Coronavirus and climate change: “There is much uncertainty, and much to play for”

18 Mar 2020

Coronavirus is here. Its impact on our health systems, economies and behaviours cannot yet be understood, but analogies have already been drawn between this immediate challenge and the more chronic, insidious climate change challenge.

Any broader analysis of coronavirus, beyond that which centers around how to minimise and mitigate its impact, arguably risks being insensitive or inappropriate at this time. Millions of vulnerable people of all ages are in danger and the UK’s own perennially optimistic prime minister has said that we must be prepared to lose some loved ones before their time. However, it’s critical to reflect on any lessons we might learn from coronavirus so that we can tackle climate change as effectively as possible.

The restoration of the importance of experts

First and most strikingly, experts are back on the agenda, and their place in informing public policy has been restored to some degree. In contrast to the low point of Michael Gove’s comments during the Brexit campaign, listening to experts is now widely recommended. There are few, if any, coronavirus deniers and we are for the most part turning to epidemiologists to inform public policy. This is welcome, and hopefully a lesson that will be retained for the climate challenge.

Change in behaviour

Secondly, the central importance of behaviour change has been brought to the fore. The ability of people and societies to respond to threats affecting their wellbeing – as is being demonstrated across the world – is a potentially powerful response mechanism. Although it’s still too early to say how persistent behaviour changes might be, it is important to capture the notion that such changes can occur when it’s apparent that lives are more important than business-as-usual GDP growth. Capitalising on some of the inevitable responses to coronavirus, such as less unnecessary air travel for business meetings and more home-working, supported by better videoconferencing facilities, could be powerful short-term actions worth embedding for the longer-term fight against climate change.

The importance of known unknowns

Thirdly, the emergence of a pandemic such as coronavirus reminds us of the importance of “known unknowns” (or black elephants) – known possibilities that lurk in the background, but around which we haven’t voiced concerns or planned sufficiently (often because they are distasteful to contemplate and/or simply too disruptive and unpredictable in their impact). There are numerous potential extremes in the realm of climate change, including climate system tipping points, or a serious deterioration in international relations and cooperation that makes global collective action to reduce emissions less likely. Such black elephants, and their even more enigmatic cousins black swans (Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “unknown unknowns”) needn’t be downsides – think the ongoing energy market disruptions caused by the surprising and sustained cost reductions in low-carbon technologies like solar PV and batteries, or the potential for veganism to become a global norm. But whether such unknowns turn out to be good or bad, this pandemic reminds us that we can’t simply predict and then act, but that we rather need to design our institutions and policies to be resilient and flexible in the face of deep uncertainty.

At this stage it is far too early to understand the long-term impact of coronavirus on emissions. Yes, economic output and industrial production is set to reduce and this should pull emissions down significantly in the near-term. But concerns have already been voiced by many that economic policies might not pay enough attention to ensuring that post-pandemic growth is environmentally sustainable.

If we can heed these three lessons (i.e. the importance of science, behaviour change and resilient planning), this would place humanity on a firmer footing to tackle the multiple challenges that we will face this century – including climate change. Now it’s time to see how good at learning we can collectively be.

Ajay Gambhir is a Senior Research Fellow at the Imperial College London Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment.