Brigitte Van Gerven
Some valuable lessons from COVID-19 to tackle the climate crisis
The COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis, as the world has not known for a long time. More than 750 000 people have already been killed worldwide, and millions will have to bear the health consequences for a long time to come. In rich countries, unemployment and bankruptcies increased and the economy experienced its biggest decline since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In developing countries, however, the situation is even more dramatic and more and more people are facing poverty and hunger.
Meanwhile, another crisis hangs over us that will have an even greater impact on mankind - climate disruption. Although the vast majority of people want this crisis to be tackled, progress has been slow for years.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis show some striking parallels, they are both global crises affecting all countries, unpopular measures need to be taken to resolve them and the government has a crucial role to play. Can we draw lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic on how to tackle the climate crisis? This is the subject of a scientific article published in the Environmental and Resource Economics: "Five Lessons from COVID-19 for Advancing Climate Change Mitigation".
Lesson 1: Delay is costly
The number of COVID-19 infections as well as the number of fatalities varies greatly from country to country. New Zealand, for example, has been able to limit the number of deaths to 22 out of a population of 5 million, and Corona is under control. The United States, on the other hand, has more than 165,000 deaths out of a population of 331 million. The death rate per inhabitant is a staggering 100 times higher.
The difference? Intervene quickly and decisively. The countries that reacted quickly and took the necessary measures not only suffered fewer infections and fewer deaths, but their economies also suffered less from the crisis, and they can now more or less resume their normal lives. However, most countries have long failed to act, even after having seen the devastation caused by the disease in other countries. In most cases, they did not intervene until the figures in their own countries were alarmingly high.
In the climate crisis, too, any postponement of action will cost us dearly. We cannot afford to wait until the worst effects of climate change actually manifest themselves in our own countries. The current extreme weather events we are experiencing - heat waves, storms, forest fires and rising sea levels - are just a foretaste of the damage we will face in the future. As climate scientist Michael Mann said: the worst heat wave we have ever experienced so far will simply be called "summer" in a few decades' time.
The slow decision-making process of many governments that we have seen at COVID-19 also plays a role in the climate crisis. But the climate crisis also has its own specific problems, such as the sabotage actions of the fossil fuel industry. Solving the climate crisis implies that fossil fuel consumption must be reduced to zero, so there is no future for the fossil industry. That is why they will continue to resist effective climate action until the end.
Another difference is the timeline. The incubation period of COVID-19 is 14 days. That's how long it takes before the effects of a new Corona policy become visible. The delay of the earth's climate, on the other hand, is up to 30 years. By the time the worst effects of climate change manifest themselves, it is too late to intervene.
Because of the short-term thinking that dominates in politics, it is therefore advisable to outsource the monitoring of long-term goals to an institution that can think long term – similar to the central banks taking care of stabilising the economy and controlling inflation.
Lesson 2: Get citizens on board
When we got the news about the lockdown in Wuhan our first reaction was: such severe measures might be possible in communist China, but would be absolutely impossible in the "free West". In the meantime the lockdown has been introduced in many western countries, and it turned out that people do accept and largely follow this unpopular measure. Public support for a measure strongly depends on how serious a certain threat is perceived.
What makes us consider a threat to be serious ? Different factors play a role:
First of all, people are strongly inclined to think linearly and we have difficulty with exponential phenomena. As a result, we tend to initially underestimate an exponentially growing problem - such as the increase in the number of COVID-19 infections.
Secondly, we experience a threat as more serious if it is made concrete and its impact on our own lives is clear. Europe only became aware of the danger of COVID-19 when we saw the footage from Italian hospitals - and morgues.
Thirdly, we rely heavily on previous experiences and therefore tend to underestimate disasters that we have not yet experienced. Until COVID-19 attacked us, we did not seriously consider the possibility of a pandemic. The countries that were recently confronted with the SARS epidemic dealt best with the COVID-19 crisis.
Currently people are less willing to make sacrifices to solve the climate crisis (such as flying less, eating less meat, or paying a tax on fossil fuels) because we consider this threat to be less serious than COVID-19. Each of the aforementioned factors plays a role in this:
Climate change is an exponential problem - Man cannot imagine how fast and how radically our climate is changing.
