A guiding example
The urgency and unity in the global response to COVID-19 holds valuable lessons for efforts to enforce the necessary mindset and lifestyle changes required to combat climate change
The pandemic that has spread to more than 180 countries is the product of natural evolution, according to findings published in the journal Nature Medicine. The scientists, by comparing the available genome sequence data for known Coronavirus strains, advocated that the virus was not made in a laboratory or otherwise engineered. By disrupting the natural world, humans increase their own risk of epidemics. The disruption of pristine forests by logging, mining, road building through remote places, rapid urbanisation and population growth is bringing people into closer contact with animal species they may never have been near before. Now we have realised that this mindless pursuit of capital may cause severe health issue and climate change.
For handling the pandemic, many countries have locked down; factories have been closed; people have been advised to stay away from social gathering; movie halls, clubs and malls have been closed and travelling has been banned. Prime ministers in many countries have closed all schools and universities. Despite the costs and inconveniences on account of these actions, the general public is largely approving of such actions. In this context, it is pertinent to mention that the actions taken to contain the COVID-19 pandemic have also caused a sharp reduction in global carbon emissions with reduction of particulate matters, oxides of nitrogen and other gases in ambient air. This air pollution is responsible for at least 8 million early deaths a year. Just two months of reduction in pollution levels likely saved the lives of 4,000 children under five and 73,000 adults over 70 in China alone as reported by scientists. It may also be mentioned that air quality could have played a part in increasing the death toll of a previous Coronavirus outbreak, the SARS pandemic of 2003. One study of SARS patients found that people living in regions with a moderate amount of air pollution were 84 per cent more likely to die than those in regions with cleaner air. Scientists have established a proven link between poor air quality and premature deaths. There is strong evidence that the lives saved from this reduction in pollution caused by economic disruption from COVID-19 exceed the death toll from the virus itself.
As reported, CO2 emissions have decreased by at least 25 per cent from February 3 to March 1 this year in China. A satellite that detects traces of human activity — tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks, fossil fuel burned in power plants and other industrial activities — shows striking reductions in pollution across China and Italy since the outbreak first started. The impact of this reduction of air pollution is quite remarkable though this decrease will be temporary. Also, residents of Venice observed a vast improvement in the quality of water in the famous canals that run through the city, which is running clear for the first time in years, and fish can even be seen in the usually murky waters.
Drastic actions taken worldwide may provide valuable lessons for climate action and an opportunity to kick our bad habits regarding climate change — procrastination, short-termism and scientific denial. In a global emergency, politicians who appear to not believe in science are putting us all at risk. This statement may apply equally to Coronavirus and climate change.
This is a golden opportunity to change the hearts and minds of the people to inculcate behavioural changes that mitigate the climate crisis. Also, the response to the pandemic teaches us that people can still work together to do the right thing. If an appropriate policy is framed based on sound scientific evidence and political will persists, people can also tackle the climate crisis.
The revival of the global economy after the pandemic may accelerate the emissions of planet-warming gases depending on the approach of the world's leading economies in promoting green growth policies or promoting the use fossil fuel industries to overcome this economic recession. If political leaders or big companies focus on compensating their loss during the outbreak of this virus, it may pose a serious threat to long-term climate change action by compromising global investments in clean energy and weakening industry environmental goals to reduce emissions.
Coronavirus is not the only global crisis, we are also facing the climate crisis that is expected to be more devastating. Most importantly, the response to the two is starkly different though the climate crisis is structurally very similar to the Coronavirus crisis. Both are characterised by an escalating probability of disaster. Tackling either problem will disrupt the lifestyles of people in several ways. In both cases, there is a coordination problem, the efforts of any one individual will achieve nothing to mitigate the risk unless accompanied by efforts from many others.
At the same time, we cannot expect a similar response despite similarities of the two crisis. Coronavirus is a recent, self-evident and rapidly escalating threat. Each day brings new evidence of the direct consequences of the outbreak and these consequences are rapidly moving closer to home. Climate change is evidenced by floods, hurricanes, forest fires, and extreme weather events that have become more frequent and severe over the years. Although climate change draws passionate discussions in many forums, there is inadequate public clamour for immediate action. The policy lethargy and behavioural inertia are the major cause of inaction to climate change. Its effects are not always immediate and visible. This reduces the willingness to alter lifestyles and tolerate personal sacrifices for the collective good. Most countries have sincerely followed the regulations regarding Coronavirus. Citizens also seem to be following the advice of public health officials. But can the Coronavirus policy model be applied to climate change? It may be mentioned that the policies that worked well for Coronavirus might not be effective for climate change. However, the unintentional; side benefits of the lockdown for our environment cannot be ignored. People are supportive of policies if they can understand the mechanism through which the policy operates. This much has been demonstrated in this crisis. Thereby communication appears to be key. Creating intuitive mental models and apt metaphors to explain the link between our consumer behaviour, carbon emissions and a changing climate is a tall order. But if advocacy groups can do so, it might facilitate a sense of responsibility and agency. Of course, there must be political will
The writer is a former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board. Views expressed are strictly personal
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