Is the Climate Crisis as Urgent as Covid-19?

It is a global emergency that has already killed on a mass scale and threatens to send millions more to early graves. As its effects spread, it could destabilise entire economies and overwhelm poorer countries lacking resources and infrastructure. But this is the climate crisis, not the coronavirus. Governments are not assembling emergency national plans and you’re not getting push notifications transmitted to your phone breathlessly alerting you to dramatic twists and developments from South Korea to Italy.

The “global emergency” threatens to kill millions and could destabilize economies. Meanwhile, Covid-19 has already killed thousands and has caused a massive drop in the stock market, leading banks to drop interest rates. What dramatic developments are there in the “climate crisis”?

More than 3,000 people have succumbed to coronavirus yet, according to the World Health Organization, air pollution alone – just one aspect of our central planetary crisis – kills seven million people every year. There have been no Cobra meetings for the climate crisis, no sombre prime ministerial statements detailing the emergency action being taken to reassure the public. In time, we’ll overcome any coronavirus pandemic. With the climate crisis, we are already out of time, and are now left mitigating the inevitably disastrous consequences hurtling towards us.

Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch says that the coronavirus will not be containable and that 40%-70% of people worldwide will be infected. If he’s right, assuming a fatality rate of 2%, Covid-19 will kill between 62 and 117 million people. This is about 10 times as many as the nearly 9 Million Premature Deaths Annually from air pollution. According to the CBC, Air pollution results in 7700 premature deaths in Canada each year. In the last 6 weeks, there have been 53 cases in Canada so far, and the number of cases is increasing geometrically (see Coronavirus Live Infections and Deaths Updates in Canada).

covid-19-canada

While coronavirus is understandably treated as an imminent danger, the climate crisis is still presented as an abstraction whose consequences are decades away. Unlike an illness, it is harder to visualise how climate breakdown will affect us each as individuals.

And hence, Covid-19 is urgent, and the “climate crisis” is not.

Perhaps when unprecedented wildfires engulfed parts of the Arctic last summer there could have been an urgent conversation about how the climate crisis was fuelling extreme weather, yet there wasn’t. In 2018, more than 60 million people suffered the consequences of extreme weather and climate change, including more than 1,600 who perished in Europe, Japan and the US because of heatwaves and wildfires. Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe were devastated by cyclone Idai, while hurricanes Florence and Michael inflicted $24bn (£18.7bn) worth of damage on the US economy, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

According to the NOAA in 2019, global warming is not a statistically correlated with the strength of hurricanes. See my post Salon Calls Climate Skeptics Sexist. Is global warming fueling a growth in deaths due to extreme weather? Not in the US, according to Statista:

extreme-weather-deaths

As the recent Yorkshire floods illustrate, extreme weather – with its terrible human and economic costs – is ever more a fact of British life. Antarctic ice is melting more than six times faster than it was four decades ago and Greenland’s ice sheet four times faster than previously thought. According to the UN, we have 10 years to prevent a 1.5C rise above pre-industrial temperature but, whatever happens, we will suffer.

IPCC predictions are based on models of the climate. The latest update gave us a 50% chance of holding climate change to a 2 degree C increase, which was the goal of the already ambitious Paris Accord. As stated in the linked IPCC report, prior to the report “scientists never previously discussed 1.5C, which was initially seen as a political concession to small island states”. The paper also states that CO2 emissions “would have to be cut by 45% by 2030 [requiring an] unprecedented shift in energy systems and transport”. The cost would also be unprecedented.

Pandemics and the climate crisis may go hand in hand, too: research suggests that changing weather patterns may drive species to higher altitudes, potentially putting them in contact with diseases for which they have little immunity. “It’s strange when people see the climate crisis as being in the future, compared to coronavirus, which we’re facing now,” says Friends of the Earth’s co-executive director, Miriam Turner. “It might be something that feels far away when sitting in an office in central London, but the emergency footing of the climate crisis is being felt by hundreds of millions already.”

The reason that pandemics and global warming go hand in hand is that they have the same root cause: overpopulation. Viruses spread easily in densely populated areas. The more people there are, the more CO2 we emit. Global warming is gradual. While hundreds of millions are feeling it, it is a tiny change. Covid-19, on the other hand, is deadly. Why would people see global warming as being as urgent?

Imagine, then, that we felt the same sense of emergency about the climate crisis as we do about coronavirus. What action would we take?  All homes and businesses would be insulated, creating jobs, cutting fuel poverty and reducing emissions. Electric car charging points would be installed across the country. Britain currently lacks the skills to transform the nation’s infrastructure, for example replacing fuel pumps; an emergency training programme to train the workforce would be announced.

And all this would divert money from the economy by requiring taxes to be increased, which would almost certainly lead to a recession. On the other hand, according to Moody’s Analytics, global warming will actually be a net economic benefit to northern countries, due to the reduced need for heating (which will also reduce emissions) and the longer growing season. See my post Global Warming: Crisis? What Crisis? for details.

A frequent flyer levy for regular, overwhelmingly affluent air passengers would be introduced. As Turner says, all government policies will now be seen through the prism of coronavirus. A similar climate lens should be applied, and permanently.

Why? Who would support this, other than an ideologue?

This would only be the start. Friends of the Earth calls for free bus travel for the under-30s, combined with urgent investment in the bus network. Renewable energy would be doubled, again producing new jobs, clean energy, and reducing deadly air pollution. The government would end all investments of taxpayers’ money in fossil fuel infrastructure and launch a new tree-planting programme to double the size of forests in Britain, one of Europe’s least densely forested nations.

Now that the UK taxpayers have spoken, by electing the Conservatives in a massive majority, this seems like fantasy. As a (small ell) libertarian, I fully support ending corporate welfare, but the traditional conservatives are unlikely to do so.

There is a key difference between coronavirus and climate crisis, of course, and it is shame. “We didn’t know coronavirus was coming,” says Stirling. “We’ve known the climate crisis was on the cards for 30 or 40 years.” And yet – despite being inadequately prepared because of an underfunded, under-resourced NHS – the government can swiftly announce an emergency pandemic plan.

Because, unlike global warming, Covid-19 is an actual emergency. One of the biggest problems that climate activists face is the boy who cried wolf effect. Continually scream ‘crisis’ and, eventually, everyone will ignore you.

Coronavirus poses many challenges and threats, but few opportunities. A judicious response to global heating would provide affordable transport, well-insulated homes, skilled green jobs and clean air. Urgent action to prevent a pandemic is of course necessary and pressing. But the climate crisis represents a far graver and deadlier existential threat, and yet the same sense of urgency is absent. Coronavirus shows it can be done – but it needs determination and willpower, which, when it comes to the future of our planet, are desperately lacking.

A timely response to Covid-19 provides a huge opportunity to save lives, especially the lives of the elderly. In the long term, global warming will doubtless cause many deaths, especially in Africa and other third world equatorial countries. We should be moving governments away from propping up fossil fuels and toward providing public transit and infrastructure that corporations have no profit motive to provide. We should not be using global warming as an excuse to erect a socialist dystopia.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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