Furthermore, for many people, climate change is a vague phenomenon, and people mistakenly believe that it will not have a direct impact on our personal lives.
Finally, the climate has been stable for the last 10 000 years - the whole duration of human civilisation. We have no experience of catastrophic climate change, so we underestimate the consequences of such a catastrophe.
The COVID-19 crisis has shown that people are willing to make sacrifices if the threat is perceived as concrete and serious. For the climate crisis this is a hopeful sign and the solution becomes clear: make people understand the seriousness of the danger. Make the consequences of climate change concrete for people and also clarify the causal link with greenhouse gas emissions. Science (particularly attribution science) is also increasingly capable of doing this. If the message is unclear, people tend to reject science and cling to their own prejudices.
When it comes to climate policy, we face an even greater challenge. Although the vast majority believe that the climate problem must be solved, it is much more difficult to find broad support for a specific climate policy. This discrepancy between general support and support for specific measures is greater in the climate crisis than in COVID-19, possibly because the climate debate has become more politicised (and therefore different forms of climate policy are strongly associated with a political side).
Therefore, better information is not enough. Whether we will find a majority for a particular climate policy depends very much on whether we can transcend this 'tribal politics' and depoliticise climate policy. In the United States, it has already emerged that it is possible to obtain bipartisan support for certain climate mitigation measures (in particular the Carbon Fee and Dividend aka Climate Income). Designing policies that are attractive to both the political left and right can be an important lever to make progress on climate mitigation.
There is also growing evidence that it helps to design climate policies in such a way that they become more attractive to citizens.
Finally, it helps to involve citizens more in participatory democracy, both to change their perception of climate change and to gain more support for specific climate policies.
Lesson 3: Watch out for inequality
COVID-19 proves that both poor and rich countries can be affected by epidemics. Although rich households have more resources to protect themselves and often have better access to health care, they also are adversely affected by the economic downturn (especially in their professional situation and in their investments). Moreover, in a globalised world, domestic economic prosperity is linked to economic stability in the rest of the world, as the global financial crisis has shown.
However, the pandemic affects the poor disproportionately. Low-income countries are more vulnerable to COVID-19 because population density is higher, a larger proportion of the population has pre-existing health issues and health care is often less well prepared for a pandemic. In addition, many developing countries are export-oriented, which makes a global reduction in demand an economic disaster.
The economic consequences, both of the virus itself and of the measures taken to contain it, appear to exacerbate existing inequalities. In countries where labour is regulated, policymakers have made enormous efforts to compensate citizens who have lost their jobs or had to close down their businesses temporarily. In countries with a lot of informal employment and a limited budget, such a compensation policy is more difficult (but not impossible) to realise. Safeguarding livelihoods through a basic income, food aid or additional social protection are important policies to increase support for the lockdown. If this is not possible, governments are faced with a difficult choice: not to implement the lockdown or to lift it too soon - whereby the virus is not sufficiently under control - or to increase poverty and hunger.
It is to be feared that, in the climate crisis as well, the poor will be hit the hardest, while they have fewer resources to adapt to a changing climate. The damage caused by climate change is therefore likely to exacerbate existing inequalities.
Measures taken by governments to combat climate change, such as a carbon price, also threaten to affect poor households disproportionately. However, there are solutions to this: the proceeds of the carbon price can be used to reduce regressive taxes, or to provide people with direct financial support (i.e. the 'Climate Income'). This reduces inequality and greatly increases support for climate policy.
In all of this, citizens' confidence in the government is essential if policies are to be implemented. This confidence depends very much on the capacity of public authorities to reduce inequality and to take into account the needs of vulnerable groups. Citizens will support measures that they perceive as 'just'.
The lesson for the government is clear: implement a fair climate policy that reduces existing inequalities.
Lesson 4: Global problems require global cooperation
Growth of international cooperation
Like climate change, COVID-19 is a global crisis from which no country is spared - although some countries are hit harder than others.
