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Opinion: What Can Coronavirus Teach Us About Tackling Climate Change?

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Opinion: What Can Coronavirus Teach Us About Tackling Climate Change?

Is it too late to reverse the impacts of climate change?  A few months ago, I would have said yes, convinced that our disregard of rising sea levels, rising global temperatures and the rising number of natural disasters was more than enough indication of our failure to care of the world. But what if I was wrong? What if we have the potential to change? With the COVID-19 pandemic having forced a halt upon societies, economies and daily routines, and the world witnessing a global drop in CO2 emissions in just a few months, I wonder if this virus can teach us how to better tackle the urgent climate emergency.

Each country has addressed coronavirus in different ways, and with varying levels of success. Through studying the approaches of the more successful nations, I’ve come up with three lessons we can learn from the pandemic and apply to the climate crisis.

The first is the attitude we need to have towards a crisis if we want to effectively control it. Our current actions suggest we actually want to destroy the world, so, despite it being slightly obvious, the first step to tackling climate change is by treating it as the emergency it is. Just as we try to “stop the spread” of the virus early on, climate change requires early action to best reduce its impacts. During the pandemic, Germany has been an anomaly compared to its European neighbours. Why? Early on, Angela Merkel stated, “It’s serious. Take it seriously”, leading Germany to have one of the highest testing per capita rates in the world – even testing those without symptoms and thus massively reducing the country’s death toll. This sort of pre-emptive action is key to tackling climate change. We cannot wait until we’ve burnt all our fossil fuels to switch to renewables. We cannot chop down all our rainforests before planting more. And we cannot keep dodging responsibility to deal with this problem. This is an emergency and it’s time to act accordingly.

Another seemingly obvious piece of advice we may learn from the pandemic is the importance of listening to the science. Looking at the World Health Organisation – which has some of the best scientists in the world – the overall advice for coronavirus is to distance yourself from others and maintain a high level of hygiene. Stay at least one metre from others, wash your hands regularly, avoid touching your face; this is really just common sense. The less contact you have with others and the cleaner you remain, the lower your chance of catching the virus. An important piece of technology that has helped control the number of cases is the use of testing to find and trace the virus. Iceland has had the most tests carried out per capita in the world, offering free tests to its entire population regardless of whether they show symptoms or not. They successfully controlled the spread, without having to close primary schools and only suffering ten deaths, a remarkably low figure. And how is this applicable to the climate crisis? The science is practically screaming at us! There’s evidence of the damage so far; the world has witnessed the six warmest years on record since 2014. There’s advice for the future; the warning for the global temperature to not exceed a 2°C increase from pre-industrial temperatures. And there’s advice on how to accomplish this task - put very simply: massively decreasing our use of fossil fuels.

The final lesson I believe we can learn from the pandemic is the idea that some people will be more vulnerable than others. While there is still much to learn about the virus, it’s evident that age is the largest risk factor – the older you are, the more vulnerable you are. After accounting for age, socio-demographic characteristics and long-term illness and disability, the Office for National Statistics found that black people are 1.9 times more likely to be at risk of a COVID-related death than white people. Similarities can be seen with the climate crisis as some countries are more susceptible – often those with struggling economies and widespread poverty, such as Haiti. Haiti experiences many natural disasters and is consequently one of the poorest countries in the world. Climate change is predicted to increase the intensity of disasters (like hurricanes) which will only further cripple Haiti. While developed countries like the UK will surely experience some effects of a warming world, we have the capability to adapt and mitigate accordingly. Just as measures are taken to protect the vulnerable from the virus, so must actions be taken to support those countries less able to cope with climate change.

So, is it too late to reverse the impacts of climate change?  Perhaps we can use one crisis to help with another. If anything, the pandemic has proved the capability of nations to make drastic and immediate changes, and while the climate emergency is a much longer and greater battle, I do believe we will be able to win it.  

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