Covid-19 and climate change
Using the lessons from one crisis to deal with the next one

sources: Wikimedia /

The Covid-19 pandemic is still making its way around the world and it will be some time before it is over. Nevertheless, even at this early stage, there are some lessons that can be drawn on regarding how best to be prepared to deal with the much bigger problem of climate change impacts which will be coming soon after.

It is important to point out that the Covid-19 virus outbreak has more to do with how we have neglected biodiversity and ecosystems rather than because of human induced climate change. However, with regard to the problems we are facing, both at the personal as well as the national and even global levels, there are a significant number of parallels between the viral pandemic and climate change.

The first lesson is about when to take actions when faced with an upcoming problem. The tendency of leaders is to wait for the problem to occur before taking action, despite being warned earlier by scientists about the imminence of the problem. Even at this early stage, it is clear that early actions to be better prepared for the problem before it occurs is much more effective. However, it does mean a scenario where our leaders accept what the scientists tell them and are then prepared to institute policies which may seem like too much to their people, especially if these steps are taken even before the problem arises. But as we know now, it is better to overreact before the problem arises so that the problem is controlled, than to have to scramble to act once the problem becomes a crisis. Waiting for the problem to manifest itself before taking actions has led to many lives unnecessarily being lost. This is what is now playing out in Italy and Spain and may well also be the case in the United States and the United Kingdom. Let us hope this isn’t the case in Bangladesh.

The second lesson we must now accept is that we cannot shut our borders to the problem. Of course we can try to do so, and perhaps it may even delay the problem somewhat, but it cannot prevent the problem from occurring over time. This is equally true at the personal and household level where we can only try to protect ourselves, but if others are being affected around us then we will also become affected sooner or later. Hence, the overwhelming lesson is that we need to, both as individuals as well as countries, cooperate with each other, before, during and after the events. The evidence of the success in tackling the pandemic in Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea have all shown how collective action from everyone in the country, together with proactive leaders, was the key to overcoming the challenges they faced.

The third lesson is one of scale. Even though the Covid-19 pandemic seems a truly globally devastating one now, its impacts will pale in comparison with the potential impacts of climate change, which are still to come. Hence the lessons of early action at preventing the worst impacts, including adaptation as well as mitigation, must be ramped up very considerably by all people and all countries if we hope to minimise the adverse impacts and the loss and damage that will inevitably follow.

Every action by individuals, households, companies, cities, provinces and countries will count towards reducing the inevitable damage from climate change that is yet to come. Time is of the essence, as delayed action is almost as bad as no action.

The fourth lesson, for now, is to look at the economic costs and behavioural changes that are required. Here, there are indeed a couple of positive lessons, where it has been shown that almost all the people in an entire country are prepared to change their behaviour quite drastically if they have to. This is a hopeful sign going forward. Also, the need to work from home in many cases is demonstrating that the amount of travel we had been doing could indeed be reduced in future.

On the economic front, there has already been widespread disruption of the global economy, but some unintended benefits include a significant reduction in air pollution as well as greenhouse gases. While such economic disruption is not desirable and hopefully we will recover from it, it is worth thinking about whether the recovery can also be made in a much more environment friendly manner.

The final lesson has to do with the inevitable economic chaos and recession that is starting to happen already and will get a lot worse before it gets better. Bangladesh, with its globally linked economy, is likely to see significant negative impacts on manufacturing, exports and possibly even our own food production going forward. Hence, even though the worst is yet to come, we must prepare for the immediate economic downturn as well as think about the future path to recovery once the worst is over.

This applies both to the Bangladesh economy as well as the global economy and the silver lining in this Covid-19 pandemic, which is most relevant for tackling climate change, is the opportunity to rebuild the post-pandemic economy as an environment friendly green economy that doesn’t simply repeat the destruction of nature and the spewing of greenhouse gases that the old economy used to do. Let us hope that both our national as well as global leaders are up to the challenge.

Originally this article was published on March 25, 2020 at Daily Star. The author Prof. Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).