Our coronavirus failure will become our climate failure

Many countries’ response to COVID-19 has been fragmented and ineffective, much like our approach to climate change.

Fridays For Future In Assam
A young woman takes part in Fridays for Future, a worldwide youth climate strike, in Guwahati, Assam, India on November 8, 2019 [File: David Talukdar/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

New York University climate economist Gernot Wagner called coronavirus “climate change on warp speed”. He is right, and the global response to coronavirus paints a bleak picture of how we will respond to climate change.

The stages of government responses to the virus, particularly in the Global North, match the last few decades of climate policy – and offer a pessimistic insight into what may happen in the years to come.

Stage 1: Outright denial. Freight rail, coal, and oil companies have all orchestrated or financed climate change denial. These disinformation campaigns continue today in the form of advertisements in which fossil fuel companies aim to portray themselves as part of the green climate solution: what some call “greenwashing”. While their advertisement campaigns say that they are part of the solution, the $5 trillion they are expected to collectively invest over 10 years to expand fossil fuel production and operate existing oil fields says otherwise.

The coronavirus outbreak has unfolded similarly. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has described the virus as a “fantasy” or dismissed it as merely the “flu”. In the US, the Trump administration spent weeks downplaying the risks of the coronavirus crisis, tweeting that “it will all work out well” and circulating conspiracy theories.

When the damage becomes too obvious to deny outright, we move on to stage 2: It is someone else’s problem. This more sophisticated form of denial acknowledges that there is a problem, but assumes that it will only be a big deal for other people, thereby delaying taking serious action, much like stage 1.

The speed of response to the climate crisis, despite the level of threat it represents, is partially because of how that threat is distributed. For the moment, the climate crisis initially only inconveniences richer nations, while setting the basic terms of life for others; in Guatemala, for example, climate-related droughts contribute to desperate migration and chronic malnutrition affecting half of the country’s children. Perhaps this is why high-income countries rest on their laurels and fail to develop and enforce appropriately ambitious climate policies.

The Trump administration hit this stage of dealing with coronavirus by late February. After the first quarantines had begun in Italy, President Trump shifted from outright denial of the crisis (stage 1) to a different tune. Schools should be prepared to close “just in case”, but the virus is “going to go away” one day “like a miracle” because of “what the administration did with China”. Likewise, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson was slow to respond to evidence suggesting that the virus may hit his country as hard as it did Italy.

Eventually, the impacts will be too big to ignore and too omnipresent to pretend that it is someone else’s problem – an inevitable result when impacts grow faster than our ability to cope with them. This is where we hit stage 3: desperate action.

The institutional responses to the coronavirus have been unprecedented: Schools have been closed, affecting millions of students, lockdowns have been imposed across the world, flights have been stopped.

Climate change has not yet reached stage 3. That is because, unlike coronavirus, it does not move at “warp speed”, and governments have not yet been forced to confront the scale of the crisis. 

Nevertheless, this is the scenario we risk with continued inaction. The world’s Paris Agreement set emissions targets that were not ambitious enough to meet its own temperature goals even before the withdrawal of the US from the agreement.

Director general of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, described world preparation for pandemics as a “cycle of panic and neglect”. We only commit serious resources to combating pandemics when the outbreaks are upon us and their risks are politically undeniable – that is, when it is likeliest that our measures will be too late.

With both coronavirus and climate change, the key to understanding who is panicked and who is neglectful is to pay attention to how the risks are distributed. 

While everyone will feel the pain of social isolation given the physical distancing measures being implemented around the world, the further risks will not be so equally or evenly divided. Our elites can be confident that they will be well taken care of. In the US state of Oklahoma, for example, 58 COVID-19 tests were used on people connected to the Utah Jazz NBA team – that was nearly a fifth of all the tests available in the state at the time. The US’s wealthy generally receive shockingly better healthcare than the rest of the population and some of the super-rich even have their own emergency rooms. 

In contrast, many of those most vulnerable to the coronavirus, and its social and economic repercussions, are those least protected from it: those without access to the crucial combination of shelter and sanitation, including the houseless, those in prisons and detention centres, those without jobs or who work without economic security including paid leave and health benefits.

In the Global North, working-class people of colour and Indigenous peoples are disproportionately likely to be in one or multiple of these situations. For many in the Global South, this precarity is the rule rather than the exception: millions in India, Nigeria and South Africa who depend on the informal economy for survival are suddenly out of work with an insufficient or nonexistent formal safety net. The five million people who live in the Central African Republic have exactly three ventilators to share between them.

The same is already true of the climate crisis, and will continue to be so. Working-class communities of colour are generally more likely to be exposed to the costs of pollution and loose environmental regulation. This general trend in environmental injustice is true of climate change as well: We can expect Indigenous and working-class communities of colour to bear more than their fair share of burdens from both inaction and the specific climate initiatives designed without their empowered participation. Coastal tribes in the south of the US stand to lose their land to rising sea levels and natural disasters, which in turn will widen racial income gaps.

We can also expect this kind of injustice on a global scale. The African continent, despite having contributed least to cumulative emissions, is the most exposed to climate impacts. The climate crisis is already fueling food insecurity, displacement, and conflict on the continent.

Island nations like Grenada and low-elevation nations like Bangladesh also face existential threats from rising seas.

Under the existing United Nations Framework on Climate Change, developed nations and associated institutions have pledged to raise $100bn for developing nations’ green development: a paltry number that Mariama Williams of the South Centre, an intergovernmental organisation supported and staffed by developing countries, says “does not even come close” to what is needed to make significant inroads into the climate crisis. Moreover, developed nations and regional banks are not even halfway to funding this already inadequate figure, which was to have been fully funded by the end of 2020.

Coronavirus and climate change are not exactly the same – we have had much longer to study climate change, which means the risks are far more scientifically certain, and which makes our inability to act on climate change far more damning. But the political response to this virus is showing us the same problems that we are going to face as climate impacts accelerate. If we cannot break the cycle of “panic and neglect” that doomed our response to coronavirus, we stand to lose the entire world.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.