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What the world’s response to coronavirus can teach us about tackling the climate emergency

Written by Rebecca Nadin


Officials gather in Rome in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Dipartimento Protezione Civile (CC BY 2.0).
Image credit:Dipartimento Protezione Civile. ~ Image license:CC BY 2.0

Last year, the British Parliament, the Scottish Government and the European Parliament all declared a global climate emergency. ‘Climate emergency’ was one of Oxford Dictionary’s words of the year, defining it as “a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it”. We are still waiting for the urgent action.

Over the next decade, difficult decisions and trade-offs will need to be made to meet global emission reduction targets. The coronavirus (COVID-19) has forced governments to take urgent social distancing strategies such as working from home, disrupting children’s education and avoiding unnecessary travel. Many of these measures are delivering welcomed, but unintended, environmental benefits. For example, in China the closure of factories has meant cleaner air.

What does our reaction to coronavirus tell us about human decision-making?

The level and speed of action taken to try and halt the spread of COVID-19 has given us the chance to witness and live in real-time some of the actions that are urgently needed to reduce our carbon emissions. For some, these restrictions might represent a dystopian vision of the future, for others, a real opportunity to tackle the climate emergency.

Our response to disease and plagues has deep historical roots, it is emotional and visceral. This means we are perhaps more willing to accept constraints on behaviour to such emergencies.

In the case of climate change, clear and rational arguments about the economic, environmental and human consequences of not addressing the climate emergency have been made. Yet we still see only small lifestyle changes in response such as ‘cycle to work’ schemes, recycling and reusing. These are important steps but given the seriousness of the climate crisis a swifter and more systemic response is needed. Our lack of such a response shows how human decision-making is not always driven by rationality. This points to the need for much greater understanding of the drivers of human decision-making including its emotional, normative and cognitive elements and our willingness to tolerate risks.

We need honest conversations about acceptable trade-offs and climate change

People expect the restrictions on their lifestyles in response to COVID-19 to be short term. But how might governments sustain public support for such restrictions in the long term? Let’s start by being honest.

Tackling the climate emergency will mean more complex and possibly contentious trade-offs are to be made to ensure our planetary health. It is clear that decision-makers must now consider a more risk-informed holistic approach to all aspects of policy-making that takes into account risk tolerances of its citizens. Governments and society need to have the courage to articulate and explore new, potentially contentious and under-explored policy options and entry points to address the climate emergency.