Covid-19 and Climate Change

By Gretta Dattan

The global response to Covid-19 has mobilised governments, industry, and civilians in a way never before seen outside of war time. Now researchers are looking to find out what the response to Covid-19 can teach us about preparing for climate change and galvanising public support.

In a recent article published in Environmental and Resource Economics titled “Building a Social Mandate for Climate Action: Lessons from Covid-19”, a team of global researchers noted that the two issues of Covid-19 and climate change “share common drivers – including global travel, deforestation, and land-use change – and are mutually reinforcing – climate change is known to affect the survival, reproduction, abundance, and distribution of pathogens, vectors, and hosts”.

Both problems also require individuals, governments, and corporations to act with common intention in the interest of the greater good. What makes climate change more difficult to identify, communicate, and work against is the fact that it is more diffuse and gradual than the Covid-19 pandemic.

Creating lasting change

The slow, and at times ineffectual, global response to Covid-19 has reinforced just how unprepared everyone is for the more significant and long lasting effects of climate change. That being said, the pandemic has also illustrated that change on a mass scale is possible. The same team of researchers argued that one of the best ways to prepare a society for climate change challenges is to encourage the continuation of behaviours developed during the pandemic.

The shift to working from home and decline in all forms of travel means that individual emissions have been lower, on average, than most other years. Needless to say, industrial and commercial sources are the biggest polluters, but shifts in consumer behaviour patterns are still important. Encouraging companies to allow for more flexible working arrangements and advocating for more low-emission forms of travel (such as rail over planes) are two ways in which governments can encourage Covid-19 behaviours to stick around after the pandemic has ended.

The same team of researchers have also advocated for a minimally disruptive transition to a low carbon future through creating a “carefully planned response” which allows for the “identification of those areas where the structural adjustment costs of decarbonization are real and putting in place safeguards for a just transition”. The rapid spread of Covid-19 meant that governments were forced to scramble in order to prepare for the virus. As a result, mistakes were made, time was wasted, and some demographic groups in society felt abandoned or ignored.

The issues surrounding climate change tend to be fraught with uncertainty, fear, disagreement, and misinformation. This means that climate change tends to be a difficult area for everyone, including policymakers, to find common ground and agreement. The fact that the effects of climate change are also less tangible than Covid-19 leads many people to adopt a passive outlook on climate policy and preparedness. This is why it is so important to develop a strong social mandate for climate-related change and to educate and galvanise broad swaths of society.

Countering misinformation

One of the most pressing – and perhaps most unexpected – challenges in both the Covid-19 and climate change crises has been misinformation. Around the world there are signs that far-right, nationalist movements and populist ideologies are gaining traction and threatening liberal democracies. Misinformation has characterised the rise of authoritarianism in many countries around the world and has fostered a deep mistrust of all media sources and government. During the Covid-19 pandemic, misinformation led to protests, riots, and a lack of adherence to health and safety protocols, all of which increased the spread of the virus and placed more pressure on health systems which were already struggling. Climate activists have also fought against misinformation campaigns for decades and in many countries are still fighting to have the scientific reality of climate change publicly recognised.

The public response to Covid-19 has taught us a lot about how to counter misinformation and stop its spread. The social media tags which now accompany every post or tweet that mentions Covid-19 are a great starting point, but already many people are suspicious of Big Tech. Misinformation arguably cannot be approached in a singular way because it takes so many different forms. Rather, governmental PSAs should target specific demographics and age groups which are particularly at risk for misinformation.

The Toronto Star #VaccineTalk campaign is a great example of how to target misinformation in specific demographics. #VaccineTalk is a series of videos which feature healthcare professionals speaking about vaccines in different languages, specifically in Spanish, Cantonese, Hindi, Urdu, and Mandarin. These videos are meant to be shared with middle aged and elderly populations of immigrants in Canada who are unsure about the vaccine or distrustful of the health services.

In order to effectively educate the public about climate change challenges and measures, a multi-faceted approach which acknowledges the different needs of various sectors of the population is likely to be more effective at combatting misinformation than a one size fits all PSA approach.

Deliberative democracy

As with Covid-19 measures, the challenges of climate change will require mass societal buy-in. Researchers and academics are arguing that increasing transparency and creating more room for democratic dialogue and debate with constituents could help to build the unity required for such mass buy-in.

In a recent study published in Climatic Change, it was argued that Citizens Assemblies like the one in Ireland can be extremely effective and powerful in helping to shape legislation and gauge public opinion. The study found that the “13 climate recommendations agreed upon by the citizens were significantly more radical than expected” and included “proposals for a new climate governance architecture, a heightened carbon tax, a socially just transition, supports for active, electric and public transport, a GHG emissions tax on agriculture, enhanced land use diversification, community-owned renewable energy and an end to subsidies for peat extraction”.

While Citizens Assemblies are costly to run and do not have a direct legislative impact, they do help lawmakers better understand the needs of their constituents. These assemblies also help to apply pressure on hesitant lawmakers by providing evidence of broad public support for a specific measure, as was seen in Ireland’s move to repeal the Eighth Amendment on abortion, which was also a Citizens Assembly topic.

The same study found that deliberative democracy efforts such as Citizens Assemblies offer “a means of communicating the urgency of the challenge, identifying possible solutions, enhancing environmental literacy, promoting individual agency, and critical engagement with the range of issues and solutions proposed as part of the wider deliberative process”.   If nothing else, Covid-19 has shown us the importance of effective planning and communication, and that largely unified change on a mass scale is possible.

Gretta Dattan is a Masters in Common Law student at UCD with an interest in animal and environmental law. She is hoping to learn more about veganism, environmentalism, and animal rights, and to connect with others in the vegan and vegetarian community. Originally from Seattle, she has lived in Stoneybatter, Dublin for the last five years.