Can COVID-19 create a turning point in the fight against climate change?

Can COVID-19 create a turning point in the fight against climate change?


It is official. COVID-19 is no longer just a simple disease outbreak or epidemic in the global south. It is a global pandemic that threatens all nations.

Countries are still struggling with diagnosing the affected people and the scale of the problem is still unknown. But we know that most of the countries have been affected and the global death toll has been frustratingly high. The coronavirus is expected to spread to many people in the next few months. Most people will survive but many will die.

What doesn’t kill us is supposed to make us stronger. Just like other extreme events, this public health crisis will provide some opportunities. We are being taught how to properly wash our hands and how to protect ourselves from infection in public spaces; governments are learning about the deficiencies in their health and emergency response systems; medical scientists are finding access to big sources of funding to explore this new problem; and companies working on coronavirus treatments or vaccines can make huge profits.

How about climate change?

People are worried about the impact of coronavirus on the fight against climate change. The sense of climate urgency might be lost. For a while, the media, leaders, and people will be understandably distracted from climate change. The climate protests will be stopped. Even the upcoming 26th United Nations climate change conference (COP26), where countries are supposed to update their pledges under the Paris Agreement, might be cancelled or postponed due to contagion fears.

But I think that, overall, the coronavirus might be providing an invaluable opportunity to the climate change community. The COVID-19 crisis is teaching us some lessons and implementing some reforms that are essential for success in mitigating the climate crisis.

Iranian actor Danial Kheirkhah musically tells people how to wash their hands amid the coronavirus crisis in Iran, one of the countries with the highest COVID-19 death tolls so far.

Coronavirus and economy

COVID-19 has already hurt the world’s economy. The stock markets have crashed and the world is very close to experiencing a major financial crisis. Companies will go bankrupt and lots of jobs will be lost. This is frustrating but the coronavirus is echoing what the climate change community has been telling us for a while: capitalism and the current economic development model of the world are not sustainable. The economic reforms that must be implemented in response to the upcoming financial crisis can be beneficial to the climate change fight.

Coronavirus and greenhouse gas emissions

A world without oil has been hard to imagine. But the demand for oil has sharply declined as a result of the coronavirus crisis. The world is going to use less energy this year for production and transportation. This significantly hurts the oil-based economies but will reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, something that the climate change community has been dreaming about for a long time. Whether the emission reductions would sustain depends on the changes in our economies and lifestyles.

Coronavirus and virtual life

Coronavirus has the potential to change our lifestyle. The need for isolation is forcing all generations to adopt more features of the virtual world. Cafés, restaurants, libraries, shopping malls, and cinemas are no longer pleasant environments. Our meetings occur on Skype and Zoom. Many companies are asking their employees to work from home. Schools are being closed and the universities are forced to teach online. Even the climate activists have decided to run their protests online. This is an unprecedented opportunity for societies to explore the quality of virtual world and adopt more climate-friendly lifestyles. Some of these changes won’t be reversed once the COVID-19 crisis is over, especially if they are turned into positive experiences.

Coronavirus and aviation

Environmental activists have been running flight shame movements for a while but have not been as successful as COVID-19 in convincing travellers to give up on flying. Major conferences are cancelled around the world. Many destinations are no longer popular and people must choose home quarantine over appealing vacation packages. The reduced demand for flying and the enforced travel bans will significantly hurt the aviation industry but reduce its carbon footprint. The coronavirus is convincing us that no flying, online conferences, and virtual tours are not impractical options.

Coronavirus and consumerism

Household consumption by itself is responsible for up to 60% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. But COVID-19 might force us change our consumer culture. The impact of coronavirus on production and trade has been already experienced around the world. In some places, farmers have been impacted because of reduced food exports. Some goods are unavailable in supermarket shelves not because of increasing demand, but as a result of halted production in the virus-hit China. We must visit stores less frequently to reduce the risk of infection. Bad economy can reduce our purchasing power and reduced supplies can increase the price of consumer goods. The coronavirus might force us to consume less.

Coronavirus and globalization

We can’t address the climate tragedy on a cooperative basis unless we believe in the interdependence of all nations. The political leaders against climate action have been actively dismissing our interdependence in their blame games when asking other nations to bear the cost of greenhouse gas emission reduction. COVID-19 is the strongest proof we now have in our hands to underline the interconnectedness of our societies in our fight against climate change. A disease outbreak in China has turned into the biggest domestic challenge of many governments around the world, regardless of their economic, military, and political power. The virus has taught us that fighting a global crisis in an interconnected world requires cooperation among nations and the decisions made within each political territory have major global implications.

Coronavirus and science

COVID-19 is providing a great opportunity for the scientists to earn the trust of public in the era of misinformation, fake news, and conspiracy theories. We must shame the political leaders and decision makers who dismissed the warnings of the experts about the coronavirus during the early stages of the outbreak. Our societies do not deserve the leaders who gamble with the future of humanity by putting ideology and politics above scientific knowledge.

Coronavirus and individual actions

The climate change community argues that the general public does not have enough authority to implement the necessary reforms to address the climate change tragedy. So, the calls for action on climate change generally target the political leaders. But COVID-19 is teaching us that governments on their own might not be capable of addressing global common threats. We know well that we cannot police the whole world and test every individual in streets to detect and contain those affected by the virus. To successfully defeat the coronavirus we need the involvement of the society. So, the experts, governments, and media have extensively highlighted the significance and necessity of actions by individuals. Actions as simple as washing hands and not hugging, kissing, shaking hands have been promoted as individual actions that can make a difference. The fight against climate change needs the same thing. We cannot wait for the governments to address the problem. We need to involve the individuals, remind them about their responsibilities, and assure them that their individual actions can make a big difference.

Coronavirus and uncertainty

COVID-19 highlighted our collective ignorance about how the universe is functioning. Our leaders were worried about wars, terrorism, and nuclear bombs but what is going to damage the global order in the next few months is a mysterious disease that is believed to have jumped to humans in a wet market in Wuhan. President Trump perceived the ‘socialists’ Democrat lawmakers, and impeachment as the major threats to his re-election. Yet his political future might be in the hands of an invisible virus of the 21st century that he believed to be insignificant in comparison to seasonal influenza. We were unaware of our high degree of vulnerability and did not see this virus coming even in our most pessimistic projections. Given the existing uncertainties about the future and our limited understanding of the universe, the climate change community must learn that many of our future projections are wrong. Projecting the future is helpful, but not sufficient. We also need to put efforts into enabling the future if want to save people from climate change.

The COVID-19 crisis can serve as the most tangible example of a global tragedy in an interconnected world that cannot be addressed without the contribution of all. The coronavirus will continue to take lives and hurt the world’s economy, inevitably, overshadowing the climate change discussions for a while. But this common enemy of all nations also has the potential to help the fight against climate change by teaching us new lessons and forcing some changes that are very much needed for the survival of humanity.

Editor’s note: this article was originally posted on Medium

Kaveh Madani (Twitter: @KavehMadani) is a Henry Hart Rice Senior Fellow at Yale University and a Visiting Professor of Imperial College London. He was formerly a Vice President of the UN Environment Assembly Bureau and led Iran’s team at the COP23 negotiations in 2017.

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