too little, too late: the danger of reactionary climate policy in the wake of covid 19

By Olivia Kline, GLOBUS Correspondent

On 11th March 2020, The World Health Organisation (WHO), declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic, and in the months since, the virus has profoundly changed the shape of society. The effects to date include an alarming rate of deaths (over 1 million at the time writing), a decrease in productivity and economic standstill. While we cannot currently predict the long-term impact of COVID-19 on societal function, we can scrutinise the risks associated with the kind of reactive inter-governmental policies seen as a result of the outbreak. Namely, Governments have had to resort to extraordinary measures to relieve the disruption of COVID-19. Perhaps if there had been preparation for this pandemic, society would have incurred less damaging effects. 

Despite the recognition from the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) in 2019 that the risk of a pandemic was a grave possibility,  International governments failed to prepare for a scenario such as this.  The result of this lack of preparation? The dramatic responses and short-term emergency policy seen over recent months, such as lockdowns and border closures. These responses are not preventative, neither protecting against future pandemics or health emergencies of a similar nature. 

What is arguably even more concerning about the inadequate and poorly prepared response to the pandemic is that international response to climate change is following along a similar path. This is a crisis we know will cause irreversible harm to civilisation if governments stand idly by and is deadly threat we cannot “self-isolate from’’, as Mark Carney, former minister of the Bank of England stated recently. It is clear that the impact of climate change will cause economic, social and geographical disturbances, not dissimilar to the global disruption caused by the COVID 19 pandemic.The scale of impact and need for international, large scale responses renders both COVID 19 and climate change somewhat similar, and unsurprisingly, they have both been dubbed ‘megatrends’. 

It is essential that the connections between these global ‘megatrends’ are carefully examined and considered. One key area we can start when addressing these links between both crises is the impact of an increasingly urban population. This change is expected to have both climate and health impacts, such as a rise in air pollution, with other greenhouse gases causing irreparable damage to global eco-systems. Furthermore, infectious diseases have always tended to spread in densely populated areas. For example, in England and Wales, the 1918 the influenza pandemic showed consistent links to urbanisation. Death rates during this time demonstrated a 30-40% higher rate in cities compared to rural areas. More than a century later, the rate of COVID-19 infections appears to follow a similar trend; studies are also finding that in urban areas with significantly worse air pollution, individuals are more at risk to incurring COVID-19. 

There is also strong scientific evidence indicating that increasing temperatures can lead to increased transmissions of diseases, through direct action or infectious agents and heat-related deaths. In 2014 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that climate change would increase the risks of ill health and death, due to heatwaves and of increased waterborne diseases. Moreover, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, climate change and globalisation could promote the “spread of avian influenza” and create a “global pandemic”. Supportive of this, various research has shown that warmer temperatures caused by climate change have created ideal conditions for specific pathogens to survive in areas that might have previously been inhospitable to them. Arguably, climate change and growing urbanisation will intensify the probability of pandemics in years to come. 

With evidence already presenting the threat climate change has on the likelihood of pandemics, the nature of future environmental and global health policies should be urgently reviewed. COVID-19 has highlighted the scale of the economic and societal vulnerability to large scale worldwide health and environmental threats; climate change is only going to have a similar impact, especially in densely populated areas. However, policies handling these issues continue to be reactionary and not preventative; they are handled as short-term emergencies and not large-scale matters of global policy. Like COVID-19 seemed to global leaders, climate change appears as a distant threat. However, the trajectory of the current pandemic illustrates the immediate need to implement comprehensive planning –  while we cannot rectify the response to COVID-19, future pandemics, and other dramatic changes in our climate can be prevented if the correct action is taken now. 

Although the socio-economic infrastructure of society makes it difficult to implement sustainable strategies aimed at preventing the risks of pandemics and climate change, it is possible. Increasingly, the international community is recognising the severity of consequences caused by abrupt environmental change and despite some global leaders (such as Donald Trump) are loosening emission regulations during the pandemic, many others have taken dramatic measures to lower their countries emissions either by choice or circumstance. It must be ensured that this trend continues, and the dangerous consequences of climate change are properly planned for; a response to climate change that mirrors the reactionary response to the COVID 19 would be a disaster for us all.

Header Image via Unsplash

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