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Global Response: Coronavirus versus Climate Change

Posted by Marion Briggs on March 24, 2020 at 02:49 PM


Guest blog, by Friends of the Earth Chairperson, Marion Briggs.

Notes on the Global Response: Coronavirus versus Climate Change

Like many in the climate change movement, I have been struck by the speed, urgency and depth of the global response to the coronavirus pandemic, and wondered why we haven’t been able to translate the climate crisis into the same type of global action. I’m still in the slightly baffled stage, although I am fairly sure that outrage will follow at some point.

Even though it feels like we will all soon be consumed with the mounting illness and death figures here in Ireland, I can’t help but start to look at how we can learn and leverage this catastrophe for use in the climate change movement. Here, in the midst of this crisis, the entire world is moved to action. Is it inconvenient? Yes. Is it challenging to socially isolate and distance ourselves? Yes. However, we are doing this for the greater good of humanity. We feel the threat in our bones, and are moved to drastic action.

I read a really interesting article in Forbes today[i] about how this virus could actually LOWER the global death rate because so many more people die of pollution related illness, and we have stopped air pollution in its tracks in many places. Another article, on the Jesuit Centre website[ii] argues that we are fighting two global emergencies (both coronavirus and climate change), but that one is acute, hence the immediate action, whereas the other (climate change), is slow moving and chronic, which explains the disparity in reaction.

I would argue, however, that it is not about how fast or slow moving these events are, but more about the visceral reaction that they cause in each of us individually. Coronavirus is immediate, and entirely undiscerning. It threatens individuals across all socioeconomic strata, across borders and across generations. It is equally threatening to rich and poor, city dwellers and rural inhabitants. In addition, it is quickly bringing the global economy to its knees, and THIS is what is driving much of the attention as much as the death rate is.

The threat from climate change however, is still mostly limited to the global south, to those who are poor and disenfranchised, who have little voice or agency to affect change. While climate change currently devastates local economies when they are struck with a severe weather event, there are few large, wealthy economies where the financial bite is really taking hold. It is easy, from our ivory towers to see climate change as something that happens elsewhere, and to others less fortunate than us. We are grateful for our sea walls, our air conditioning, and can have empathy for those who are suffering. But in the end, we don’t yet see it as something that threatens us in the same visceral way that coronavirus does. We don’t see how it affects each of us as individuals.

The question, then, from a climate activist point of view is: How do we make it personal? How do we help individuals from across the globe and across economic bands to feel the threat that climate change really is? For it will kill far more of us and have a far greater economic impact then the current pandemic.

I have no simple answer to this question today. Instead, I have every intention of watching with great interest, focus and intent, as this pandemic spreads, changing lives, governments and economies. I want to understand what is making us give up so much so quickly, and where we can leverage the tragedy that we face today so that we can have a chance at truly changing our future tomorrow.






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