Coronavirus & Climate: 10 Key Similarities, Differences, and Lessons

by | April 17, 2020

10 Key Similarities, Differences, and Lessons

If you’ve read the last few newsletters, you know I’m taking coronavirus seriously and have done what I can to help spread awareness. I believe it deserves our attention and action so we can, to the best of our ability:

  • Save lives.
  • Support people on the front lines.
  • Make people economically whole again.

But I also think it’d be short-sighted (irresponsible even) to set aside concerns for the climate crisis right now.

We just don’t have that luxury.

As the World Health Organization puts it, “Climate change is the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century.

And in 2018, IPCC author Debra Roberts said, The next few years are probably the most important in our history.”

This means society can’t afford to ignore or delay action on what could well be the biggest crisis in human history.

Both crises are here now.

So we need to walk and chew gum at the same time.

That being said, I believe comparing the two crises is quite useful as there is much for us to learn.

10 key lessons, similarities, and differences between coronavirus and climate change


1. We need to listen to scientists and experts.

They know what they’re talking about and following their advice in a timely manner saves lives. If you wait until you’re seeing and feeling the pain to act, it’s too late.

Just compare the initial response of South Korea to the US – and look at how each country is doing now.

Prevention will always be better, safer, and cheaper than hoping for a cure to a pandemic, or adaptation to the climate.

“Both demand early and aggressive action to minimize loss. Only in hindsight will we really understand what we gambled on and what we lost by not acting early enough.” – Kim Cobb

2. We are interdependent on each other.

It’s never been more obvious how interconnected and interdependent we are on each other (and nature). Your health is my health. What each of us does affects the health of our families, friends, and communities.

Bigger picture: sure there’s a place for individualism and competition, but we’re also wired for altruism and cooperation – in fact, flexible cooperation in large numbers is humanity’s superpower.

3. Big radical changes are possible and can be made very, very quickly.

The IPCC wrote in 2018 that we need “rapid and far-reaching transitions” in every aspect of society that are “unprecedented in terms of scale”. Everyone has just seen that society can change, radically, in a matter of days.

4. We need all levels of society to step up for both of these crises.

Flattening the curve for COVID-19 requires not just the individual action of social distancing or systemic governmental/corporate action – it requires both.

The same goes for the greenhouse gas emissions curve. Both crises are all-hands-on-deck.

5. The status quo is deadly.

As I mentioned before, we were already in a (largely unspoken) global health crisis before the coronavirus came along thanks to climate change and air pollution. Reduced air pollution likely saved around 50,000 to 70,000 people’s lives in China in January and February according to a Stanford study.

When will society stop ignoring the fact that air pollution kills 6.5 to 8.8 million people every year?

(This includes roughly 159,000 to 283,000 people in the US…that’s like 9/11 happening once or twice a week.)

“Calling for disruptive changes is not radical, but deeply sane.” – Alex Steffen

6. Inequality: Racial, economic, and climate justice are intertwined.

COVID-19 is disproportionately killing people of color and society’s poorest (e.g. ChicagoMilwaukeeLouisiana, or NYC).

This is likely because systemic health and economic inequalities make people of color:

  • More vulnerable to COVID-19 due to higher levels of air pollution exposure (e.g. Black people are 75% more likely to live near oil and gas facilities.)
  • More likely to have underlying health conditions.
  • More likely to be essential workers.

Similarly, climate is hitting society’s most vulnerable people first and worst.

COVID-19 is shedding additional light on society’s extreme inequality. Climate is too and will make it even more obvious in the future.

Speedy climate action and justice are inextricably linked.

7. “Addressing climate change is a big-enough idea to revive the economy.” – Rhiana Gunn-Wright

This is a huge moment of change.

Our actions now will determine the trajectory of society for years to come.

Trillions of dollars will be spent globally in the next year or so to help people and jump-start the economy.

This stimulus needs to be green. We must invest in building a better future, not propping up the destructive, broken system of the past.

The IPCC estimates that $2.4 trillion must be invested annually (in energy alone) over the next 15 years to have a chance at limiting warming to 1.5°C. So it’s important that as much of that money as possible gets invested in the right places.

The obvious win-win is to put millions of people back to work by giving them jobs to help reverse global warming and make our infrastructure more resilient. There is no shortage of work to be done in the following areas:

  • Solar, wind, and energy storage technology.
  • Retrofitting most of our buildings for greater efficiency.
  • Sustainable transportation.
  • Negative emission technology research & development.
  • Regenerative agriculture.
  • Restoring nature (e.g. Fortifying our coastlines with carbon-sucking, flood-protecting ecosystems.)

There are many, many more examples of valuable work that needs to be done.

This is a massive economic opportunity for whoever develops these life-saving, 21st-century solutions that will be in high demand around the world.

And, critically, this transition can be rooted in economic and racial justice…though not perfect (what is?), there’s this interesting idea called the Green New Deal just lying around to start working from 😉

Or the Jay Inslee campaign’s gift to us: The Evergreen Action Plan.

“Maybe it is time to stop acting as though politics is a force of nature when we are facing actual and deadly forces of nature.” – Rhiana Gunn-Wright

Key differences between coronavirus and climate

8. The climate crisis is an era.

Climate change isn’t a once in a hundred-year occurrence. It’s a ‘we’ll have to deal with this for the next 100 years’.

9. A few enormously powerful people and industries are actively working to stop action on climate.

Thankfully, everyone wants to stop COVID-19. Everyone is on the same page.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the climate crisis. The fossil fuel industry and their cronies have dumped billions of dollars into stopping climate action for several decades now.

10. The great majority of climate action actually makes our lives much better, not worse.

To minimize suffering and get through the COVID-19 pandemic, we have to sacrifice – a lot.

But nearly all of the solutions to global warming are win-wins. Climate action makes our lives better (and yes, it’s better for the economy too).

This post originally featured in the Crowdsourcing Sustainability newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter below!

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