Climate Change

Lessons from a pandemic: Urgency for climate action

Much like the claimed behaviour of an ostrich burying its head underground in the face of risk, we demonstrate our capacity to ignore risks like the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

By Chayan Vohra
Published: Monday 06 July 2020

Scholarly work and viral videos of prophetic philanthropists have warned us of the next pandemic after the Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002. The spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) across the world has demonstrated the foresight of experts.

Much like the claimed behaviour of an ostrich burying its head underground in the face of risk, we have demonstrated our capacity as a society to ignore major risks and their hefty price tags to focus on short-term economic security.

The ostrich-like behaviour — unknown to many — is a myth, perhaps peddled by humans who in a rorschach moment described their own behaviour in the face of catastrophic risks and ascribed it to an otherwise alert bird with an advanced early warning detection system for survival.

As demonstrated by the current pandemic, the cost of mitigation of such global catastrophes is very high, compared to the periodic cost of preventive measures.

Climate change is another such example. The calls to decarbonise global infrastructure is timely, especially in developing countries like India and China, which carry much of the world’s human burden and have the least capacity for investing in green technology.

The current pandemic can cost us up to $9 trillion. Experts claim that an additional investment of 10 per cent on the global health budget to improve pandemic preparedness and research could have helped us avert such a disaster.

If development investments focus on short-term optimum system performance instead of long-term resiliency, we can see how adversely and exponentially this impacts society and economy.

We need to have long-term resilience solutions at the core of planning if we are to, at the very least, reduce our risk from climate change and sustainability.

Even with differences such as timescale of impact, we need to understand how broader similarities between the pandemic and climate change offer a glimpse of a future risked by climate change.

We focus on the pandemic and climate change even though the crises that really resonate with us are global supply chains disruptions and shocks to demand which in turn have their own knock-on effects such as on food security.

An erratic shift of warming temperature in Indian Ocean over the last few years led to unusual amounts of rainfall in west Asia. This created favourable conditions for an explosion in the population of locusts, which in turn affected agricultural output in East Africa, Pakistan, India, etc.

The same shift of warming temperatures affects wind movement patterns and prolonged the 2019 wildfires in Australia.

In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, we see how curtailment of civilian movement created a demand shock for oil, inducing a price crash of West Texas intermediate which in turn aggravated stock market decline.

Impacts of the same transcend national boundaries, exactly in the case of climate change-induced risks. 

In this, we can clearly see how both a pandemic and climate change are physical shocks that act as risk multipliers and have knock-on effects on the overall systems which help in the survival of eight billion humans on Earth.

Moreover, failure to act over climate change also complements the risk of future pandemics. Rising land temperatures (forming urban heat islands) increases the probabilities of infectious disease spread such as dengue. The risk of pandemics and epidemics is, thus, not only restricted to existing diseases but also more dangerous pathogens of the past which lay in melting permafrost.

There is an eagerness to get the developmental engine back and running. The lack of fiscal capacity to fund or sustain investments in green energy, however, means short-term gains in limiting global carbon dioxide emissions achieved during the recent lockdowns will be quickly lost on return to normalcy.

The same thing happened right after the 2008 financial crisis.

At the current pace of new renewable energy capacity addition, India will need to add nearly 30 gigawatts renewable energy in the next three years to achieve its 2022 Renewable Energy commitments.

Even though global informal alliances called for the green stimulus to be a part of economic recovery programs in the post-COVID-19 era, not much would be done in India and other developing countries when millions face unemployment and food scarcity.

Recent debates on the Environmental Impact Assessment Draft 2020 have shown that the government can thoroughly disregard environmental consequences of unsustainable growth in an effort to stimulate the economy.

Remedies for climate change must be introduced in our efforts to combat the current pandemic and government stimulus should be channelled to zero-carbon infrastructure projects.

This will not only help us avert the next big disaster for which risk conditions are being actively met by changing climatic risk conditions, but also help create more jobs in the green industry to provide long-term resilience in our built environment.

Humans may ascribe their behavioural vices to the ostrich, but perhaps it is time that we learn from the bird’s famed pace on being exposed to a carnivore.

Just like an ostrich, it does not matter how close or far the risk is. We must simply make a dash for survival.

Views expressed are the author's own and don't necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.