How the Pandemic Has Prepared Us to Deal With the 'Catastrophes' of Climate Change

·8-min read

The pandemic may turn out to be a dress rehearsal for the tragedies that the climate emergency could bring, Singapore Finance Minister Lawrence Wong recently said while talking about the country’s carbon tax. His words ring a sounding bell on the fact that the world’s troubles will not be over even if we manage to mitigate the effects and after-effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, the lessons the global community has learnt along the way may help us all deal with climate change, which is about to get worse. A recent report by the UN showed that the planet is heading towards warming of 2.7 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. The effects, and all scenarios envisaged (depending on global effort against climate change) are predicted to be grim. What will be its effects?

More and more frequency of what is already happening – increased cyclones, heatwaves, fires, lightning strikes, landslides. A recent study has claimed that climate change is making India’s west coast more vulnerable to cyclones. “The increase in cyclonic activity in the Arabian Sea include increases in sea surface temperature and tropical cyclone heat potential. Both measures are reliable indicators of climate change,” a report on the study mentions. Meanwhile, California is burning, Bangladesh is drowning, and Canada is heating up in a ‘dome’.

So, as climate efforts, activism and meetings remain ongoing, one begs the answer on whether the last two years and the changes it has brought about may help us face the inevitable reality up ahead. News18 explains:

Pandemic Has Exposed What Climate Change Realities Can Mean, Increased Accountability

It’s not just a report anymore, or a far off reality. Before the pandemic, it may have been. But not now. Perceptions have changed. Anxieties have increased. Reports mention how the pandemic may have increased eco-anxiety – a state of stress, grief, helplessness, and fear of uncertainty connected with the bleak future for our climatic and ecological systems.

Recent polls conducted by the APA and Yale reflect on how there is an increase in Americans suffering from eco-anxiety. And the younger generation is also ‘marked’ in ways that can perhaps be thought about as a new generational trauma.

A Washington Post poll of US teenagers showed that more than half of US teenagers identify dread with climate change, followed by motivation, rage, and helplessness. Similarly, a poll of 2,000 youth aged eight to sixteen in the United Kingdom found that 73% were concerned about the environment, with 22% being extremely concerned.

Generational trauma is a trauma that is felt by multiple generations rather than just one. "It can be subtle, covert, and ambiguous, surfacing through nuances and accidentally taught or inferred throughout someone’s life from an early age on," a report mentions, adding that the idea of generational trauma was first established in 1966, when Canadian psychiatrist Vivian M. Rakoff, MD, and her colleagues discovered high rates of psychological suffering among children of Holocaust survivors.

Covid-19 exposed the gaps in the world, and the effects of the pandemic were distributed – whether across economic, or social communities. Awareness has increased on the gaps between the rich and poor, privileged and unprivileged, and how that holds a key marker to some communities bearing the brunt of global catastrophes – a reality witnessed in climate-related incidents, as well.

A recent poll by the BCG of over 3,000 people in eight countries showed that in the aftermath of the pandemic, people are more worried about tackling environmental concerns and are more motivated to change their own behaviour to achieve sustainability. Seventy percent of poll respondents indicated they were more aware now than before COVID-19 that human activity harms climate, the report mentions, adding that three-quarters of respondents believed environmental issues are as serious as, if not more serious than, health issues.

The survey also discovered that consumers want to see robust environmental action. More over two-thirds of respondents believe that environmental issues should be prioritised in economic recovery strategies. Individuals are also being influenced by the issue, with 40% stating that they expect to adopt more sustainable behaviour in the future.

The report also mentions how the pandemic has increased accountability of governments and corporations for climate change. Overall, respondents believed that governments and corporations had not responded as successfully to the COVID-19 disaster as health staff, NGOs, and global health agencies. Furthermore, 87 percent of respondents believed businesses should incorporate environmental issues into their products, services, and operations to a greater level than they have in the past.

A New Reality of Multilaterism?

None of us will be safe until all of us are safe, the World Health Organisation has reiterated over the course of the pandemic.

The WHO and United Nations have repeatedly called against ‘vaccine nationalism’ by countries, reiterating how the approach is hampering vaccine equity across the globe. A report in the Diplomat argues how the pandemic tests the limit of bilaterism, signalling how multilaterism is the way to go. Chee Leong Lee writes how the world is today experiencing unequal access to vaccinations between affluent countries that stockpile the majority of these items and the poorest countries that lack them. He argues that the increase of geopolitical rivalry among vaccine nations has further complicated the situation, taking global pandemic control away from the WHO. The author argues for a return to multiteralism for such competeting countries, and play their parts within the WHO and for European nations to enhance their existing contributions through provisions to COVAX.

And as the conversation around multilaterism to tackle global problems comes to the fore, arguments are made on leveraging climate change to revive the principle.

Nikos Tsafos, James R Schlesinger Chair for Energy and Geopolitics, writes about how global institutions can do this, without appending what the institution actually does: “For instance, the IMF can write about the macroeconomic benefits of tackling climate change, but what the Fund really does is lend money and survey the economic health of its members. A serious focus on climate change would mean assessing if a state's finances can withstand climate impacts; if a state can afford investments in mitigation and adaptation; what climate-related shocks might jeopardize its output, employment, trade, and so on. It means understanding that climate change and the energy transition will reshape every economy—and that no projection is meaningful unless it incorporates these effects.”

A New Faith in Science, and the Digital Way Ahead

The pandemic has reposed more faith in science for a big part of the population, as citizens look towards scientific professionals to lead them through and out of the pandemic. Dr Anthony Fauci, now serving as the Chief Medical advisor to US President Biden, became a beloved figure for many Americans even when he sparred with former president Donald Trump. A study in the UK said the pandemic has increased a disparity in trust in various organisations – such as politicians and the government – and how faith in science held up exceptionally well.

Meanwhile, digital solutions to deal with the pandemic also led the front. India’s CoWin app interested many countries, and we later made the code source available to them. Faith reposed in digital solutions can also help climate change.

According to a report by the International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations body, digital technology might help reduce global carbon emissions by around 17%. Artificial intelligence, for example, according to industry participants, might help make power transmission systems more efficient. Concerned citizens may be able to trace corporate carbon emissions via blockchain technology. Furthermore, the use of satellites can be expanded to monitor environmental changes such as unlawful logging, mining, and waste dumping at sea or on land. However the UNEP experts said there is a need to develop standardised criteria to quantify the impact of technology on the environment, which will be critical to limiting the negative effects of digitalization.

Way Ahead for Corporates

Work from home. Welfare benefits. Better digital infrastructure and communication. These are among the measures corporates took to deal with the pandemic. A report by McKinsey argues that in terms of simultaneous exogenous shocks to supply and demand, disruption of supply chains, and worldwide transmission and amplification mechanisms, the present pandemic may provide a foretaste of what a full-fledged climate crisis could entail.

It says certain temporary modifications, such as teleworking and increased dependence on digital channels, may last long after the lockdowns have finished, reducing transit demand and emissions.

It says supply networks may be repatriated, decreasing certain Scope 3 emissions (those in a company’s value chain but unrelated to direct emissions or energy generation), adding that when physical and systemic dislocations become more appreciated, markets may better price in risks (particularly climate risk). This would increase the likelihood of additional near-term business-model disruptions and larger transition concerns, but it would also provide greater incentives for more rapid transformation.

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