Authors: Eira Khanum and Tan Cai May

The magnitude of the COVID-19 outbreak is unprecedented and has been developing since late 2019. Currently, the number of reported cases is in the millions and will continue to climb in the foreseeable future. The ongoing pandemic has given us the opportunity to visualise the predicament when the Earth’s average surface temperature increases beyond 1.5ºC. It highlights the issues that need to be addressed for the climate crisis such as rampant misinformation, social inequality and the lack of sensible national leadership.

While an economic recession lurks in the future horizon, we must be aware of vulnerable communities that are affected the most in terms of health and financial wellbeing. At this juncture, national priorities need to be adapted where this pandemic serves as an opportunity for transformation. We acknowledge that comparing COVID-19 to climate change is akin to that of apples to oranges, but the crisis is in many ways inextricably interconnected. The message is clear: we have to act urgently with the available resources.

The case for climate crisis

For the rest of the 21st century, we face a world that is gradually warming. A recent study references 9 tipping points that can be triggered by climate change, which may lead to irreversible consequences like a “hothouse Earth”. However, the story is yet to be written and we can change this precarious narrative by limiting global warming to 1.5ºC. We need vigorous mitigation and adaptation strategies that call for the same urgency and scale as our response to COVID-19. The global reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic proves that the world is capable of taking collective action, but only if the priority is aligned, in this case, to reduce economic losses and save human lives. 

Climate change has been an important agenda item to the international community since the 1980s. Researchers have been telling us that anthropogenic climate change is real and that it leads to disaggregated and disproportionate impacts around the world. Similar to COVID-19, the extent of impact of climate change can be context-specific, whereby factors such as socioeconomic status, resource availability and capacity can influence the susceptibility to such shocks. Furthermore, the global implications of COVID-19 reinforces the fact that under times of duress, the vulnerable population will be hit the hardest, particularly those who are in poverty, who have underlying health conditions and who are working in informal and service sectors. In India, where 90% of the workforce is in the informal sector, reports are coming on the fear of hunger preceding the fear of the virus; in the United States, a record number of 22 million individuals have filed for unemployment. While what we are experiencing under COVID-19 is a new reality with large and long-term implications, climate impacts will cast a darker and more permanent legacy.

We can draw parallels with the increasing severity of natural disasters due to climate change. In 2013, super typhoon Haiyan claimed 8,000 lives and caused up to USD $3 billion of damage. The disaster wrecked local economies and left 1.9 million homeless, causing many to seek refuge in nearby cities, including Manila. Research has already demonstrated that the future of climate change comes with huge economic losses. For example, one study shows that climate damage to global financial assets could cost between US$ 2.5 to 24.2 trillion by 2100. In the US alone, a business-as-usual scenario may cost up to 6% of the country’s GDP by the end of the century.

governments, institutions and establishments with power and authority must use their platforms to mobilize climate action that complements the efforts of non-state actors

There is an opportunity to implement a system of accountability to bridge the gap of inequality while addressing climate change. Data on historical emissions identifies the key contributors to anthropogenic climate change, allowing us to exercise the common but differentiated responsibility principle. A report by the UN Environment states that the world needs to cut annual emissions by 7.6% through 2030 to limit end-of-the-century global warming to 1.5ºC. We need to call upon states with significant emission footprints to take responsibility for their legacy by reducing emissions and by channeling capital and resources to areas that are, and will be, hardest hit by climate change. Other countries should continue to deliver actionable and transparent policies, with tangible objectives pursuing decarbonization.

At the core of climate change, we advocate to preserve the natural ecosystem from further damage and to uphold the sanctity of all life. The COVID-19 responses draw upon the recognition of the latter – being aware of the value of one’s and others’ life and that we are responsible to safeguard them. Garrett Hardin outlines the tragedy of the commons, whereby the ungoverned state of the natural world will continually be degraded. Without assigning accountability, society will undoubtedly suffer from self-inflicted negative externalities. The climate action narrative must extend beyond the argument of moral conscience to more equitable collective actions from governments and corporations alike. In particular, oil and gas companies need to pay for the cost of damages and invest in renewable energy. 

The impacts of the climate crisis, impending as they may be, can still be minimised through comprehensive adaptation and long-term strategies. States need to increase their action to ensure that there are significant steps taken to implement mitigation and adaptation efforts, and they need to do this by marrying top-down and bottom-up approaches. The containment of COVID-19 is a great example of how both approaches work in tandem, particularly how top-down approaches mobilized bottom-up efforts to achieve efficiency. Strict top-down orders to #StayAtHome in an effort to #FlattenTheCurve is clearly communicated, supplemented with various strategies and stimulus packages. Institutions also did a great job in streamlining information and guidance on how to take personal precautions like standing 6-feet apart and washing your hands for 20 seconds. Responsible citizens are practicing social distancing to break chains of transmissions as well as mobilising efforts to support frontliners and marginalized communities. In the case of Malaysia, movements #KitaJagaKita and #MisiBantuOA were founded to channel essentials to affected communities.

In addressing the climate crisis, governments, institutions and establishments with power and authority must use their platforms to mobilize climate action that complements the efforts of non-state actors. Institutions and states should be more proactive in building climate resilience, rather than reacting to direct implications as we have done with COVID-19. More than ever, citizens require support for adaptation mechanisms to better prepare against the future. The stimulus packages prepared by states must not be a mechanism to bail out corporations and reestablish unsustainable practices. Fatih Birol asserted that these stimulus packages must be “focused on investing in clean energy technologies and accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels”. The present dire state of the global economy requires a tremendous shift towards developing a low carbon, green economy. 

Moving forward with the lessons from the global pandemic, we need to accept that the climate crisis lies around the corner and we are vulnerable to it. Accountable leadership is crucial in mobilizing the efforts and resources necessary to combat climate change in accordance with science. Compared to climate change, the response to COVID-19 has played out on a much shorter time scale, which demonstrates how we are keen to keep the status quo, much to the detriment of humankind. Traditional systems have failed to uphold the sanctity of life on an equitable level. Emerging from this global state, we need to remove the distorted lens of time and space that distracts from the urgency of the climate crisis. The only acceptable response to the climate crisis demands actions today, right now.