Why the COVID-19 Response Is No Model for Climate Action

A global emergency. Wartime mobilization. Calls to “listen to the scientists.” Demands for radical shifts in policy and human behavior. Tradeoffs between sacrifices today and larger suffering in the future. Politicization by all sides.

The parallels between the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and climate change are obvious. But contrary to the received wisdom among many climate analysts and advocates, those parallels mostly reveal just how different the two challenges are.

The COVID-19 pandemic is unfolding rapidly, demanding all of our attention. Climate change unfolds slowly, over decades, often so imperceptibly that we term the conditions of a changing climate as the “new normal.” COVID-19 presents as a frightening but conceptually simple problem: a novel virus that can be contained by quarantine, social distancing and, hopefully, immunization. Climate change presents as a “wicked” problem, which means its causes, impacts, key actors, and optimal levers for change are heavily contested. Responding to COVID-19 through behavioral shifts means putting our lives temporarily on hold for months to a year. Responding to climate change through behavioral shifts means a lifelong if not multi-generational commitment to population-wide lifestyle changes.

Nonetheless, the rapid virus–induced decline in economic activity has turned some climate hawks’ heads. “If weeks of suspended high-carbon economic activity can cut China's emissions by a quarter,” tweeted climate activist Genevieve Guenther, “I don't want to hear one fucking word about how decarbonizing quickly enough to maintain a livable planet is ‘unrealistic.’”

If the emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic is held up as a model for climate action, we should not be surprised if public support is less than enthusiastic.

Others were more cautious in drawing comparisons. Pandemics and recessions are “hardly formulas activists should cheer, much less try to replicate going forward,” writes Kate Aronoff at the New Republic. “Wishing for a disaster to make the large-scale changes that scientists say are necessary to prevent a planetary collapse is counterproductive,” wrote Eric Holthaus.

This pandemic should then make us interrogate what we envision when we talk about a “climate emergency.” Such frames filter up meaningfully, after all: last summer, six then-presidential candidates joined a Democratic proposal to declare a “climate change emergency” to spur “sweeping reforms” in the United States. What those reforms would entail, though, remains unclear. Holthaus, whose practice is to addend many of his tweets with the warning “We are in a climate emergency,” wrote that we should “learn to treat each other better.” Aronoff used the drop in Chinese emissions to advocate a four-day work week. Guenther suggested that enforced suspension of economic activity for the climate’s sake would, obviously, utilize “smart policy” to be more “equitable” than the Chinese government’s forced quarantine policies.

Yet one wonders whether people around the world might actually be less, not more, eager to entertain the idea of sweeping and intrusive responses to climate change thanks to ongoing events.

Perhaps that is because we are witnessing what a global emergency actually looks like. School and commerce are shut down. People are confined to their homes. Trade and travel are suspended. Weddings, social gatherings, and perhaps even the Olympics are canceled. Hourly workers are losing work and many others are losing jobs altogether. Fear and isolation are dominant.

And yet despite such costly personal and collective sacrifices, we are learning that there are disappointing limits to the emissions cuts that are possible under even draconian, government-enforced reductions of demand for goods and services. New economic projections are suggesting that China’s economy may shrink by up to 40% this quarter relative to January–March. The rhythm of daily life has literally ground to a halt for many hundreds of millions of Chinese people, and yet three-quarters of emissions stubbornly remain. Extreme conditions of degrowth and reduced consumption that are near-unanimously considered intolerable in the long-term have failed to mitigate anything close to a majority of greenhouse gas impacts.

Degrowth, it turns out, impacts the sectors and technologies we like as well as those we don’t.

And while emissions will surely decline this year, they might rebound strongly in future years, as China and other countries relax environmental regulations on fossil fuels to boost economic recovery. In the meantime, investment in clean technologies is likely to take a significant hit. Degrowth, it turns out, impacts the sectors and technologies we like as well as those we don’t.

But perhaps we might voluntarily consider maintaining some of the shifts in our lifestyles forced upon us by the quarantine? Doesn’t this moment teach us that we can take fewer flights, telecommute, eat out less, and otherwise reduce our consumption and environmental impact? We hesitate to draw too strong a conclusion here. People like traveling, for work and for pleasure, even when they know how carbon-intensive it is. People like eating out at restaurants, even if it is more expensive and tends to waste more food than eating at home. This moment might make us realize how precious, not frivolous, those experiences are.

Besides that, the absolute environmental impact of these lifestyle shifts is questionable. Take flying. For those of us privileged to write about climate change for a living, air travel likely accounts for much of our personal carbon footprint. But less than 20% of the planet has ever stepped foot on an airplane. COVID-19 is unlikely to change projections of tens of millions of new fliers in the coming decades, as consumers in China, India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and elsewhere take to the skies for the first time. And to be crystal clear, these first journeys by air will open up once-unattainable personal, economic, and educational opportunities for countless lives and are milestones to be celebrated, not dreaded. Ultimately, what matters is not how many people are consuming a product or service but how carbon-intensive the underlying technologies are.

Certainly, the COVID-19 crisis does have important overlaps with the climate crisis. If anything, COVID-19 should motivate researchers and policymakers to act faster on decarbonization and adaptation, since the incidence of diseases and pandemics is likely to rise with global temperatures. Likewise, how we respond to COVID-19 could have significant climate implications. As the nations of the world stimulate and bail their way out of the coming recession, policy and infrastructure decisions can accelerate innovation and decarbonization. And, ultimately, the long-term solution to both climate and global health problems will be scientific and technological in nature: a vaccine or battery of medical treatments in the case of the virus, and affordable, scalable low-carbon technologies in the case of climate change.

But, in both psychological and political terms, we would caution against drawing too strong a connection between the two crises. We do not think the global community will look back on this time fondly. If the emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic is held up as a model for climate action, we should not be surprised if public support is less than enthusiastic.

Further, in light of rising xenophobia, heightened international tensions, and opportunistic, discriminatory restrictions on movement and migration precipitating out of the current health emergency, we must be wary of a more selective application of the climate “lessons” of the COVID-19 response to serve an eco-facist agenda that promotes nativism and opposes immigration.

It is an understandable impulse to draw lessons from this or that crisis for other pressing global challenges, climate change among them. We share that impulse. However, the useful take-aways from comparing crises that are fundamentally different in nature are often few and disappointing. The climate crisis may feel just as immediate and pressing as an ongoing pandemic to those working in the climate space, but that does little to change the fact that governments and communities will not accept the adaptation of measures intended to fight pandemics on time horizons of months to years towards the decades-long challenge of climate change. Advocacy of such measures will not be viewed kindly, whether in the halls of political decision-making or in the court of public opinion.

The solutions for controlling the COVID-19 outbreak are simple. As decades of debate, advocacy, and politics should have abundantly demonstrated by now, the solutions for climate change are anything but.