Should we treat the climate crisis like coronavirus?

Why don’t we respond to climate change with the same urgency as coronavirus? The Guardian writer Owen Jones asked this in a new column, making the case that the impacts of climate change are equally present in the world, but with a far higher death toll if you include air pollution, extreme weather and so on.

The problems are large in scale, and action is needed now. So why aren’t the UK’s top politicians gathering in their COBRA conference room to discuss the climate? Why aren’t emergency measures to create energy efficiency and transform infrastructure being announced, and what would they look like?

Compared to coronavirus, climate change has been with us for a long time – its indirect impacts are already being felt by millions of people (though the burden has so far been greater on poor people). Pressure to take more radical, transformative action has built up relatively slowly, but is perhaps now more visible in the mainstream media than ever.

The demand to treat climate disruption as an emergency aim to harness the psychological power of a crisis to mobilise action and resources. A recent commentary in Nature calls for governments, companies and communities around the world to go into ‘crisis mode’ after slow progress on the Paris Agreement. There are clearly many possible good and bad ways to function in a crisis. So how do people deal with a crisis, and what does this mean in different political contexts?

Drawing analogies between climate and coronavirus makes for an interesting thought experiment. It reveals some important questions about the effort to reframe climate change as a ‘crisis’ or an ‘emergency’. To understand this, we need to look at the differences between the two crises, as well as their similarities. This is also a good moment to examine how people and governments respond to emergencies in general – from lockdowns and travel bans, to sharing information or encouraging behaviour change, or the spread of misinformation, resisting change and disobeying advice or rules.

Comparing coronavirus and climate

At its simplest level, the difference between coronavirus and climate response shows the difference that novelty and timescales make. Even when many people might consider climate change to be very important and immediate in its effects, it doesn’t feel like the rapid spread of a new pandemic.

A similar comparison could be made with another public health scandal – the poor provision of sanitation in many parts of the Global South. The scale of deaths and serious illnesses this causes is staggering, but progress is slow, hampered by a combination of technical and political barriers, the lack of power of those worst affected, and the chronic nature of the problem. Compared to coronavirus, poor sanitation is a massive killer, but it hasn’t received the emergency treatment across the board either.

Another area of differences – and similarities too – is the difficulty of describing the problem and deciding on solutions. Dealing with coronavirus is of course not simple, with many social and environmental factors to consider, but at least we are dealing with one disease, where there are known options to test, treat and slow its spread. Even so, there are many uncertainties in tracking the spread of the disease, relying on models and theories about behaviour, controversies and lack of trust, patchy reporting and delays in diagnosis, to predict where resources will be needed.

With climate change, the simplest description focuses on rising carbon emissions, but this hides a multitude of causes that are embedded in modern ways of life and livelihoods – from energy, infrastructure and transport, to food and farming, manufacturing, and the globally connected markets that sustain jobs and economies. And the impacts of climate change are often uncertain at local scale – making it difficult to plan ahead for defences and resilience.

The ‘emergencies’ in climate are often mini-emergencies within a bigger catastrophe. This means that attention will often focus on dealing with the most immediate problems at hand. As with public health, there is a need for a combination of local responses and global coordination.

But transforming the ‘causes’ of climate change in a coordinated and rapid way is a mammoth task, beyond the scope and authority of any single actor. As with coronavirus, cooperation between countries is useful, but can be fragile, as you can see with Britain’s disengagement from EU pandemic warning system, and the ongoing disappointments of the UN’s global climate conferences.

A third (and related) difference is in understanding what should be changed, and where to stop. Again, with coronavirus there are different possible approaches in how much to restrict travel, what behaviours people should practice (self-isolation, hygiene, stocking up on supplies), and what information to give. With climate change, these questions multiply. People do not agree on the exact combinations of measures any government should take to address climate change – there are lots of ideas and things that can be tried. Individual, structural and systemic changes all matter in different ways.

