes Sayanangshu Modak in this commentary.
- The divergence of policy choices for addressing these two distinct policy challenges is quite evident. It would be a futile exercise to carry out climate action in a hurried manner despite the sense of urgency. However, it is interesting to note that the efforts to contain the virus could in fact create a ‘nudge’ to reduce our carbon footprint in the long run, writes Modak.
The last few weeks have seen unparalleled global action to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19. Championed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), all countries have initiated drastic measures to inhibit the transmission of the disease, caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, while putting together emergency plans to provide fiscal relief and other incentives to tide over the emerging situation.
The global pandemic, as declared by WHO, has also necessitated the need for collaboration to find a vaccine. Global diplomacy has somewhat galvanised around this new discourse and the coinage of a “Coronavirus Diplomacy” is only a reflection of the scale and magnitude of this human crisis.
The massive and coordinated global action to halt the spread of COVID-19 has not gone unnoticed by observers who believe that a similar urgency is required to mitigate a “far graver and deadlier existential threat” – the climate crisis.
However, this linkage is fundamentally flawed in its basic assumption regarding the timescale within which these hazards impact human society. Therefore, the urgency with which certain policy measures were undertaken to address the pandemic can completely backfire if climate action is undertaken with the same zest. Shrinking the room for deliberations and negotiations, which are essentially time-consuming, can render the process exclusionary with a disproportionate share of responsibilities. These will have strong implications on the long-term sustainability of the efforts to curb the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and ensure environmental justice.
A nuanced view on the points of divergence between the two policy challenges becomes extremely crucial for continuing with the passion and optimism but not being impetuous and impulsive.
COVID-19 spreads fast, has immediate repercussions compared to climate change
According to reports, China alerted WHO on December 31 last year about cases of unusual pneumonia in Wuhan amongst several people who worked in the city’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. On January 13, exactly after two weeks, the first case of COVID-19 outside of China was reported in Thailand. In the subsequent days, cases were also reported from locations as distant as the United States, France, Australia along with other remaining countries in southeast Asia. It took the WHO a little over a month to escalate the crisis from a global emergency to a pandemic.
The consequences of inaction to prevent the spread of the disease was quite obvious for governments worldwide. More so, because the pathway of administrative lapses in containing its spread and the consequences thereof had already been laid out in China and Italy. In these countries, the number of infected had risen within a matter of weeks.
Popular media had also picked up the issue and had ensured that the global audience was well aware of the developments, thereby delimiting any form of denial in acknowledging the problem.
Unfortunately, the concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the earth’s atmosphere has occurred at a timescale that runs into decades. This has provided an opportunity for the development of a parallel entourage of climate skeptics with vested interests who have influenced political leaders to resist the need to take climate action. Moreover, the consequences of policy lethargy will befall the future generation and therefore, the behavioural inertia of ‘business as usual’ is deep-rooted.
Unlike the COVID-19 emergency which is essentially quick and decisive, climate action is a complex, long-drawn process that engages different stakeholders who deliberate and then come to a negotiated arrangement.
Adaptation is not an option against COVID-19
The first wave of the pandemic has already claimed around 15,000 lives, as reported by the World Health organisation on March 25. The mortal threat posed by this virus fuels reaction at a personal level which is inherently instinctive and immediate. This is because there is no way that a person can adapt to the threat as this strain of the virus is a novel one and the human body has little know-how of dealing with it.
This is in direct contrast with the ratcheting up of global temperatures which is occurring at a pace that allows human societies to adjust and respond to the changing situation. Therefore, strategies for mitigation and adaptation can both work in tandem to reduce the impact of a changing climate on human societies.
This is not the case for a pandemic like COVID-19, which requires clear strategies for mitigating the spread of the disease, primarily through individual actions. This, in turn, has ensured that there is no decision paralysis on the part of policymakers. No time has been lost in deliberations and authorities are provided clear guidelines to go hammer and tongs at containing the spread of COVID-19.
Human systems are less fluid and more manageable than climate systems
One of the most effective strategies to combat the spread of COVID-19 is to close international borders, screen the points of entry into a country – the airports – and initiate targeted measures like testing liberally even at the slightest suspicion and isolating those who are found infected. This is being achieved because the movement of people can be traced and their numbers can be regulated to contain the spread of the pandemic. We have examples from various shades of the political order with authoritarian China being on one end and a relatively liberal South Korea on the other.
Management of climate systems requires coordinated response from all countries. Climate systems are essentially fluid and the consequences of inaction at the country-level can have regional or global climate impact. Without a collective effort to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, an individual country can only bolster its resilience to combat the risk of a climate disaster and hope for the best. Similarly, spatial optimism dictates the inaction of individuals to forego certain privileges for the larger public good that results from decarbonisation.
This is not the case for COVID 19, where a globalised world order has ensured that the initial spatial optimism was quickly overwhelmed by a disruption of supply chains along with the movement of people. The economic contraction is truly of a global scale and the response has to be quick and decisive.
The divergence of policy choices for addressing these two distinct policy challenges is quite evident. It would be a futile exercise to carry out climate action in a hurried manner despite the sense of urgency.
However, it is interesting to note that the efforts to contain the virus could, in fact, create a ‘nudge’ to reduce our carbon footprint in the long run. The tell-tale sign of which is the enhanced air quality as people prefer to telework thereby reducing vehicular traffic and providing the planet some breathing space. The need of the hour is to undertake steadfast and concerted policy measures for combatting climate change but the process that leads to climate action should not be done in haste.
[Sayanangshu Modak is with the Observer Research Foundation]
Banner image: Human systems are less fluid and more manageable than climate systems, writes Sayanangshu Modak in this commentary. Photo by Dimitri Karastelev/Unsplash.