April 20th 2020

Climate Change: The Slow Motion Pandemic

Climate Change: The Slow Motion Pandemic

There are clear similarities we can draw between the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and Climate Change. Both are global problems that need a global solution. But these problems have been poorly handled by governments applying a ‘national’ solution which has probably made both problems worse.

In recognising these similarities, we need to consider what lessons can be learned from our handling of the coronavirus pandemic. What principles can we take from government responses targeted at slowing down, and leading towards mitigation, of COVID-19, and how can these be applied to the Climate Change problem?

Most governments probably had a plan to deal with any pandemic that could occur. But other than South Korea, most of these plans were not effective or not implemented in time to slow the pandemic.  Many countries were too slow in enforcing self-isolation and social distancing and this led to the uncontrollable spread of the virus within countries. If governments had implemented stricter measures earlier, tens of thousands of lives could have been saved.

Now let’s consider the annual COP meetings on Climate Change. The agreed targets are frequently not fully achieved or are poorly implemented. In addition, countries refuse to sign up to a recommended program or withdraw from the program if it does not suit them. After 25 years of attempting to get some collaborative global response to Climate Change we have many nations who will not fully participate or will implement their own strategy. 

Take the USA for example. The USA currently has the highest number of coronavirus cases worldwide as they did not react quickly enough. This is despite the information available to them and the fact that the USA was one of the latter countries to be hit with the pandemic. This was a government decision. Therefore, should it not be a major concern that the President also does not believe in Climate Change, in spite of the scientific evidence available? What will be the downstream impacts of the USA’s lack of action against Climate Change?

As governments cannot collectively agree on what action to take to mitigate Climate Change, it is hardly surprising that they cannot agree on a global coronavirus solution. We should not be surprised about the number of deaths and the economic havoc caused by the current pandemic.  

A major similarity between the coronavirus and climate change is that they are both airbourne - the coronavirus predominately being spread very quickly by human coughing and sneezing; while Climate Change is due to airbourne carbon emissions (CO2) and predominately spread very quickly by human use of fossil fuels.  

However, there is a major difference in the way we account for the impacts of coronavirus in comparison to Climate Change. The impact of coronavirus is easily tracked through testing and deaths. However, the effects of Climate Change are not as easily accountable, even though it is already killing hundreds of thousands of people each year. 

Left unchecked, the coronavirus might cause a few million deaths globally. The same can be said for Climate Change. However, these Climate Change deaths are not widely spoken about in the media and are associated with secondary factors such as flooding, fuel poverty and air pollution. If we do nothing, these climate related deaths will increase year on year.  

As global temperatures rise, we could well see infectious diseases spread to regions which have no immunity to the disease.  This leads to the worrying possibility of more occurences of viral spread and some of these being more serious than COVID-19.   

To put this into perspective, it was recently reported that 28 new virus groups were identified in a glacier melting due to climate change. These viruses could get into our streams and rivers as the ice continues to melt. Our immune system might have no natural defence to these ‘old’ viruses and it is possible that a number of these viruses could be extremely dangerous to not just humans, but for many other species. 

One major difference between these two global challenges we face is that I estimate the coronavirus pandemic is occuring at a few hundred times faster than climate change.  You can see the coronavirus problems rapidly getting worse each week.  However, the impact of climate change is only truly seen over years or decades

This raises a question about cognitive bias. I have discussed before that humans have a cognative bias which will make them react quickly to a problem which effects them immediately and defer action where the problem is long term. This was observied with the coronavirus pandemic when Europe ignored what was happening in China and only took action when it directly affected them. Similarily, the USA ignored what was happening in Europe until they began to see the impact on their own soil. This can be directly compared to the lack of real action on Climate Change - until there is a known affect that impacts the daily lives of humans, any meaningful action will be slow to come.

Lessons Learned
I believe there are a number of lessons we can learn from these two global problems that will help us address a better plan for the other.

Government Response
We know how poorly national governments have responded to Climate Change, so it should not be surprising that governments could have reduced the impact of the coronavirus if they had taken more decisive actions earlier. 

