Coronavirus vaccine won't protect us against climate change

05 June 2020

Written by Robert Hamwey, Economist, and Tim Sullivan, Public Information Officer, UNCTAD

Earth wearing a COVID-19 mask
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Unlike for COVID-19, the world can’t place hope in finding a vaccine against climate change.

This year has been marked by the threat of a new coronavirus and society’s sacrifices to combat it – with a determination and political will that has been missing in the fight against climate change.

Though invisible, COVID-19 has been seen by most people as a “clear and present danger” to the entire world population.  

Our strong human instinct for survival and to protect our loved ones convinced most of us to immediately adopt the necessary precautions and accept government-issued lockdown measures requiring personal sacrifice and limiting individual freedoms.

The effective implementation of social distancing and other measures has helped flatten the curve in many countries but substantially impacted economic activity around the globe.

Unprecedented losses

Factories, farms, fisheries, stores, restaurants, trucks, ships and planes ground to a halt for over three months, causing unprecedented job losses and dramatic declines in output and trade.

The International Labour Organization predicts the pandemic could cost the equivalent of 305 million full-time jobs, while 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy could suffer “massive damage” to their livelihoods.

According to UNCTAD, global trade values fell 3% in the first quarter of 2020, and the quarter-on-quarter decline in the second quarter is expected to reach 27%.

Today, governments are taking actions to restart their countries’ economies by cautiously and progressively bringing people back to factories, offices and schools, yet asking everyone to remain vigilant against a threat that is still among us – a second wave of infections remains highly probable.

Less attention on the climate crisis

With all our attention focused on the coronavirus battle, we’ve paid considerably less attention this year to the ongoing changes in our planet’s climate.

Like the coronavirus pandemic, the climate crisis is an existential threat. And like the virus, greenhouse gases are invisible and remain ever present in our natural surroundings.

Yet unlike for COVID-19, we can’t place hope in finding a vaccine against climate change.

A python, not a cobra

The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that countries can take a common stance against a threat to our collective well-being.

Why have global leaders been less determined in the fight against climate change? Why are governments not detailing in emergency press briefings the urgent actions they are taking to save the planet?

The reason is because of a fundamental difference: the coronavirus could immediately infect and potentially kill anyone exposed to it, whereas greenhouse gases are slowly destroying the planet and are gradually threatening our survival over decades of time.

Whereas most of us were conscious of the dangers posed by COVID-19 as soon as we stepped out the front door, few of us today feel immediately threatened by climate change. Whatever the impacts may be, depending on where we live, they may only marginally affect our daily lives.

Put simply, climate change is seen not as a “clear and present danger” but as a “diffuse and future danger.”  It’s a python that threatens to slowly strangle us, not a cobra that could kill with one bite.

Lost sense of urgency

Such a perception removes the personal sense of urgency and falsely reassures us that sacrifice and decisive action can wait until the climate threat knocks at our door.

Unfortunately, once that happens, we’ll have already reached a point of no return.

Human impact on the climate accumulates over decades and unravelling the damage takes just as long. We can turn off the oven immediately, but the built-up heat will continue to cook for hours.

Like the coronavirus pandemic, climate change will lead to extensive loss of life, unemployment and substantial declines in GDP.

But unlike for a virus, for which we will eventually build immunity, the impacts of climate change will worsen over time.

Decades of talk, little progress

We have already had nearly three decades to curb climate change. After over 25 years of climate negotiations, frameworks and agreements, we have made only meagre progress towards this objective.

As a global society, we seem willing to accept that fighting the climate crisis requires too much sacrifice – at a global, local and personal level. Hopefully, our response to the coronavirus has opened our eyes to what is possible – and to what really matters.

We have a lot to reflect on as we celebrate World Environment Day this year. Understanding our successes in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic can provide insight into how we can confront not only threats to our personal health but also assaults on the health of Earth, the source of all life.

Combatting the coronavirus pandemic required each one of us to do our part, change our habits and daily routines and make personal sacrifices.

If we can convince ourselves to do the same in the fight against the climate crisis, we will finally start to see real progress.