Leading scientists repeatedly warned us it was coming. They told us it would kill millions, cost trillions, and transform the way we live, but that modest preparation could forestall the worst impact.
Three months ago, we would have been describing the climate crisis. Instead, those same words now apply to Covid-19.
The two crises are borne of the same human failing: our inability to act now to forestall future consequences. Both require a swift, comprehensive response, but their severity and duration vary widely.
This pandemic is personal. We empathise with the most vulnerable and with those suffering in viral hotspots, and also fear for ourselves and our loved ones. Consider how quickly governments have acted, asking citizens to radically shift their ways of life and fast-tracking billions in bailout funds and relief packages, and justifiably so. This kind of emergency mobilises us.
The climate emergency is more insidious. Where the impacts of Covid-19 are rapid and easily identifiable, climate damage is gradual and multifaceted. Many scientists have criticised governments’ Covid-19 responses as slow or inadequate. But the response to climate change has been even more negligent by comparison, the damage more permanent.
The death toll from Covid-19 is serious and rising, and all efforts must be made to save lives. But the scale of the tragedy will be finite and measurable once the pandemic is over. Predicting the ultimate death toll is difficult, but it could be in the order of two to 20 million worldwide. The direst estimates predict waves of outbreaks with cyclical social distancing for 18 months.
Fatalities traced to climate change, on the other hand, take many forms – from the millions of early deaths already caused each year by fossil fuel combustion to the more than 7 million cumulative deaths expected by 2050 due to heat stress, malnutrition and directly related causes. Nor is it just deaths for which climate change is responsible. The additional toll on human wellbeing includes mass displacement, armed conflict and 120 million thrown into poverty. But like the coronavirus pandemic, the sooner and more seriously we act, the fewer will suffer.
The pandemic and climate crisis are enormously costly. One UN estimate puts the cost of coronavirus to the global economy in 2020 alone at $1tn, just over 1 per cent of global GDP – though once society opens up again, these losses should be recouped within the decade.
In contrast, climate change permanently changes the frequency and severity of negative impacts, from increased flooding and heatwaves to crop failure and air pollution, so the damage they cause keeps adding up year after year. But investing now will make a huge difference. One study found that immediate investment to adapt to climate change would yield more than $7tn.
Yet predicting how much climate change will cost is difficult. Even the seemingly small difference between 1.5C and 2C of global warming would cumulatively impair GDP by an additional 5 per cent by the end of the century, with far worse outcomes if warming exceeds 2C. Then there are the investments we’re making in high-emitting power plants, factories, or vehicles that, after we have exhausted our remaining carbon budget (within the next 15 years at current emission rates), could become stranded assets.
The most pronounced difference between the climate and coronavirus crises, however, is how long their effects will be felt. The increase in the number of individuals infected with the virus feels akin to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; the more we have of each, the worse the impacts. But this analogy is misleading, because most individuals recover from the virus and stop infecting others in a matter of weeks. As soon as the number of daily recoveries exceeds the number of daily infections, the impacts of the virus will begin to recede. If this state can be maintained until a vaccine becomes widely available – for example, with sustainable physical distancing strategies – the human and economic costs associated with coronavirus will eventually disappear.
In contrast, every ton of carbon dioxide we emit resides in our climate system indefinitely, warming the atmosphere and acidifying our oceans.
Figure adapted from an Oxford Martin School briefing on methane emissions (Cain et al 2018)
The number of patients infected with coronavirus is more analogous to the amount of atmospheric methane, which spends a relatively short time warming the planet at a high rate before deteriorating.
The figure above highlights the difference between the warming caused by permanent CO2 buildup, and the more transient impact of pandemics. When the rates of both CO2 emissions and new Covid-19 cases are rising (a), both the warming caused by CO2 and the number of active Covid-19 cases rise. But when the rates of both are constant (b), Covid-19 cases eventually level out, as the number of new infections balances the number of patients recovering or dying. Not so for CO2, which even at constant rates causes permanent and ever-increasing warming. When the rates of both are falling (c), Covid-19 cases eventually drop to zero, but the total amount of warming levels off and remains in the new, warmed state in perpetuity.
Mitigating the effects of the coronavirus pandemic should unequivocally be our top priority right now. But as we emerge from the pandemic, we have the opportunity to begin preparing in earnest for a larger threat: climate change.
This moment also presents critical leverage points to fight the pandemic and climate crisis simultaneously. Some of the industries that contribute most to climate change – airlines, oil and gas companies – are in a rare position of vulnerability. As a society, we can demand that the assistance they receive requires them to decarbonise their businesses after the pandemic is over.
Don’t let the lessons of coronavirus go unheeded. We could have made modest investments to avert a pandemic years ago – we didn’t. We can avoid the more severe impacts of climate change if we start decarbonising now, and our response to the pandemic is an important place to start.
So when recovery measures are being considered, contact your MP or elected officials. Don’t let them make the same mistake twice. Instead, tell them to apply the lessons of today’s crisis to tomorrow’s.
Eli Mitchell-Larson is a researcher at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford. Kaya Axelsson is a researcher at the Environmental Change Institute and vice president of the Oxford Student Union.
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