We should treat climate change like COVID

| May 11, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc across the world over the past three years. As a global public health emergency, the spread of the virus put the world on standstill and saw governments work to make the containment of the virus a top priority.

We witnessed, and rightly so, a laser focus on the issue as policymakers invested financial resources to develop vaccines, worked together with public health experts, and stood side-by-side as they provided daily updates to the public on the actions they were taking. The COVID-19 response was prioritised as if everything else came second.

Seeing the relative success these actions have brought in such a short time in reducing deaths from the virus raises a question about another existential threat facing humanity. What if governments responded to climate change the way they responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Of course, not all governments across the world took similar or proper measures to combat the pandemic. In fact, the varied responses primarily stand to reveal the gross economic inequities and inequalities that exist across the world. Not all governments were equally resourced to take Western-styled public health measures. Nor were all government in a position to prioritise the COVID-19 response. Myanmar and Ethiopia, for example, were engaged in internal armed conflict.

Likewise, not all measures or responses taken by governments were justified. There were valid social, economic, human rights, and health-related concerns expressed regarding some of the COVID-19 response measures put in place.

However, there were also attempts to address those concerns. Governments provided financial support to citizens to make up for their loss of earning; there were always exemptions introduced into public health orders to accommodate the impact they may have on particular sections of society; and the legal system operated as a backup defence to vindicate individual rights.

Furthermore, a pandemic and climate change are not identical problems. A pandemic is a public health emergency caused by a virus that is relatively easy to identify and control considering the technological advances made in the medical field.

While the science of climate change has also advanced rapidly in identifying the release of greenhouse gases from human activities as the leading cause of global warming, the picture remains complex as climate change is a multi-causal phenomenon. A pandemic also requires a swift, here-and-now type of measure while climate change, though it also calls for current action, it nevertheless gives a measure of breathing space for contemplation.

The COVID-19 response has however revealed one big similarity between the two: that until the problem is solved everywhere, it is solved nowhere. Both the pandemic and climate change are borderless phenomena that require international cooperation and the full investment of all nations.

Lessons from COVID-19 responses

All that aside, there are key aspects of the COVID-19 response that would go a long way in curtailing climate change if governments also commit to apply them to their climate change responses.

First, science led and informed the COVID-19 public health measures implemented by most governments. Most governments appointed chief health officers to advise on the efficacy of proposed measures. Political leaders used those advisors to justify the propriety of the restrictions they introduced on civil life. In fact, they sometimes hid behind them to escape the public uproar on what were sometimes perceived to be harsh restrictions. Even in countries where the politics of pandemics was high, the science was there to keep check on political decisions.

Governments were also cautious about the actions they took in circumstances where the science was less clear. Scientific uncertainty regarding transmission, vaccines, re-infection, or other matters was not used to lower guards. Choices were made to err on the side of caution.

Second, governments took concrete and measurable steps to fight the pandemic. There was small talk but big action. Statements and commitments to take action without follow through were rare. Governments introduced travel restrictions and lockdowns, border closures, mask mandates, testings and vaccinations, support mechanisms for citizens, and many other public health measures.

Third, governments showed unprecedented transparency in their approach to the pandemic. We witnessed presidents and prime ministers providing daily briefings together with their chief health officers on the progress of the fight and the next steps in the fight against the virus. They answered questions and engaged with the media. The public was informed about measures taken every step of the way.

From COVID to climate change

For the most part, the world stands to benefit if governments responded to climate change the way they responded to the pandemic. There is now an overwhelming scientific certainty that climate change is happening and that there is a limited time window to take concrete actions. But the politics of climate change is an equal contender in informing the actions that states take, or the lack thereof.

Unlike the pandemic, scientific uncertainty is exploited to delay climate action. This goes counter to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which states that a “lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing” precautionary measures.

But what if governments allow the science to lead climate response? Just as the pandemic response resulted in a relatively better outcome when the politics followed rather than led the science, states could make huge strides by letting the science of climate change lead their climate response. Add to that transparency and a whole-of-government approach to climate change, then we are in a new chapter of climate action.

Governments should reflect on the lessons learned from the pandemic response and how it could inform climate change response. Citizens should also make it a point to challenge their leaders to take those lessons seriously. There may be prices to pay, but those prices will be worth it as they will enable us to leave a better future to our children and their children after them.

This article was published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.