A new hope
COVID-19 and climate change are fundamentally different challenges. However, lessons from the pandemic may help us better meet one of the biggest threats to life on this planet. Lamis Kazak reports.
If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that rapid, transformational change is possible if governments and people can unite around a common goal.
This year was welcomed with the red haze of bushfire smoke enveloping much of southeast Australia.
Catastrophic bushfires were raging across the country, and the bushfire season was reaching its seventh month.
The unprecedented bushfire season put climate change front and centre in many people’s minds. It seemed climate change might be the driving issue of the year.
Then, COVID-19 hit.
With lockdowns sweeping the nation in March, the focus switched from bushfire recovery and climate action, to preventing the spread of this new and deadly virus.
The pandemic has had a devastating effect across the world, within a relatively short period of time.
But, the way communities, organisations and governments have largely rallied around to respond to the pandemic has drawn comparison with the global response to climate change. Despite the obvious differences, some researchers believe there is a lot to be learned from the pandemic response for climate action.
“COVID-19 is relevant to climate change because it is global, it requires systemic responses which reach from global to local, and it requires the integration of many types of knowledge. It shares all these features with climate change,” Professor Mark Howden, Director of the ANU Climate Change Institute, says.
While the two issues present similar challenges, responses have differed wildly. But the response to the pandemic has shown what is possible in terms of a global, coordinated effort to deal with a shared challenge.
“In the case of COVID-19, we were able to make rapid, costly decisions in the face of uncertainty and I would argue that we know a lot, lot more about climate change than we did about COVID-19,” Professor Howden says.
Dr Will Grant from the ANU Centre for the Public Awareness of Science echoes these sentiments.
“I do think that the speed at which societies have pivoted on COVID-19 shows that we can make rapid, large-scale changes,” Dr Grant says.
In the case of the COVID-19 response in Australia, these changes were effective for a variety of reasons, Professor Warwick McKibbin, Director of the ANU Centre for Applied Macroeconomics Analysis, says.
“We have, at least initially, had some success in responding to the virus,” he says.
“This is because we had coordination at federal and state levels; decisions were based on science; governments sent a very clear message to the Australian population about why they were doing what they were doing, and their expected outcomes; and they established processes for monitoring these responses over time.”
This positive and effective response hasn’t been just from governments, but also more broadly across the population. “For me, the big lesson from COVID-19 has been people from diverse backgrounds acting in unison so quickly,” Dr Aparna Lal, from the ANU Research Centre of Population Health, says.
“There’s been an almost universal emphasis on recognising the problem and trying to solve it.”
So why have responses to climate change not been as quickly implemented or widely adopted?
One of the challenges for action on climate change is that it’s harder to find the coherent shared value.
“I think one of the challenges of acting on climate change is the fact that everyone’s priorities are different – so we can say we need to reduce our car travel and instead switch to cycling or public transport, but for people who are doing shift work for example, that may not be possible,” Dr Lal says.
“So, one of the ways to mobilise people is by talking about their shared values and how are those values going to be impacted by climate change.”
Dr Rebecca Colvin, of the ANU Crawford School, agrees. “Making us feel more connected and committed to each other, putting collective needs in front of individual needs, those are the things we need to enable us to act on climate change,” Dr Colvin says.
Finding shared values and generating discussion across different sectors also plays an important role at an organisational and governmental level.
“One of the key differences between the two issues is that for the coronavirus, there is no constituency that is fundamentally opposing action,” Professor Howden says.
“Whereas when we look at climate change, there are definitely constituencies who are supporting the status quo, for example by opposing reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.
“If we want action on climate change, we need to deal with misinformation by these constituencies. We also need to respond to any legitimate concerns they may have about the transition process.”