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Lessons from the climate and COVID-19 crises

Lessons from the climate and COVID-19 crises
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The world’s current handling of the coronavirus pandemic — an imminent threat spreading rapidly across the globe — offers lessons to turn around the stark lack of global action toward the climate crisis. 

Climate change is also a harmful crisis with projected impacts resulting in mass migration, biodiversity and food insecurity. For example, the most recent global estimate is that “environmental migrants” expected by 2050 range from 150 million to 300 million. Both the COVID-19 and climate crises create emotional trauma, death, cultural and social change, and can undermine democratic institutions, civil society and civil liberties — Hungary’s dissolution of Parliament, and cell phone tracking and military lockdowns in numerous countries.

Whether deserved or not, the international press has levied an overwhelming amount of criticism upon various countries such as the United States, China and Sweden for their coronavirus responses. 

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Before drawing conclusions and in order to better prepare for future crises, the press, individual nations and the international community would be wise to pay close attention to pre-coronavirus levels of emergency preparedness. Attention should also be paid to how politicians and governments have responded to COVID-19, how scientists are involved, and the resulting public health (both physical and mental), economic and potential democratic fallout — the extent to which is unknown and will be for some time.

Society must recognize that both climate change and COVID-19 are sustainability and security crises. The three pillars of sustainability— environmental, social and economic stability — essentially define “security.” Without fear of death and illness, without a job or income, without the mental health that comes with schooling, open playgrounds and seeing friends and family, and without clean air and water, one cannot feel secure. 

The causes and effects of climate change, including air pollution, destruction of habitat and migration camps, can exacerbate and accelerate threats like coronavirus and other zoonotic diseases.

Thus, what legal rights should humans demand from leaders in light of these crises and threats to the security of themselves, their families, and their health and livelihoods?

Rights that increase the individual, social and natural stability — and which are currently under threat by COVID-19 and climate change — include universal health care, paid sick leave, unemployment compensation, housing, food, a living wage, a clean and healthy environment,and a properly functioning and sustainable climate system. 

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For example, the norm in the European Union is to provide free or low-cost healthcare and many weeks of paid sick leave. In the Netherlands, the Dutch Supreme Court held in the Urgenda case that the Dutch government must reduce emissions immediately in line with its human rights obligations.

What we see in the COVID-19 response is that national governments, through legislation and their own purchasing, have the buying power and economic wherewithal to turn the corner on climate change. It is only the will to act that is lacking. The economic power of public procurement is significant. In the U.S., federal spending accounts for nearly $4 trillion, over 20 percent of gross domestic product. In Europe, public authorities account for about 16 percent of the EU’s GDP. Governments have the ability to force public health and climate innovations in markets to ensure we have the materials and infrastructure humans need to be safe in the short and long term. 

We can have adequate personal protection equipment for healthcare workers and adequate ventilators for patients, as well as renewable energy to power the planet while customers enjoy high-speed rail. The COVID-19 crisis teaches that society has the financial resources and industrial capacity to meet these challenges.

But, given the lack of political will and failure to meet these challenges, who decides? Who should be in charge? 

The COVID-19 crisis offers additional lessons. In terms of initial preparedness prior to outbreak, politicians would be wise to listen to the advice and findings of scientists. Note, South Korea’s infectious disease preparedness level.  

Climate change is here right now and preparatory action is needed to mitigate its devastating impacts and to successfully adapt to those changes that can no longer be prevented. While this coronavirus crisis unfolds, most countries rely on political judgments rather than deference to scientific experts within the government. 

For example, Norway closed public schools during this coronavirus crisis against the recommendation of public health authorities. In contrast to their Nordic neighbors, Sweden only closed high schools and universities as teachers and students travelled from all over to attend, keeping open grade/middle schools and preschools. Dating back to the 17th century and enshrined in its Constitution, Sweden has a long legal history of deferring to independent agencies and ensuring that the advice of scientific experts in the civil service are not overwhelmed by political expediency. 

Likewise, when it comes to climate change, the findings of scientific experts in government agencies should be made in an independent manner without interference from political considerations. Those findings should then be used to ensure that threats are taken seriously and should be the basis for preparedness, response and recovery. 

These findings should not only include physical health but also mental health and economic costs, which in turn impact sustainability and security. It is then up to politicians and the democratic process to determine how best to balance these factors and actions in light of the scientific findings. 

The social and economic disruption caused by the coronavirus crisis also provides an opportunity to take bold action to defend ourselves against the climate crisis. For example, a key political party in Denmark has proposed a “green restart” of its economy. Similarly, a large infrastructure and stimulus program in the U.S. following the principles of the Green New Deal could be a catalyst for economic and environmental security and sustainability as we face the largest crisis since World War II, which required President Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Jason J. Czarnezki is the Olof Palme visiting professor at Stockholm University (Sweden) and Kerlin Distinguished professor of Environmental Law at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University (New York).