What does Covid teach us about climate change?

6th May, 2021

Like the uninspired sermon-writer who finds a way to link everything to Jesus, some commentators find a way to link everything to climate change. In December, an editorial in The Lancet medical journal on Covid-19 and climate change announced that “the causes of both crises share commonalities, and their effects are converging . . . both born of human activity that has led to environmental degradation”.

I suppose so. But as with the vicar whose odd socks remind him of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, just because the analogy can be made does not make it insightful. It is clearly true that climate change and Covid-19 are both big problems that have met with a stumbling response, but the differences between the two may be as instructive as the similarities.

One difference, all too obvious to journalists, is that while Sars-Cov-2 turned the world upside down in weeks, the pace of climate change just doesn’t suit the news cycle. Volcanoes, which can temporarily alter the climate, take time to do so. The explosion of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 — one of the largest eruptions in 100,000 years — lowered global temperatures and caused crop failures and food shortages on the other side of the world. Even with such a spectacular trigger, this took a year.

Climate change because of greenhouse gas emissions is well under way, but at a speed measured in decades. As a result, it is almost impossible to cover climate change as a pure news story. Instead, we journalists write about parallel matters, such as the convening of global conferences or the publishing of portentous reports. The true story is enormous but never quite news.

Activists now use the phrase “climate emergency” in an effort to prompt a sense of urgency. I sympathise: we have delayed obvious policy responses such as carbon pricing for a quarter of a century, and every further delay makes the problem graver. But such delays will always be tempting.

For those of us concerned about a lack of action on the environment, this discouraging reality is a function of the very word “news”. It is not easy to cover something that happens in extreme slow motion, whether it is an existential threat such as climate change or an inspiring success story such as the availability of vaccines for childhood diseases.

Greta Thunberg complained to the Financial Times last week that “the climate crisis has never once been treated as a crisis”. She is right about that, and it never will be. We will never have a daily afternoon news conference in which the prime minister explains to the nation how the climate has changed over the past 24 hours.

That, then, is the disheartening difference between climate change and Covid-19. Now for the equally disheartening similarity: both are amenable to disinformation, polarisation and wishful thinking. None of us like the consequences of climate change or coronavirus, but a few people go further. Because they would prefer the problem did not exist, they seize on any reason to believe that it does not — blaming the Chinese, Bill Gates or Woke Liberals. There is a ready supply of “conflict entrepreneurs” who profit from disinformation to meet this demand for reassuring lies.

But there is hope. The dramatic response to Covid-19 suggests that we are capable of demonstrating some of the virtues that may be necessary to deal with climate change. We can adapt in extraordinary ways if we must and if we’re willing to make significant sacrifices for the common good. Covid-19 should also teach us that resolving a problem with technology may be easier than resolving it with dogged behaviour change. It is instructive to witness how painless and cheap the vaccines have been compared with endless lockdowns — or mass death.

Of course, there is no vaccine against climate change, but there has been astonishingly rapid progress towards cheap, clean energy sources such as wind and solar, and the low-cost batteries that will make them practical.

Here again, Covid-19 suggests a lesson. The vaccines were produced by a global scramble for results, with researchers sharing information while racing to develop them. Governments put large sums of money on the line to ensure that private companies had the necessary resources and incentives to push forward at a speed that would otherwise have been commercially reckless. (That said, governments could have done more, and still should, as the benefits of more doses, earlier, are huge.)

Governments have given some support for green energy and other environmental technologies — but, again, could do more with taxes, subsidies and standards both to pay for development and to encourage adoption. There is little benefit to having an invention — whether a cheap solar panel or an mRNA vaccine — if it is not widely used.

But perhaps I am turning into that sermon-writer, straining analogies too far. Developing a vaccine is a different, easier challenge than developing a new energy source and a new energy system to use it. The policy levers are different, and so are the technological obstacles. Still: we can act decisively, make sacrifices to take care of each other, rely on one generation to look out for another generation and work technological miracles. All we need now is a way to focus on a problem that is too slow to be called a crisis, and too dangerous to be called anything else.

First published in the Financial Times on 9 April 2021.

The paperback of “How To Make The World Add Up” is out today! US title: “The Data Detective”.

“Nobody makes the statistics of everyday life more fascinating and enjoyable than Tim Harford.”- Bill Bryson

“This entertaining, engrossing book about the power of numbers, logic and genuine curiosity”- Maria Konnikova

I’ve set up a storefront on Bookshop in the United States and the United Kingdom – have a look and see all my recommendations; Bookshop is set up to support local independent retailers.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This