Analysis: How the Covid-19 virus compares to climate breakdown

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Photo credit: Global Witness.

By Anders Lorenzen

The world is witnessing cancelled sporting events, limited travel, people in isolation, panic, stockpiling of products, and the spread of misinformation as a result of the spread of Covid-19 virus, the worst global pandemic outbreak since Sars struck in 2013. 

All of these actions are a teaser for what will happen in a climate crisis and if we fail to gain control over rising carbon emissions. And those measures would be permanent, not just temporary as in this case. 

So far over 700,000 people have been infected by Covid-19 globally with over 35,000 fatalities. Italy and Spain are currently the worst impacted countries with many countries around the world in lockdown currently with all non-essential travel banned in many places. Across the world global travel is severely impacted, this scenario could still develop and further expand. Supermarkets shelves are becoming empty and people are panic buying. If the Covid-19 outbreak lasts for long enough it could significantly impact food production, exports and imports, energy production, and already now it is almost a certain scenario that it could trigger a global recession. Many sporting events across Europe and the world are cancelled or postponed, including the world’s largest sporting event, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Conferences and public events across the world are also being cancelled or postponed.

We already know that the frequent spate of extreme weather events we’re experiencing and rising temperatures are impacting food supply and security. In addition, future sporting events are increasingly at risk due to more heatwaves and warmer temperatures. There is also a huge question mark over for how long it is realistic the Winter Olympics can continue, or for that matter any winter sports. If we fail to get emissions under control, science tells us that such extreme weather events will become stronger and occur more frequently, even if we do reduce emissions they will continue to increase to some degree in severity and frequency. As extreme weather events worsen it will also increasingly impact travel and tourism. Many places in the world will simply no longer be accessible. Extreme weather will cancel many more flights, trains, ferries and cruises and so on. And rising temperatures could set off a cascade of virus and disease outbreaks. For instance, malaria could arrive in the Northern hemisphere. As glaciers, ice sheets and permafrost melts, bacterias which have been stored there for millions of years could enter the atmosphere and create new illnesses and viruses. As countries struggle with food, clean water and energy supply due to the increase of extreme weather, tensions could rise and new civil wars could break out just as we have seen in Syria

All this threatens not only another recession but the very pillars our economic system is built upon.

In the rich western democracies, we have built up barriers and systems which feed and protect us; from food, water, energy, healthcare and security challenges. Covid-19 might show us that we are not as protected from shocks to that system as we thought we were and how quickly these systems could unravel. We would do well to prepare for climate breakdown in the same manner and urgency as we are responding to Covid-19.

 

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