Of course, in the case of both crises, this disagreement doesn’t mean that no action should be taken. It means that there is politics involved in deciding and justifying the decisions that are made, especially when they might affect people’s livelihoods or take away things they previously took for granted. Because climate change is not the sole cause of problems in a wide range of areas of life, this makes the politics more complicated, as there is scope for disagreement on a lot more factors.

This is no excuse for not taking the problem seriously, but it suggests a higher likelihood of pushback or controversy over changes that are introduced. If capitalism itself needs to be reformed or replaced, this implies a political challenge that is not easily sorted by appealing to ‘the science’. Even with smaller changes, decision-making can take time especially when the stakes are high.

How do people respond to emergencies?

Images of coronavirus responses in the news are another reason to pause and look again at the rhetoric of climate emergency. My colleague Wei Shen has written this week about the Chinese response, and the mixture of successes and failures – from the impressive speed of building new hospitals, to the panic created by the total lock-down of the city of Wuhan. Control and hyper-surveillance are key features of the response in China and elsewhere.

In the UK, the government has given weight to its announcements with a visible presence from scientific experts. Social media companies have responded in different ways to try to limit the spread of misinformation, including the censoring of messages on Chinese social media. Blame and accusations fly around, trying to identify the cause of the problem – sometimes pinned on people in foreign countries and the lives they lead. Blame and fear of infection are racialised, with immigrants unfairly stigmatised and blamed for the spread of disease.

Declaring emergencies can help to justify sweeping powers and diverting resources towards a problem. This is clearly an appealing idea for some involved in climate activism, but it does present the problem of keeping power concentrated in the hands of authorities and wealthy actors. Of course, many measures to tackle climate change may be benign, and the hope of a Green New Deal is that they would be life-enhancing in other ways. But recent stories from France and Chile show that even a single measure like a rise in fuel prices can spark major unrest, where there is a tense relationship between people and government. Other emergency-style responses, like geoengineering, large scale renewable roll-out, or tree-planting, may have unforeseen consequences or meet with resistance. Racing to meet climate or ‘net zero’ targets through offsetting or repurposing tracts of land will not always be compatible with the interests of people who live there.

What is an emergency?

People calling for climate change to be treated as an emergency don’t mean it’s exactly the same kind of emergency as coronavirus. Of course, differences between the two are acknowledged.

But there are actually some important lessons from the current coronavirus outbreak in thinking about how people deal with rapid changes of circumstances – whether from a pandemic, or provoked by concern about environmental catastrophe.

Uncertainties are downplayed or ignored. Risk calculations and models are presented as if they were hard facts. Hopes are placed on technology and quick wins. Experts take on a more influential and visible role than usual. Decisions about how to change infrastructure, land use or the movement of people are highly political, but can become depoliticised. Emergency conditions can concentrate power in the hands of governments or other powerful actors, justified by scientific authority and the ability to ‘lead’. Blame is apportioned. Infrastructure can be built, and new rules enforced, very rapidly – but sometimes with unforeseen consequences.

All this suggests some reasons to think carefully about communication on climate change right now, more than ever. There is no turning back now from the language of ‘crisis’ and ‘emergency’ that is being used by so many people, from youth activists to corporations and governments. And the language does draw attention to many urgent problems that cannot be ignored.

But the STEPS Centre’s work suggests that multiple, plural, locally-sensitive approaches and methods can – and should – be practically applied in the face of big social-environmental problems. These approaches don’t sit comfortably within an ‘emergency’ mindset. Even as big decisions are being made, they ought to include the flexibility to respond to local needs and take account of the knowledge and views of people on the ground. In this setting, uncertainties and disagreements about problems and solutions can be openly discussed, rather than swept aside. This is as important for responding to disease outbreaks, as it is for dealing effectively with the challenges of a warming world.

NaturesNature is all around us, but there are many ways of seeing different kinds of ‘natures’, and many efforts to involve it in forms of control or domination.

How is talk of crisis shaping nature and people’s views of it? How can colonial forms of knowledge, technology and power be challenged, and what might it mean to ‘decolonize’ the study of environmental change? What do alternatives look like, and how can we explore, nurture, imagine and live the relationships we might want for the future? 

Explore the Natures theme

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