In the last one hundred years there have been four major pandemics:

  • 1919: Spanish Flu (20m-50m deaths)
  • 1957: Asain Flu (1m-4m deaths)
  • 1968: Hong Kong Flu (1m-4m deaths)
  • 2009: Swine Flu (100k-400k deaths)

In light of this, we really should have been better prepared for the coronavirus pandemic. However, governments cannot agree on a coherent strategy.  Each government is creating their own strategy for containing the risks of the virus and there are no concerted actions at a continental level, let alone a global level. Some experts are anticipating this will mean we are left with two worlds in the short term, i.e. those that managed to contain the coronavirus and those that did not. This will result in limited travel between these two worlds leading to larger impacts to trade and the economy. 

To compare to Climate Change, recommendations by organisations such as the IPCC and UNEP are ignored, with governments primarily implementing their own Climate Change strategy which is meaningless without global concerted action. Although countries are claiming climate emergencies and whilst there is strong social interest in reducing climate change, governments are not really following what the IPCC, UNEP and their own advisors/scientists are saying. Will this also result in two worlds? Those that have mitigated Climate Change and those that have not?  What will the impact be on biodiversity and human life as a result of these actions?  

Through the annual COP meetings some progress can be demonstrated but not enough to make a significant difference.

There needs to be global strategy to tackle a global problem and governments need to play their part.  Can lessons from the pandemic be used to present the case to governments to tackle the Climate Change impact in a global manner?  If they cannot do this for the virus, what will make them do this for Climate Change?

Flattening the ‘Peak’
Flattening the ‘peak’ is frequently referred to with respect to the coronavirus.  With the pandemic, the problem is reducing the peak demand on hospital services to the level that they can cope.  

The health services will not have the trained staff or resources to deal with an ‘unmanaged’ peak. This will result in many insufficiently trained staff being expected to save patients. Unfortunately this will increase the death rate.

This ‘peak’ also applies to Climate Change because the longer we take to address decarbonisation, the more we will have to do in a massive global push when we no longer have the option to defer decarbonisation. The amount of resources required to achieve decarbonisation in a ‘short’ timescale will be considerable and we will not have the trained staff and the available physical resources to implement the decarbonisation process over a short timescale.

The decarbonisation ‘peak’ needs to be flattened to the level of resources available to meet the decarbonisation demand.

Having the correct equipment
You need to have the right equipment to do a job. Look at the problems the various health services are still having around the world with respect to Personal Protection Equipment  (PPE). In the UK, this equipment was inadequate, putting medical staff, healthcare workers and many more in danger of becoming infected.  

This is analagous to the use of spreadsheets and simplistic software tools being used in the decarbonisation of the built environment to solve sophisticated physics based problems. This is why the vast majority of our built environment is energy inefficient and hence performs badly in terms of carbon emissions.  

The built environment will only be decarbonised if there are the correct analytical, physics based tools to properly facilitate the decarbonisation process.

Having the correct equipment to solve the problem will significantly reduce the cost and increase the quality of what can be achieved.

We have seen different governments react to the virus in very different ways.  

For example, the virus was first identified in China on 17th November 2019. By end of March 2020, most of the world was in lockdown and the global economy was in freefall.

However, China and South Korea reacted very fast and managed to significantly reduce the daily number of deaths attributed to the coronavirus. 

Climate change was identified mid-1980’s and we are beginning to see the impact of climate change e.g. progressivily higher annual global temperatures, storm and flooding damage, rapid species extinction, loss of biodiversity, etc.  

Goverments do not see Climate Change as an immediate threat because it is happening hundreds of times slower than the coronavirus pandemic. However, the longer they wait, climate related deaths will increase year on year and species and biodiversity will increasingly disappear year on year. 

More importantly, one of the major Climate Change concerns is what is called Tipping Points or Events. This is where the global temperature reaches a level that causes an ‘event’ that accelerates global warming e.g. Antartic or Greenland ice sheets melt significantly, which speeds up ocean level rises that cause more damage to ocean facing buildings, islands, etc; or the permafrost in northern Russia, which melts releasing massive quantites of carbon gases which will accelerate global temperature rise.

