What our response to the COVID-19 pandemic tells us of our capacity to respond to climate change

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, many governments are currently implementing urgent, costly and radical measures to slow down the spread of the pandemic.

Many of these measures result in very significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric pollution – some of them sparing lives, as a result of lower levels of air pollution. Though the global impact of the pandemic on climate change will be difficult to assess, one thing is certain: it is possible for world leaders to take urgent and radical measures in the face of an imminent threat, and for the populations to accept them. Yet we have not been able, so far, to take similar measures to confront climate change, despite repeated calls from activists and scientists alike to declare a state of ‘climate emergency’.

In the midst of the sanitary crisis, many were prompt to point out the similarities between climate change and the pandemic. Both were global crises, requiring urgent responses on the basis of scientific advice. Therefore, many activists were quick to suggest that the measures implemented to fight against the spread of the pandemic had to be replicated to slow down climate change: ‘we must respond to climate change like we are responding to coronavirus’, argued Zero Hour founder Jamie Margolin in Teen Vogue magazine. Others went a step further and claimed the pandemic was an ‘ultimatum of nature’, a ‘revenge of the Earth’ or even ‘good news for the environment’. #WeAreTheProblem was a popular hashtag on social media as many countries were in lockdown, as if the pandemic were eventually a way for nature to reclaim its rights…

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François Gemenne