How COVID-19 could help us win the fight against climate change.
22 April, 2020 by
How COVID-19 could help us win the fight against climate change.
Elevadores Alamex S.A. de C.V.

Victoria Crawford, Head of Environmental Resilience Projects, World Economic Forum, Geneva

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a global response unlike anything we've seen before. From governments and companies taking on new roles to respond to the crisis, through the complete reorganization of how we work, travel and socialize, we are witnessing transformative changes that did not seem possible just a few weeks ago. The human costs of the pandemic are dire, but the response has been largely characterized by prevention, solidarity and connection, at an unprecedented rate of change.

What may happen in the coming months could be in two ways.

There is a risk that as the immediate crisis subsides and its economic consequences become clear, we discard long-term aspirations for easy short-term solutions, many of which would have adverse environmental consequences. These include lowering environmental standards, stimulating the economy by helping fossil fuel heavy industries, and focusing on doing more, rather than using it better.

But there is another possibility: while we are reeling from the impact of what is happening around us and accept our new reality, we could take advantage of this moment as a unique window of opportunity to rebuild our society and economy as we wish. With scientists warning that we have 10 years to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, this could offer an opportunity to solve the climate crisis before it is too late.

Several changes brought about by the emergence of COVID-19 lay the foundation for the transformation that is required. Here are five actions that we must implement:

Rethink the risk

We have known the risk of a global pandemic for years: just look at the intervention of Bill Gates during a Ted talk in 2015 in which he said that "If something kills more than 10 million people in the coming decades, it is very likely that it's a highly infectious virus ... We should be concerned, but in fact, we can build a really good response system. "However, it has taken a disaster like this to take governments, businesses and people to act at the required scale.

Similarly, climate change poses a great threat to human life and urgently requires a comprehensive response. A study published in the medical journal The Lancet predicts 500,000 adult deaths caused by climate change by 2050.

If the pandemic teaches us to recognize our vulnerability to high-impact shocks, such as pandemics and climate-related disasters, we will be in an infinitely better position preparing for them.

Listen to global perspectives

The truly global nature of the COVID-19 crisis is forcing us to recognize that we are all in this together. For example, China sending aid to Italy represents more than just changes in the geopolitical landscape; It also shows an overcoming of the sense of 'another' and an acknowledgment that events in one part of the world can affect us all.

Make people the highest priority

The response to COVID-19 has seen that the plight of patients, medical staff, and other vulnerable groups skyrockets among individuals, businesses, and governments. Many people are reorganizing their lives to practice social distancing, offering help to older neighbors in their chores and volunteering in health facilities and food banks, showing the power that can be unleashed when we are united behind a common cause.

Companies are redirecting their production lines to provide medical and hygiene supplies, offering free access to their online platforms and supporting their employees in various ways, such as increasing their wages, highlighting how agile they can be in responding to critical needs. And governments are pledging billions to help those affected by the coronavirus, in what appears to be a 'race to the top' to provide the most comprehensive support to their citizens.

All this shows that a large-scale response to a global crisis is possible. We need to take advantage of this wave of compassion and proactivity to protect vulnerable people in all contexts, including those most exposed to climate impacts.

It is not yet known whether COVID-19 will incite the world to choose the path of national isolation or global solidarity, but there is a growing understanding that we are inherently connected to people in very different geographies and circumstances, which can help to generate a momentum for strong climate action.

Trust the experts

As we have realized the importance of the pandemic, the value of knowledge has become increasingly clear. The advice of epidemiologists has gone viral (we've all seen the 'flatten the curve' meme), and healthcare professionals have been considered heroes. This could represent a turning point in a trend towards the disappearance of experts.

We also have to listen to climate scientists and policy advisers to win the fight against climate change. Greater confidence in experts of all kinds leads us in the right direction.

Make a cultural change

Many aspects of the COVID-19 response are similar to the kinds of changes we need as part of a comprehensive response to climate change. The interesting thing is that many necessary changes only require a change in culture. For example, neither the increase in bicycle use and the expansion of bicycle lanes in Bogotá as citizens avoid public transportation, nor the coronavirus teleworking experiment have required new technology, but they have been based on new ideas.

Clearly, we have many of the tools to make great strides in addressing climate change; what we need now is the political will to apply them.

Much remains to be seen what the world will look like when we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, but the fundamental social changes we are experiencing may offer us a final opportunity to prevent a climate catastrophe.
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