Governments need to act much quicker to avoid delays in reducing carbon emissions such that these tipping points do not become a reality. This is a race against time. We have seen the cost of delaying taking action to slow the coronavirus spread in terms of resources and lives. The longer we delay taking positive action to reduce our carbon emissions, the cost to bring climate change back under control will be unaffordable and the impact will be an extremely serious global extinction event.

Global Coordinator
The WHO said governments should ‘Test, Test, Test’ for COVID-19. Countries didn’t and people have died unnecessarily. Organisations such as the WHO should define the global ‘rules’ that should be implemented in the event of a pandemic.  

In 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) formed to collate and assess evidence on climate change.  They produce reports which aimed to identify the significance of climate change now, and in the future.

Whilst the IPCC is the ‘research’ body, organisations such as the COP and UNEP have an involvement in trying to get international collaboration in combating climate change, which is what we desperately need.

An organisation such as the WHO or the IPCC or UNEP should be given the responsibility of coordinating and monitoring international collaboration in their respective fields of expertise. 

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted four important points:

  • Humans are becoming more integrated which is a strength (e.g. globalisation) but the coronavirus has shown it is also a weakness. We are experiencing the impact of this weakness on the global economy.
  • Our governments need to respond to global ‘threats’ in unison. Operating individually causes breaches in any defences we have in place. This has allowed the coronavirus to spread rapidly and by governments’ slow response, many tens of thousands of people have died unnecessarily.  
  • There have been enough epidemics and pandemics for anyone to understand that something like the coronavirus was potentially possible at any time. The first confirmed coronavirus case was on 1st December 2019. By 23rd January, Wuhan was in lockdown. We watched on our TVs, computers and our phones what was happening. Why did our governments not react and put some contingency in the system? By delaying any response, not only were most health systems ill-equipped to deal with a pandemic, most governments did little to obtain the necessary equipment for patients or get PPE for their frontline medical staff.  
  • We will encounter future pandemics, some which may be a result of climate change. What we need to commit to is having well-resourced health services, which are resilient and capable of coping efficiently and effectively with any pandemic or climate related emergency with a strong and supported health workforce to protect us from health security threats, including climate change.

In terms of the coronavirus, it is essential to find a vaccine and inoculate everyone on the planet. Then the world can quite rapidly return to a new normality.  However, it is important that we learn from this problem so we can be better prepared for the next pandemic.

The cost of being prepared for a pandemic will be low compared to the cost of having another pandemic, particularly if the next virus has a higher mortality rate than COVID-19.

Climate Change is already causing hundreds of thousands of deaths each year due to climate related events. This is increasing year on year and will exponentially increase as a result of more floods, poor air quality in cities, droughts, and so on, if we continue to do nothing.

Through the COP meetings every year there is little relative progress. Governments are failing to meet the targets that have been set and agreed. This is failing to reduce carbon emissions fast enough to stop the global average annual temperature rising.

Infrastructure damage due to climate events such as flooding will increase significantly. This will impact on the global economy as people will not be able to get insurance if they live near a flood plain or on the sea front. This will bankrupt many families who will lose their houses.

Millions of people will be displaced due to lack of food and water and wars will be fought over diminishing water supplies.

The longer we take to reduce carbon emissions, the greater the cost of decarbonisation, the increasing annual loss of life, the more species that will become extinct and the greater the loss of biodiversity. The massive investment needed to decarbonise the built environment must be weighed against the future cost of not decarbonising.

But what coronavirus has shown is that governments can find money where necessary. I suggest, rather than invest arbitarily, invest in decarbonisation. This will have the double benefit of getting economies growing again while simultaneously solving the climate change problem.

There is no vaccine for climate change. We cannot learn from our mistakes and there will not be a second climate change. If the Antartic melts and our oceans rise, we will not be able to refreeze it and try to deal with climate change the next time.

Our governments need to wake up and accept that pandemics and climate change are global problems and they need to be solved globally.

The key to the global success of decarbonisation is collaboration. Not to collaborate to reduce carbon emissions would be a dereliction of duty by our governments to all the citizens and species of this small planet – our Pale Blue Dot.