Issac Cordal

Short-term Thinking: Covid-19 and Climate Change

Caragh Medlicott explores the relationship between the climate crisis and Covid-19 outbreak and addresses the need for action from those in authority as well as  acceptance that there is no such thing as acting too early. 

In 2014, a sculpture by the Spanish street artist, Issac Cordal, went viral. The sculpture depicts a group of bald, white, suited men in the midst of a heated debate – they are also almost entirely submerged underwater. The caption reads: ‘Politicians discussing global warming’. It was a powerful image six years ago, and today the symbolism could be equally powerful under the revised caption: ‘Politicians discussing COVID-19.’

Unprecedented has become the word of the moment. Whether it’s in the announcement of too-late lockdown measures or merely an email finding you well in these ‘strange and unprecedented times’ – stress has been placed on the unpredictability of our circumstances, their utter surrealness. And, certainly for the average citizen, a pandemic of this scale is shocking and disturbing in equal measure. The same cannot be said for the scientific community who have been raising the alarm about looming pandemics for decades.

There has been more than one comparison drawn between the current global pandemic and climate change. Quite ironically, climate change is responsible for expanding the habitats where viral diseases thrive. In a world under lockdown, demand for energy has dropped. Global carbon emissions are expected to be 8% lower than in 2019. A seemingly promising statistic that, in reality, highlights how significant the work ahead of us is. This reduction will, in about 20 years’ time, reduce global warming by 0.0025°C. To put that in context, The Paris Agreement target (for which we’re widely expected to overshoot) is to limit the increase in global average temperature to just 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. A reduction of 0.0025°C is a drop in the rapidly-heating ocean.

While few environmentalists would sniff at plummeting energy stocks (including oil prices dropping below zero for the first time in history) the most pressing lesson this pandemic can teach us is to act sooner, rather than later. Humans are famously bad at responding appropriately to long-term threats, even when ‘long-term’ comes to stand for decades, rather than centuries. As Daniel Gilbert, Harvard professor of psychology, said in his 2010 global warming and psychology talk, the human brain is ‘a get-out-of-the-way machine’. As a species, we prioritise short-term gratification, and this extends into all areas of society: elections are won on promises of short-term policy changes and businesses are guided by the drive to ensure quarterly returns for investors and shareholders.

Clearly, knowledge alone is not enough. If it was, we would already have made significant advancements towards the Paris Agreement target, and we would also have been much better prepared for a virus outbreak. Sadly, it seems bureaucracy is the kiss of death for meaningful change, even in the face of existential threats.

You don’t need to dig far into the world of virus research to find just how apparent this impending pandemic was. Back in March, The New York Times revealed that the US Department of Health and Human Services had run a ‘crimson contagion’ virus simulation last year. The exercise explored potential outcomes should a fast-spreading respiratory virus originate from China and spread to the US. The simulation was damning; it found the US to be ill-prepared for such a scenario, with modelling estimating that 7.7 million would be hospitalised, and 586,000 would die. The report was marked ‘do not distribute’.

Our ‘unprecedented’ pandemic is widely accepted to be a ‘grey rhino’ event. That is, an event that poses an urgent and serious threat but is neglected despite expert evidence to back it up. If COVID-19 is a grey rhino, then climate change is surely a whole herd of them charging at once. That isn’t to underplay the severity of the pandemic – the losses of this year will haunt us for generations – instead, it is to stress the severity and ultimate finality of the climate emergency, as well as the heaps of evidence we have proving this in earnest.

Of course, while the politicians and policy-makers tend to be slow-moving – torturously weighing up public reaction to extreme measures and short-term economic impact – the world’s leading scientists are very much panicked. Not only is limiting the rise in global temperature to 2°C (or less) becoming increasingly unlikely, experts really don’t know how fast things will unravel when we go past that point.

Take the northern permafrost situation. This refers to the frozen subsoil in the northern hemisphere that has been storing plant and animal matter since before the ice age. In fact, this soil contains roughly twice the amount of carbon than is in our already polluted atmosphere. As this frost begins to thaw – releasing carbon dioxide and methane – it will create a positive feedback loop where the frost melts more and more quickly releasing more and more greenhouse gases. Scientists cannot predict at what level of warming this will happen, but when it does, the consequences will render even the most vehement climate change deniers slack-jawed and silent.

COVID-19 has thrown a harsh and unforgiving light on the real consequences of slow-moving governments. The number of deaths being recorded worldwide is a stark and incomprehensible tragedy. The fact that the US and UK have now both, at respective points, had the highest death rates in the world (despite also being two of the richest and most powerful countries in the world) speaks to the costly arrogance of our leaders.

This pandemic also highlights another bitter pill; in a state of emergency, we must make big sacrifices. It is hard for us to imagine, as individuals, the scope of what needs to be done. Even with a world in temporary shutdown and billions of individuals holed up at home, the reduction of warming (in terms of impact) is menial. The truth is, as with lockdown, individuals have a role to play, but the real outcome is led by global governance and cooperation. This goes beyond the level of individual countries, and is why initiatives like the Paris Agreement aim for global participation; this isn’t just about nations pulling together, but humanity coming together as a species for survival. There is no question the earth will continue without us regardless.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ doomsday clock is currently at 100 seconds to midnight. It is not hyperbolic to say that we need to face up to the reality that, without action, the rise and fall of humanity could be but a blip on the surface of the earth. Take it from the dinosaurs (though their 175 million years is still rather more impressive than our – at present – meager 200,000 turns around the sun). The outbreak of COVID-19 has highlighted our propensity to underestimate the severity of a situation until the worst is already upon us. We can all remember the ‘no-worse-than-the-flu’ phase, now seen through the cruel lens of hindsight, in a moment where the global death rate is 356,000 at the time of writing.

It’s true that climate change has garnered more attention and been taken more seriously in the last few years in comparison to previous decades (in no small thanks to Greta Thunberg and other activists). But we must not let the fact that the issue is getting attention fool us into thinking the issue is on its way to being solved, because it’s not. 2020 is already expected to be the hottest year since records began. Throughout this pandemic, the UK government has insisted that they are ‘guided by the science’ – as if science were one, unanimous entity. This has been a harsh lesson in distinguishing between selective science played politically, and real, objective facts that cannot be bent to the convenience of any political agenda. As populism continues to dominate the politics of the west, citizens must learn to not only recognise, but push for, action over sentiment (like the NHS staff asking for money and support rather than rainbows and claps).

It is hard to find positivity in such a situation, though of course, we need to. The arrogance of our species is enormous, and now, we have no choice but to use that to our advantage. We must channel our brilliance and aplomb into diligently making huge and final changes. As we’ve seen with the rush to develop a coronavirus vaccine, no amount of modern science or urgency can make miracles happen faster. By all means, make personal changes – but do so knowing that it is corporations, governments, and the actions of the powerful that will ultimately seal our fate.

We can no longer be deterred by croaky warnings of economic fallout or measures that are ‘too aggressive’ – complaints of this kin are ridiculous; like squabbling over the best type or armband while awaiting a tidal wave. From the abandoned herd immunity strategy to lockdown exceptions for unelected senior government aides, COVID-19 has shown that those who lead us do not always have our best interests at heart. As the climate crisis races towards its peak, and the hand of the doomsday clock twitches closer to 12, we cannot afford to accept any more hypocrisy, bluster, or inaction. We’ve already been too slow to get started; as the pandemic has taught us, there is no such thing as acting too early.


Caragh Medlicott is a columnist and associate editor of Wales Arts Review.