Illustration courtesy of Yes Magazine

Killing Millions Slowly: The Importance of Immediacy in Global Catastrophes

As two catastrophes with comparable humanitarian impact, why do we regard Climate Change and Covid-19 with such different levels of urgency?

Apr 19, 2020

After facing the immediate effects of a global pandemic, busy streets turned into ghost towns in a matter of seconds and business operations were suspended at lightning speed. Affecting everyone — despite color, gender, race, social class and nationality — Covid-19 has been a merciless force, suddenly pushing us into a lifestyle that many are not accustomed to.
The swift measures that we took to quell the virus however, have not been applied to other global threats. Perhaps one of the most salient examples would be the challenge of climate change. The Paris Agreement was created in 2016 as a response to the continuous destruction of natural habitats and a need for supporting the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Yet, the measures taken to mitigate and adapt to these environmental effects have been extremely minimal when compared to the forced implementation of quarantine measures taking place in a mere span of months.
This forced implementation of quarantine measures has transformed societal structures almost immediately. Ever since the uncontrolled virus outbreak, there has been an abrupt pause in business operations and a significant change in people’s regular daily activities. Although it was for the wrong reasons, Covid-19 has also caused a drastic decrease in domestic and international transportation that could trigger the biggest fall in carbon emissions since World War II. New York has seen a five percent drop in CO2 emissions and China is projected to reduce its annual emissions by one percent, caused by structural changes deemed impossible before the outbreak of the disease.
With businesses suspended, people working remotely, classes shifting online and reduced in-person communication, people from every level of the socioeconomic strata are feeling the infrastructural changes imposed by governments. The central question that remains, then, is why haven’t governments acted on the issue of climate with the same urgency?
Despite the opinions of climate change deniers, we can observe from presently incurred habitat loss that the impact does not only extend to individual species but to complex networks of ecological relations that can be detrimental to human migration and food sources. The increase in temperature can also heat up the oceans, not only killing off certain marine organisms but also producing thermal expansion, which can cause land to become submerged in seawater. In light of the potential catastrophic effects of both climate destruction as well as Covid-19 — leading to countless deaths and decreases in quality of life — why are individual and collective responses to these two global challenges so different?
Part of the answer comes from the idea that large-scale infrastructural changes that are currently aggressively reducing our carbon footprint are economically unfeasible. However, this perception arises from a salient prioritization of immediate economic productivity at the expense of long-term public benefit. In societies with a heavy focus on individual achievements and success, practical considerations leading to immediate profit are the primary drivers of our actions, rather than the needs of the wider public in the long-term. Thus, even when faced with the imminent threat of climate change, major industrial polluters have not significantly reduced their emissions; international agreements have only recently acknowledged the problem and current national climate action plans remain insufficient to reach non-harmful temperature and carbon emission objectives.
It is evident that a longer window of opportunity has allowed the global community to postpone actions to reduce emissions in favor of boosting the economy. In contrast, most responses to Covid-19 have been met with a much greater sense of urgency. Despite the fact that the current globalized society thrives on productivity and connectivity, governments as well as private companies have been compelled to sacrifice economic benefit to quell the spread of the virus. In contrast, the harmful effects of global environmental issues are less immediate since climate change only has the potential to affect us in the upcoming decades, as opposed to the near future.
Despite the importance of government action in addressing these global challenges, it is worth considering the extent to which we suspend our personal goals in light of issues that impact societies on a global scale. Due to the uncontrolled and volatile nature of Covid-19, most individuals have been forced to suspend their goals in order to curb the spread of a deadly disease. As the economy is undergoing a roadblock and people are becoming restless in their homes, entire societies are being forced to live an alternative lifestyle that was previously unanticipated. The inconvenience of isolation has forced every single individual to sacrifice something, whether it be plans, time, work, livelihood or relationships.
The threat of getting the virus while traveling by air in the time of Covid-19, is currently prompting many to avoid airports, which offers a stark contrast to human behavior prior to the pandemic. We rarely think about sacrifice with the same urgency when it is about issues of sustainability. Without personally feeling the effects of plastic items that will take around 1,000 years to decompose or considering the possibility of living in a space where fossil fuel emissions have destroyed air quality, we tend to assign disproportional weight to the gravity of these issues.
While reflecting on this period of time plagued by a global pandemic, we should take these fundamental changes that the disease has forced on us and assess measures to combat climate change that were previously deemed unfeasible. Through the lens of an immediate, all-encompassing global issue such as Covid-19, we can perhaps better understand our reaction amidst unstable change and our ability to handle future problems that we will have to face as a society. It is insufficient to treat this pandemic as a singular instance of global catastrophe; it has never been more imperative to understand long-term consequences and compromise before we are forced to do so.
Emma Chiu is a contributing writer. Email her at
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