Why the world must respond to climate change like we’re responding to Coronavirus

The relevance, and helpfulness, of a comparison could be seen as futile, considering they’re not explicitly linked. Coronavirus, as far as we know, came from a ‘wet market’ in Wuhan, not greenhouse gasses. But where there lacks a concrete connection between the two there exists a very real similarity; they remain two of the most major threats to public health today.

Have you spent the last few weeks feeling a little bit heavier? We’re not referring to the excess snacks we’ve all been consuming whilst working from home, but rather that feeling that you’re being weighed down by the enormity of the current situation regarding Coronavirus. Do you feel helpless? Frightened? Intimidated by its magnitude? Do you feel the same way about climate change?

The answer is likely ‘no’, but why, when both COVID-19 and climate change are such real international crises with the power to kill millions of people and impact (at best) or entirely derail (at worst) global economies?

According to the World Health Organisation: “Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250 000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.” 174,830 have, at the time of publishing, died of Coronavirus. In both cases, the scientific community is offering clear warnings about what to do.

We’ve seen 24/7 media coverage for Coronavirus; persistent death toll updates, an almost total ban on global transport, available relevant experts on hand to deliver truthful, practical advice. The world has, in just a few short weeks, mobilised – pivoted the way people live their lives in reaction to thorough, effective communication of an urgent global crisis.

So why do the government responses to Coronavirus and climate change differ so dramatically?

One theory is that it’s down to unity. A worthwhile climate change reaction needs to be a combined effort, with the impact almost nullified if countries go it alone. This is unlike the fight against Coronavirus, which – due to the ease at which each nation can implement its own rules – felt like every country out for itself as it patriotically battled to protect its people.

Another is that it’s a question of speed. The threat of Coronavirus swept across the world like a dark cloud in a storm, overwhelming and panicking huge swathes of the globe one country at a time. It required immediate, instinctive reactions – which could, in hindsight, have benefitted from being even quicker – that the quieter, less tangible deterioration of the planet doesn’t demand.

Thankfully the global fight against Coronavirus has inadvertently doubled-up as one against climate change too; a sort of two-birds-one-stone situation.

At the very beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, when China quarantined hundreds of millions of people to help stop the spread of the disease, before-and-after satellite photos showed pollution disappearing as work and travel came to a standstill. Fei Liu, Air Quality Researcher for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, told the Guardian that this was “the first time he had seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event.”

The concentrations of nitrogen dioxide over China between January and February.


If the government thinks that people aren’t drawing comparisons between its response to both crises then it’s wrong. It’s also likely wrong about the public’s priorities, with a burgeoning desire for a similarly powerful fight against climate change evident. According to the Independent, a new survey by pollsters Opinium found that 48% of the public agree that the government should respond “with the same urgency to climate change as it has with COVID-19”, whilst just 28% say it shouldn’t.

So let’s harness this momentum, and – rather than breathe a big sigh of relief once Coronavirus is (hopefully!) brought under control – let’s redirect our energies and fighting spirit towards the other global health crisis.

As Climate Action put it: “There are valuable lessons to be learnt from our response to the outbreak of COVID-19 and these can be applied to the climate emergency by putting health equity at the heart of all policymaking.”

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