If the pandemic tells us how the world will deal with global warming, we’re in big trouble

Can world powers learn lessons from this event and apply them to global warming?

In an essay last August, Bill Gates estimated that by 2060, global warming could be just as deadly as coronavirus, and by 2100 it could be five times as lethal. File photograph: Getty

In an essay last August, Bill Gates estimated that by 2060, global warming could be just as deadly as coronavirus, and by 2100 it could be five times as lethal. File photograph: Getty

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If the Covid-19 pandemic is a dress rehearsal for the larger catastrophe on the horizon – the planet’s irreversible overheating – then it has exposed a world nowhere near ready to deal with what’s coming.

As a crisis, the pandemic is smaller and faster than global warming. Smaller, because despite its horrendously high death toll and the economic misery it has caused, the coronavirus emergency is likely to be eclipsed by the effects of the climate crisis. Faster, because the pandemic compresses processes that will play out over a longer period of time as temperatures rise to intolerable levels.

In an essay last August, Bill Gates estimated that by 2060, climate change could be just as deadly as Covid-19, and by 2100 it could be five times as deadly. Its anticipated economic toll is similarly stark: within a decade or two, the economic damage caused by climate change will likely be as bad as having a Covid-sized pandemic every 10 years, Gates predicted. And by the end of the century, on the current emissions trajectory, it will be much worse.

Last year may have shown us what a quieter, cleaner world could look like

There was a point, in the first phase of the pandemic, when it was widely assumed that Covid-19 would accelerate the transition to clean energy. With air travel virtually suspended and roads eerily quiet, global carbon dioxide emissions fell by about 6 per cent, according to the International Energy Agency – the largest annual drop since the second World War.

But in China, the world’s biggest polluter, emissions actually rose by 0.8 per cent, and in the US and elsewhere fossil fuel consumption was already bouncing back by the end of the year. And consider what it took to achieve a relatively modest overall reduction: much of the developed world brought to a standstill for months on end. The cuts were achieved at massive cost, in other words. And still the world emitted 94 per cent as much carbon as it did in 2019. Last year may have shown us what a quieter, cleaner world could look like, but it was less useful as a blueprint for making those changes permanent.

The comparison between the pandemic and global warming only goes so far. They are very different problems. But some of the dilemmas they pose are similar. The rich world will be profoundly affected by the planet’s overheating – it is being profoundly affected, as recent extreme weather events in Germany and the US northwest remind us – but we know that the worst impact will be felt by poorer countries that have done the least to cause climate change. So, as with the pandemic, the climate crisis requires the west to recognise that it is in its interests to incur short-term costs to help others living far away. Saving lives and livelihoods will require large-scale co-operation, starting with financial and technological help to enable the developing world to deal with the crisis.

The past year put that capacity for global solidarity to the test, and the results were not promising. As a general rule, states have prioritised their own narrow interests. Some hoarded PPE and ventilators and blocked vaccine exports. The richest countries used their political leverage and purchasing power to jump the queue for vaccines, often buying far more than they would ever need. Ireland and other wealthy states are preparing to vaccinate healthy children even though in parts of Africa healthcare workers and vulnerable older people are still waiting for their jabs. The Covax vaccine-sharing initiative has been a lifeline for many developing countries, but it has been chronically short of donations. Where vaccines were shared, it was often done more out of strategic geopolitical calculation than a spirit of international solidarity.

We can also take encouragement from the way in which others have shown themselves capable of co-operating

The moral case for co-operation during the pandemic has been self-evident, but given that untrammelled transmission in one place is dangerous for everyone, and that it increases the chances of new vaccine-resistant variants emerging, it is also in states’ selfish interests to co-operate. And still they have been incapable of doing so. Even close neighbours acted alone. Knowing that lifting all of England’s restrictions in the middle of a Delta variant surge would endanger his own people and cause huge spillover effects for fellow European countries was not enough to deter British prime minister Boris Johnson once he had grown bored of the pandemic.

Of course, it is possible that these failures will prompt a reckoning of some sort; that world powers will learn the lessons of the pandemic and apply them to the climate crisis. We can also take encouragement from the way in which others have shown themselves capable of co-operating in a way that world powers have not.

The first of these is the scientific community, a critical group in the climate emergency response, which has shared information and collaborated to stunning effect. The other, of course, is the public itself. Across the world, citizens – young people in particular – have shown a capacity for solidarity and sacrifice that augurs well for the coming crisis. With that comes hope that, for all the tragedies it inflicted, the pandemic at least revealed a global public whose capacity for selflessness puts it a step ahead of its leaders.

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