Is there a vaccination against the climate crisis?

"Remove before flight" is written on the marker on a temporarily grounded SWISS aircraft.
Article as analysis
The corona and climate crises are crises of justice not least of all. The global South is acutely dependent on support in two ways. Another reason why both crises require a linked-up approach. A case for choosing the right path now.

The climate crisis is not taking a break during the corona crisis. On the contrary, communities that were already exposed to climate risks are being doubly hit by the corona crisis. It is difficult to observe hygiene measures in arid regions where water must be drawn by hand from communal wells and carried home on foot in hours-long journeys. Already weakened health systems have felt the full impact of the flooding that followed the plague of locusts in East Africa or cyclone Amphan in the Bay of Bengal. The manifold crisis unleashed by the virus is having disastrous consequences for the poorest and most vulnerable: it is affecting people in developing countries already vulnerable to climate change and where infrastructure and finances are inadequate, whose already precarious income situation has now completely collapsed as a result of the pandemic. It is no chance matter that the Climate Risk Index compiled by Germanwatch shows close correlation with vulnerability to epidemics.

Crisis as opportunity – a closer look

The climate crisis will still be there when the world community has gained control of the virus, everyone agrees on this. Where disagreement persists is over the extent to which the corona crisis is serving as an eye-opener and whether it is legitimate or appropriate to apply the hackneyed phrase "crisis as opportunity". At any rate, the handling of covid-19 is certainly revealing a number of important perspectives as to how the global climate crisis may be tackled in policy terms.

The key questions are common to both crises and relate, for example, to cross-border causes and effects as well as the resilience of societies and their crisis management capabilities. We have seen that failure to invest in crisis prevention and pandemic preparedness has led to critical bottlenecks, at times costing thousands of lives. The lessons learned are that emergency measures, their follow-up costs, as well as rescue packages are much more costly to society than prevention and timely precautionary measures. This is no different when it comes to the impacts of the climate disaster. Compared to covid-19, the climate crisis is overtaking us almost in slow motion. But even the World Health Organisation (WHO) anticipates as many as 250,000 additional deaths annually as of 2020 if the present pace of climate change continues unchecked.

We may feel a modicum of hope that the world community is learning lessons from the corona crisis, considering that in fighting the pandemic, policymakers have relied on guidance from the scientific community and taken rapid and drastic action. And this even though the scientific community, while highly knowledgeable about virology and epidemiology, was (still) virtually ignorant about the new SARS-CoV-2 pathogen. The exact opposite is true when it comes to climate science. Although highly complex, the causes and mechanisms of climate science are well-known today; there is no way around decarbonisation. The crucial difference between the climate crisis and the corona crisis is the immediacy of the threat posed by the latter and its global reach. The pandemic was recognised all around the world as (equally) life-threatening, and appropriate action was taken. In the case of the climate crisis on the other hand, the threat level varies depending on geographic and socio-economic factors. Even as people living in the Pacific islands and other regions already being directly impacted by climate change cry out ever more desperately for support in the climate crisis, there is a prevailing attitude among many of those responsible in the polluting countries that things will not be so bad after all. One would hope in this regard that a representative SPIEGEL survey is more than just a snapshot; over 90 per cent of respondents think that policymakers should rely more on scientific opinion in the future. And a clear majority (59 per cent) believe that climate change will have more long-term economic and social consequences than the corona crisis.

We may draw optimism from the fact that in recent months some governments – in both North and South – have managed to explain even drastic measures to their populations in an understandable manner and also to implement them. In contrast, there will first have to be general acceptance that unlike the pandemic, the climate crisis is not something we can "sit out"; vaccines and medicines can be developed for viruses, but not for greenhouse gases. Their high atmospheric concentrations and the resulting climate changes will not go away spontaneously. Nor will we develop any immunity against them; instead, it will take costly adjustments to infrastructure and to our food system. The climate crisis calls for structural adjustments rather than hastily introduced lockdowns.

Build back better

Given the major sacrifices being exacted worldwide by the corona crisis, it may sound cynical to posit the notion of "emerging stronger from the crisis". Yet in the light of the billions being provided around the world for managing the crisis, the discussion cannot be postponed. What kind of support is sustainable also from a global climate perspective? How can cease merely maintaining (fossil-fired) structures? In the view of Alliance Sud, the golden rule should be to "build back better", or as proposed by Jochen Markard, the ETH researcher on sustainability and technology: the current approach should be "allowing for selective disruption", in other words, purposely not saving damaged or destroyed structures that were not future-ready even before the pandemic. For it would clearly be a costly and pointless exercise to use corona funds to save structures, only to begin spending even more money as soon as possible to retrofit them for climate resilience. The obvious choice is to take the direct path and to ensure that all investments made to rescue the world economy are also protected against future shocks.

This encompasses not just the threat from the virus but also the looming threat of climate change. There is already a basis in international law: Article 2.1c of the Paris Climate Agreement speaks of: “Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development’. In a crisis which, like the climate crisis, already poses an existential threat to a part of humanity, it is legitimate if not imperative for the government, as investor of last resort, to exert influence over an economy that must be saved for the common good. Or, to quote UN Secretary-General António Guterres: "Public funds should be used to invest in the future, not the past".

As necessary as the short-term emergency measures were to enable those directly affected to get through the lockdown, just as little can we afford to use corona aid funds for medium-term support to enterprises or activities that are not compatible with the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The good news is that in many respects, resilience against future pandemics goes hand-in-hand with climate resilience: safe access to water and sanitary facilities, or boosting food security by promoting local and/or regional supply systems that are less dependent on global markets are all key elements of both epidemiological and climate protection. To spend the billions in corona funding also in keeping with (climate) resilience and sustainability criteria would be to kill two birds with one stone. The great advantage is that most climate mitigation and adaptation measures constitute what are called "no-regret" investments. Unlike the costs of strictly pandemic prevention, they have an immediate, tangible benefit to society.

This is why pre-existing climate funds for developing countries should in no case be repurposed for "corona aid". German Chancellor Angela Merkel also made this clear when at the height of the pandemic she called for climate funding for the most vulnerable countries to be increased at this very time, given the dual threat of covid-19 and climate change.

No more "business as usual"

Regrettably, it would seem that after a brief phase of courageous and far-reaching decision-making, Swiss policymakers already reverted to "business as usual" even during the lockdown. The fact that support for the private company SWISS Airlines was not tied even to the most minimal conditions is a clear indication of this. Other countries in contrast, including some with centre-right governments, have recognised and seized the opportunity to embrace greening programmes: after its bailout, France's aviation industry, for example, will no longer be allowed to compete with rail travel. Canada is demanding that all rescued companies adopt serious climate measures. The EU Commission and its member States too are signalling their intention to stand by the proposed Green Deal despite or perhaps precisely because of the turbulence being caused by coronavirus.

Reviving the economy, safeguarding public health or combating the climate crisis are not mutually competitive undertakings. On the contrary, linking up the three areas gives rise to synergies as well as forward-looking policies. Whether there will be a vaccine against coronavirus in the foreseeable future is by no means certain. What is clear is that the world will never be able to immunise itself against the climate crisis. But both crises can only be overcome through policies driven by science and reason and through global cooperation.