Dealing with Invisible Threats: The Coronavirus and Climate Change

Photo by Isaac Quesada on Unsplash

How do you tackle something that is largely invisible? This is a question that politicians and the public have had to confront in the last months in dealing with the coronavirus. Our entire society was brought to a standstill to a virus which measures only 80 billionths of a metre in diameter.  

So, how do you tackle something that is largely invisible? The answer is: with great difficulty. 

It took the UK government a long time to realize the gravity of the situation and impose a lockdown. This was partly because it was hard to understand and communicate the threat of something that is invisible. Partly it was also because the government was so hesitant to sacrifice economic growth, despite the warnings that delayed intervention could lead to a higher death toll. A recent BBC report suggests that “the number of coronavirus deaths in the UK would have been halved if lockdown had been introduced a week earlier”. Indecision and inaction on the part of the government cost many lives. 

The handling of the coronavirus pandemic provides an interesting insight into how our society responds to an invisible threat. What lessons might we draw from this, in terms of our likely approach to dealing with climate change? 

For one thing, the handling of the coronavirus pandemic suggests that we are inclined to put off difficult decisions for as long as possible. And this is much easier when the source of the threat cannot be seen. As the saying goes: ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ 

Climate change is not entirely invisible, of course. We can now start to see pictures of its devastating impacts – images, for example, of the Australian bush fires, of violent storms, of polluted cities and melting ice caps. However, many of us do not see the impact of climate change on a daily basis. Until the climate crisis immediately threatens our everyday lives, we are unlikely to act. Until our cities become so polluted that it is difficult to breathe; until we are regularly faced with extreme weather conditions; until climate change visibly and immediately impacts our livelihoods and wellbeing, we are unlikely to act. But by that time, it will be too late. 

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report in 2018 which set out a timeline for tackling global warming. The journalist, Naomi Klein summarizes the findings of this report:

“Given the worsening disasters we are already seeing with about 1°C of warming, [the report] found that keeping temperatures below the 1.5°C threshold is humanity’s best chance of avoiding truly catastrophic unravelling.

Doing that would be extremely difficult. According to the UN World Meteorological Organization, we are on a path to warming the world by 3–5°C by the end of the century. To keep the warming below 1.5°C would require, the IPCC authors found, cutting global emissions approximately in half in a mere twelve years and getting to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.” (‘On Fire’, pg. 23)

To achieve this goal, we need comprehensive and wide-ranging action. Recycling wastepaper and using energy-saving light bulbs simply is not enough anymore. We urgently need to move away from a carbon economy, towards a much greener and sustainable mode of living.  As Naomi Klein writes: 

if 1.5-2°C is our goal, then that puts us on a very constrained carbon budget. Staying within it – and scientists have been very clear on this – requires that we leave a whole lot of our current carbon reserves in the ground.” (ibid, pg. 183). 

Indeed, we “if we were to burn all the oil, gas and coal from fields and mines already in production, we would very likely pass 2°C of warming and would certainly pass 1.5°C” (ibid, pg. 199). And yet, several government leaders, such the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, have already unveiled plans to build new oil pipelines. This would have a devastating impact on the planet. If the planet is warmed by 3-5°C, as seems likely considering our current fossil fuel consumption, our lives will be seriously threatened. Climate scientists state that global warming of 3-5°C “is incompatible with anything you could describe as organized civilization” (ibid, pg. 183-4). 


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Both climate change and the coronavirus remind us of just how closely interconnected our world is. Air pollution and viruses do not respect national borders. In order to tackle either of these problems, we need international action and cooperation. 

Whilst we may not be able to participate in climate change protests any time soon, we can still use this time to educate ourselves and each other about the climate crisis. I can strongly recommend Naomi Klein’s ‘On Fire: The Burning Case for A Green New Deal’. For more recommendations, take a look at this CUB article by Melissa Tran.    

The delayed political response to the coronavirus may seem to bode badly for our chances of averting global warming in time. On the other hand, the lockdown has shown us that it is possible to co-ordinate large scale societal change. It is possible to radically alter our habits within a short space of time. What we previously believed impossible has proven possible. 

The lockdown has also inspired people to connect in new ways. Instead of zooming off to international conferences and meetings in far-flung destinations, people have discovered the wonders of ZOOM video conferencing. Individuals no longer need to charter long-haul flights; they need only travel the short distance from their bed to their desks. Thus, perhaps we do not need to travel quite as much as we previously thought. 

Furthermore, many politicians have taken this opportunity to restructure cities to make them cleaner and greener. Sadiq Khan has pledged to make large areas of central London car-free and the Scottish government is promising to spend £10 million on developing walking and cycling routes. 

Above all, the lockdown has given us time to re-evaluate what is important to us and has shown that we can be highly innovative when we need to be.  

So, perhaps there is hope, after all. Perhaps we can still come together to tackle climate change, if – and it’s a big if – we start to treat climate change like the crisis that it is.    

There is still hope if we act now. But, we do not have very much time. 2030 is our deadline. By that time, we need to halve our current global emissions, if we are to have any chance of keeping global warming below 1.5-2 °C.  

We can try to bury our heads in the sand, but sea levels will continue to rise. The tide of change needs to come now, before it is too late.

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