The slow international response to the virus makes it clear that in future global crises, countries need to listen more carefully to those who are the first to be affected - such as the Pacific islands, which are in danger of disappearing due to rising sea levels.
International cooperation has grown in the course of the COVID-19 crisis. In the beginning, the problem was somewhat denied and minimised. In a second phase, each country took individual action, closing borders, increasing domestic production capacity, and a fierce competition arose for the purchase of medical supplies. In a third phase, we now see more cooperation: the sharing of knowledge and resources. The fourth phase will (hopefully) be: a global cooperation for the production and distribution of a Corona vaccine.
These phases can also be seen in international cooperation on climate change. Initially, many countries denied the climate problem. After that, a form of climate isolationism prevailed (or still prevails), in which each country mainly takes climate measures that have other, non-climate-related benefits for the country. Australia, for example, is investing heavily in renewable energy, but in the meantime it is obstructing international climate negotiations - such as those at COP25 in Madrid. Many EU countries are in phase three, working together to take joint climate action through the European Green Deal, and the green COVID-19 recovery plan.
How can we speed up genuine global cooperation? Countries already engaged in resource and information sharing should be encouraged to improve cooperation by developing specific bilateral or regional agreements to reduce greenhouse gases. By forming a "coalition of the willing" rather than waiting for global treaties, we can start the solution anyway, and increase the pressure on other countries to also increase their climate ambitions.
Beyond party politics
The response to COVID-19 varied across the political spectrum. The political right was generally less concerned about the virus, at least in the early stages of the pandemic, and was also in favour of speeding up the removal of the coronary measures. Despite these differences, most governments did adopt some form of lockdown policy when the consequences of the pandemic became apparent.
In climate discussions, the same divide can be seen between left and right in most countries. The willingness to intervene depends on the perceived consequences of not intervening, and those consequences are perceived as more serious by the left than by the right. However, the left does not necessarily have a monopoly on the climate issue. After all, preserving what is good, and caring for the world is also closely linked to conservative values. Left-wing and right-wing leaders and opinion-formers must seek cooperation across party boundaries in order to prevent a bold climate policy from being repealed at the next elections.
Lesson 5: Scientific advice is not value-free
The COVID-19 crisis has put the scientific experts in the spotlights. Virologists and epidemiologists can be seen on television almost every day. The consequences are twofold.
On the one hand, during the pandemic, some people have gained a new respect for science and experts. The scientific community is praised for its advice on COVID-19, the smooth international cooperation and the major steps already taken in the development of a vaccine.
Other reactions are less positive. The role of science is seen as ambiguous. Epidemiologists and virologists have been accused of exceeding their mandate by influencing public opinion. Inevitably, a whole avalanche of misinformation and conspiracy theories have surfaced on the social media, and this misinformation puts human lives at risk.
Politicians and citizens also have difficulty with the uncertainty in scientific evidence. In high school, science is often presented as a set of established facts, rather than as a rigorous method of gathering evidence and testing hypotheses, in a setting of inherent uncertainty. Citizens are quickly annoyed by the fact that opinions change and see it as proof that science is failing, rather than seeing it as a normal scientific process. This creates mistrust and is a fertile ground for conspiracy theories.
What can we learn from this for the climate crisis?
The mandate of an expert – be it a virologist or a physicist - is to give advice based on empirical data, for example on the expected consequences of the pandemic/climate change, or on the effectiveness of proposed policies and measures.
From the moment an expert talks about proportionality - how these policies should be balanced against other societal interests - he actually makes a value judgment. It is difficult to avoid value judgments, but where possible they should be made transparent so that they remain subject to democratic control.
Finally, how should the politicisation of climate science and 'fake news' be tackled? Experts should communicate about the science, and the available evidence. Show people how fallacies work. Correct the image of a rigid and certain science, and explain to people how the scientific process works. This can increase trust in science and help counter misinformation and conspiracy theories.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a disaster such as the world has not known in a long time. But perhaps something positive can come out of it. "Five Lessons from COVID-19 for Advancing Climate Change Mitigation" describes how we can use the experience of the pandemic and the way this crisis has been dealt with to make progress in the fight against climate change. Let us take these lessons to heart.