“Never let a good crisis go to waste”: The many intersections of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change

The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management

Editor’s note: Climate change is the greatest threat to the health of marine ecosystems worldwide, and the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to alter the world’s climate change trajectory, for better or for worse. Numerous, diverse relationships between the two crises have arisen. These relationships have proven enormously changeable over the course of the pandemic and by location, and the net impact of the pandemic on climate change and society remains to be seen. This article briefly characterizes a number of the diverse intersections and parallels between the two crises.

Do you have updated information or a new or different perspective? We would love to get your thoughts and additions. You can add them to the Comments section below or send to The Skimmer editor at skimmer [at] octogroup.org.

#1: Greenhouse gas emissions went down in 2020, but not by as much as initially expected, not for all that long, and not for the “right” reasons. Without systemic changes, the COVID-19 pandemic is unlikely to have a significant long-term impact on global emission trajectories.

From the experts:

  • Ethan Zindler of BloombergNef: “The amount of pain we’ve had to go through for a relatively modest drop shows that there needs to be more smart policy and smart thinking about emissions. The emphasis has to be not on how to reduce demand, but how to make supply more green.”
  • Kevin Book of ClearView Energy Partners: “This is the way it feels to cut emissions in the worst way possible. [Cutting emissions through a worldwide pandemic] still isn’t enough to change the atmospheric stock of carbon.”

#2: The massive economic stimulus spending going on right now by nations around the world will be “make or break” for addressing climate change and is unfortunately trending toward carbon-intensive measures.

From the experts:

#3: Stimulus spending aside, the COVID-19 pandemic may have helped speed the shift in global energy production away from fossil fuels and towards renewables.

From the experts:

  • Fatih Birol of the International Energy Agency: “[The sharp decrease in oil demand has] fast forwarded some power systems 10 years into the future suddenly giving them levels of wind and solar power that they wouldn’t have had otherwise without another decade of investment.”
  • Valentina Kretzschmar of Wood Mackenzie: “The oil and gas sector is already a very much unloved sector by investors and in this kind of oil price environment, it becomes low return, high risk and high carbon. It is not a very attractive proposition.”
  • Christoph Bertram of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research: “The events of 2020 could accelerate transformation trends in the power sector, and thus enable faster emission reductions in that sector than previously anticipated.”

#4: The COVID-19 pandemic gave governments an excuse to ease environmental safeguards, potentially offsetting some of the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from reduced travel and commercial/industrial activity.

From the experts:

  • Gina McCarthy of the Natural Resources Defense Council and former US EPA administrator: “This is an open license to pollute. Plain and simple. The administration should be giving its all toward making our country healthier right now. Instead, it is taking advantage of an unprecedented public health crisis to do favors for polluters that threaten public health. We can all appreciate the need for additional caution and flexibility in a time of crisis, but this brazen directive is an abdication of the EPA's responsibility to protect our health."

#5: The COVID-19 pandemic has led to cancellations/delays in critical climate change negotiations and research.

These delays have slowed international climate change negotiations and may be allowing countries to put environmental and climate concerns on hold for a while, including ignoring the incorporation of low-carbon strategies in their economic stimulus packages. Disappointingly, a new analysis found that the new pledges announced so far for the UN COP26 to be held in November (from 75 countries representing about 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions) are vastly inadequate and would only reduce global emissions by less than 1% (from 2010 levels) by 2030. To limit global warming to 2°C, emissions would need to decrease by 25% (from 2010 levels) by 2030.

From the experts:

  • Emily Darling of The Wildlife Conservation Society: “We know so much about the inequity of scientific resources and training, where Western researchers can travel and fly and do ‘helicopter science.’ That’s not a model that’s sustainable, and it’s not a model that’s ethical. So this new reality gives us a chance to develop online tools for collaborations, for conferences, for workshops, and identify where we really need to travel and be face-to-face with our work.”

#6: Despite early fears, the COVID-19 pandemic does not appear to have drawn public concern away from climate change long-term, although it may have hurt the ability of some countries and communities to implement mitigation and adaptation measures.

From the experts:

#7: THE COVID-19 pandemic is having other large-scale societal impacts that will have greenhouse gas emissions implications, including changes to where people live, how they get around, and how they do their work.

#8: Last but not least, climate change is making epidemics and pandemics of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19 more likely because it is increasing interactions between wildlife, domesticated animals, and humans.

Parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change

In addition to intersections, there are a number of parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.

#1: For starters, although it seems a bit facile to even write this, both the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change are catastrophic public health and economic crises.

#2: As with climate change, denialism and misinformation about COVID-19 have worked to prevent effective action to prevent and mitigate the disease in some areas, notably in the US and Brazil.

#3: As with climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting low-income communities hardest. Mitigation and recovery efforts need to promote social and racial justice to help address these disparities and the systemic inequities that caused them.

#4: There is generational conflict in how society is responding to the two crises.

From the experts:

  • Audrey, 18 year old: "We haven't seen the government or adults as passionate about the things we really care about, like mental health and climate issues."
  • Jamie Margolin, 18-year-old climate justice activist: “[The pandemic] has exposed how government leaders, and the American public, actually can make immediate, dramatic behavioral changes – even when those changes have serious consequences for the economy and our quality of life. It’s just that, until now, they haven’t been willing to. But the way the coronavirus disproportionately affects older people is the exact way the climate crisis disproportionately affects young people. When it comes to the climate crisis, most of the statistics are flipped: Young people will suffer the most. You want young people to sacrifice – to stop socializing, to shut ourselves inside so older people can live. But many older people aren’t sacrificing so the youth can live.”

#5: “Shifting baselines syndrome” is affecting societal response to both crises.

From the experts:

  • George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon: “There is a tremendous amount of research showing that we tend to adapt to circumstances if they are constant over time, even if they are gradually worsening. Fear tends to diminish over time when a risk remains constant. You can only respond for so long. After a while, it recedes to the background, seemingly no matter how bad it is … Once the fear is gone, the willingness to take measures is also gone.”

#6: Finally, both the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change crises are “collective-action problems.”

  • The best chance at minimizing the health and economic impacts of both was/is early, big, global, and coordinated government response. Early government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic showed that governments can take quick, dramatic action (e.g., stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions, mask mandates) with good citizen compliance in response to a crisis. However, later pushbacks (e.g., premature elimination of and large-scale non-compliance with mask wearing and physical distancing mandates) in some countries have shown that collective action, even for a fast-moving threat, has its limits in today’s world.
  • So, ultimately, has the global response to the pandemic so far been a reason for hope or despair on the climate change front? It is too early for a final verdict to be rendered, but most would probably agree that the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been mixed at best. Some countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Lithuania have excelled at controlling the virus and blunting the financial impacts of the pandemic, but – similar to the global response to climate change – a lack of resources, tribalism, and misinformation have stymied efforts across much of the globe.

From the experts:

  • May Boeve of 350.org: “We’ve seen that governments can act, and people can change their behavior, in a very short amount of time… And that’s exactly what the climate movement has been asking governments and people to do for years in the face of a different kind of threat—the climate crisis—and we don’t see commensurate action.”


Editor’s note: Stanford economist Paul Romer coined the phrase “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste” in 2004.

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