COVID vs Climate Change

It seems as soon as a more immediate threat appears, the threat of climate change is shunted to the back of the line. This was certainly true in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. It seems the same has happened with COVID vs Climate Change.

COVID vs Climate Change

In a survey reported by Forbes Magazine conducted in December 2019, American adults said climate change was the number one issue facing society. Just seven months later in July 2020, another survey conducted in the wake of the initial outbreak of COVID-19, climate change came in nearly last on a list of a dozen major issues facing society, only ahead of overpopulation.

Dealing with deadly threats

COVID-19 is a killer, but so is climate change and its close cousin air pollution, which includes smog, soot, CFCs, PAHs, lead, mercury and acid rain (sulphuric and nitric acids).

In this recent blog post we wrote about the 1987 global response to ban ozone-layer-damaging CFCs, comparing it to the slovenly response to climate change. We have known about climate change for as long as we have known about CFCs. 

Also, adding lead (Tetraethyllead or TEL) to petrol has been phased out and even banned in many countries since the 1980’s. In 2011, a study backed by the United Nations estimated that the removal of TEL had resulted in trillions of dollars or economic benefits, and 1.2 million fewer premature deaths annually.

The problem of acid rain is not unlike that of climate change. First came the obvious but puzzling damage to waterways, forests, soils and even human environments including blackened buildings and eroded roofs. A 1963 study of rain in New Hampshire’s White Mountains showed that the rain was about a hundred times more acidic than it should be. The culprits were soon recognised to be sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides which react with water and oxygen in the atmosphere to transform into sulphuric acid and nitric acid. The rain gets into waterways and soils and can eventually kill everything as it did in many lakes in the USA and Canada. It then took decades of denial, finger-pointing and delays before any real action eventuated. The Clean Air Act in the USA was the first legislative action on acid rain and didn’t come into effect until 1990.

Dealing with diffuse threats

Climate change is a slow-burning threat, coronavirus is in your face. We didn’t know Coronavirus was coming but we have known about the climate crisis for over 30 years now. It is human nature to prioritise immediate threats and postpone dealing with longer-term threats. Climate change is also a diffuse threat, with both its causes and effects widespread and yet seemingly indirect and undefined. For this reason it is easy to underestimate the threat. This has been called the ‘boiling frog dilemma‘, that is, that gradual change goes unnoticed until it’s too late.

In goes without saying that a fast and strong action to quell a pandemic is absolutely necessary. However, whilst coronavirus poses many urgent challenges and threats to life, it offers few opportunities. On the other hand, a strong, comprehensive response to climate change is quite different; it provides many additional associated benefits, both direct and indirect. That is because climate change (as well as acid rain, ozone depletion, premature death) are systemic symptoms with the same root cause – namely over-production and the over-use of fossil fuels.

We write about many of the benefits of curbing climate change on this website, for instance:

  • Well-insulated homes are warmer and drier meaning they are healthier
  • Walking and biking is healthier and saves money
  • Renewable energy and clean technology offer new jobs
  • Buying less goods and services provides systemic savings

COVID vs Climate Change

Of course, we should be urging our governments and decision-makers to legislate to minimise pollution and emissions. But there are plenty of things that we can do as individuals, such as living simpler, which will reduce your personal carbon footprint and provide an example for others.


The Guardian: Why don’t we treat the climate crisis with the same urgency as coronavirus?

Fortune: Exclusive poll: Amid COVID-19, Americans don’t care about climate change anymore

NRDC: Air Pollution: Everything You Need to Know

BBC: The bittersweet story of how we stopped acid rain