Climate Crisis and the Environment

What Can COVID-19 Teach Us About Responding To Climate Change?

Woman in a blue dress holding a pile of Earth with a green plant growing out of it
Lucy Woodward

The climate crisis is a threat as equally pressing as the COVID-19 pandemic. It also, devastatingly, has the potential to be even more catastrophic. More than a year on from the start of the first lockdown, what lessons can we learn from the response to the pandemic for reversing climate change?

A lot like opening Pandora’s Box, abusing our environment and its wildlife has the potential to unleash a whole host of unexpected troubles. For example, the seemingly inconsequential act of encroaching into animals’ habitats to hunt, farm and kill them is not only detrimental to the animals but is also pretty harmful to us, since it creates many more opportunities for zoonotic diseases to arise. Zoonotic diseases are illnesses that originate in animals and are transmitted to humans, whether through direct contact, transmission through the air, vectors such as mosquitos or consumption of contaminated food or water. Today, 3 out of every 4 new diseases in people are zoonotic, and their frequency of incidence is on the rise. The main reason for this is that we’ve forced animals into closer contact with humans through our selfish interests.

Livestock farming accounted for around 14.5% of our global greenhouse gas emissions

A zoonotic disease you may have heard of is coronavirus, which happened to originate from bats in a wet market. However, it could quite easily have come from anywhere else in the world where animals are crowded and stressed, such as one of the 1,674 factory farms in the UK, since these conditions make it very likely for disease to develop and spread. We need to learn that our mistreatment of animals in this way is damaging in more ways than poor animal welfare. As well as increasing the risk of future pandemics, the practice of factory farming is a big contributor to global warming; in 2013, livestock farming accounted for around 14.5% of our global greenhouse gas emissions. A shift to practices such as regenerative agriculture, silvopasture and stronger animal welfare regulations could have a huge impact in reducing climate change.

The second lesson is urgency, one we probably didn’t need a pandemic to teach us; I’m pretty sure your stressed 15-year-old self, desperately cramming in revision the night before an exam, could have told me that it’s not actually the best idea to leave everything to the last minute.

Urgency will greatly reduce the mess we have to clear up later down the line

Using COVID-19 as an example, in countries where the response to the pandemic was one of urgency, meaning effective preventative measures were introduced to reduce the spread of the virus very soon after the first signs of risk emerged, the death tolls of their citizens a year on are vastly smaller than in countries where the response was slow. Of course, there are many factors to consider when comparing countries, however in the 5 countries with the lowest death toll (Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Singapore and Vietnam), strategies all centred around acting swiftly to eliminate the virus, rather than simply “flattening the curve.”

Without sounding too dramatic, if we want a future on this planet, it’s imperative that our response to the Climate Emergency includes similarly drastic policies introduced now. As in, now, now. Urgency will greatly reduce the mess we have to clear up later down the line. And to be honest, I think we’ve got enough mess to clear up already.

Another comparison that’s been made between countries in their response to the pandemic concerns leadership. Specifically, the gender of their leader. Shockingly, women make pretty successful leaders. Who would have thought it?

An in-depth analysis of 194 countries carried out by the Universities of Reading and Liverpool showed that COVID-19 outcomes are systemically better in countries led by women. The study showed that women reacted more quickly and decisively in the face of potential fatalities, and that men are more overconfident in success in uncertain situations than women. This is explained by gender-differences in attitudes to risk and proactive policymaking. Zooming out, these gender-differences in response to crisis could make all the difference in combatting climate change. Therefore, increasing the number of women in positions of authority is another lesson we should learn to increase our chances of success (aka survival).

However, this isn’t just about women. COVID-19 has exacerbated and highlighted existing racial and class-based inequalities as well as gender inequalities. A disproportionate number of people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds have been lost to the pandemic. One study showed that in London, “Black patients were 30% and Asian patients 49% more likely to die within 30 days of hospital admission compared to patients from white backgrounds of a similar age and baseline health.” Unless action to combat racial disparities is taken, BIPOC will continue to face unjust and undeserved hardship due to our society’s systemic racism.

Check your privilege, and if the privilege you have doesn’t sit well with you, use it to change society

Furthermore, in any crisis, it’s the poorest and most vulnerable who are affected the most. Black communities are disproportionately located in areas that are physically vulnerable to climate hazards. Maybe, like me, you have been fortunate enough not to have personally experienced the loss of a loved one during the pandemic; maybe you’re lucky enough not to have been directly affected by global warming yet. That’s not to say millions of people in the world aren’t already feeling the effects of climate change. What’s more, these are the people who have less power to do something about it.

When we collaborate, our talents and abilities multiply together

Check your privilege, and if the privilege you have (whether racial, male, cisgender, straight, class or non-disabled) doesn’t sit well with you, use it to change society. All this to say, if we needed a reminder that climate change affects marginalised groups more severely, the pandemic has given it to us. We must learn that environmental justice is also a racial justice issue.

The impressive ability of humans to innovate in the face of adversity has been highlighted in the response to the pandemic over the last year. We’ll need much more of this ingenuity as we implement solutions to climate change, especially in the coming decade. It’s also become apparent how valuable community is in times of hardship. There’s only so much we can do as individuals but when we collaborate, our talents and abilities multiply together.

More than ever, it’s crucial that we look out for each other, are respectful of our differences and our environment and that we build relationships and connections that allow for creative problem-solving. If we can harness our capacity to adapt to uncertainty as we have had to do thanks to COVID-19, in my mind at least, there’s so much potential for us to turn the tides on climate change.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Lucy Woodward

Featured Photo by Nikola Jovanovic on Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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Climate Crisis and the EnvironmentHumans and HealthLifestyleScience

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