Comparing Responses to COVID-19 vs. Climate Change

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April 6, 2020

corona virus image swinging into a pendulum

Lots of people are asking why we haven’t responded to climate change the way we’re responding to the coronavirus. They are also envisioning what a climate response paralleling the coronavirus response might look like.

Upon closer examination, however, I would suggest that our response to the coronavirus HAS paralleled our response to climate change. After all, health experts have been raising the alarm over a potential virus pandemic for years, with some classifying it as the biggest global threat. Sound familiar? Notwithstanding those voices, the world pretty much assumed things would work out for the best, and continued with business as usual. Again, sound familiar?  

It’s only once COVID-19 exploded onto the scene that the world reacted. This is where things get more interesting from the standpoint of what a climate change analogy might look like.

The response of China and South Korea to the coronavirus might well be analogized to the climate change response Paul Gilding envisioned in his 2010 book The Great Disruption. The Great Disruption describes a world in which worsening climate change triggered a sudden and dramatic policy response in 2019. The response, described as the “1 Degree War Plan,” was big enough to return CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere to 350ppm by early in the next century. Not the same timescale as China’s response to the coronavirus, but a lot of similarities.  

The response of Italy, Iran, and the U.S. to the coronavirus so far might well be analogized to the climate change response James Powell envisioned in his 2011 book 2084: An Oral History of the Great Warming. 2084 describes a world of inaction on climate change, leading to rapid sea level rise, the catastrophic loss by flooding of Rotterdam, and the eventual abandonment of Florida and New York City. It even provides specific dates!

What happens from here? Hard to say, although for both climate change and the coronavirus it is increasingly easy to come up with devastating scenarios along the lines of Powell’s 2084, and increasingly difficult to come up with scenarios in which we rapidly turn the tables on either the coronavirus or climate change.

In both cases, it’s not because we’re lacking visions of how to achieve the more positive outcomes. In the case of climate change, for example, visions of how radical technology development and deployment could quickly transition the world to a low-carbon economy are commonplace.

What’s lacking is insight into overcoming human nature. It’s what Margaret Heffernan characterizes in her 2011 book Willful Blindness – Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril. The book is not about climate change at all, but does have one great quote:

Is there any hope of turning things around. Sure. But tackling climate change requires not just radical technological innovation and deployment, but radical changes to public policy and collective action outcomes. If we could tear down the hundreds of silos that characterize climate action today, replacing games of Climate Solitaire with Climate Chess – we’d stand a much better chance of changing those collective action outcomes.

About the author 

Mark Trexler

Mark has more than 30 years of regulatory and energy policy experience. He has advised clients around the world on climate change risk and risk management. He is widely published on business risk management topics surrounding climate change, including in the design and deployment of carbon markets. Mark has served as a lead author for the IPCC and holds advanced degrees from the University of California at Berkeley.

  • Air quality has improved significantly considering the change in habits due to the global pandemic of this moment. This makes us understand that by choosing “greener” options to move, we can contribute to reducing pollution and guarantee a future to the next generations.
    Very interesting article, I recommend it!
    Best Regards

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