All crises teach lessons, but Covid taught a particularly insightful one – it impressed upon humankind the power of Mother Nature and reminded us to never take her for granted. A study conducted recently for the IMF found that 43% of people surveyed reported being more worried about climate change now than they were before Covid, and only 7% said that they are less worried. This heightened public awareness about the dangers of climate change presents a golden opportunity for policymakers to introduce much-needed bold reform to rein in global catastrophe. But the road ahead is bumpy.
Human behaviour is at the root of both crises, Covid and climate change. Covid spreads directly between people, requiring social distancing for its containment. Climate change is mostly caused by reckless emissions of greenhouse gases from human activity, and the way out is to use less and cleaner energy. Both crises are global in nature, and both tend to deepen existing socioeconomic inequalities. Covid led to the unemployment of millions, and this is likely to leave long-lasting scars on economies all over the world. Likewise, unchecked climate change is predicted to impact the agricultural sector of many countries (including India) and cause substantial economic damage therein.
Both crises reveal the interconnectedness of today’s world, and both necessitate global solutions. Covid will not be resolved until vaccination is achieved on a truly global scale, and climate change calls for emitters worldwide to reduce their emissions until it becomes a net zero globally. A short-term approach will not work in either case, and global collaboration will be required on an unprecedented scale to win the battle in both cases.
Cooperation should accompany collaboration. While collaboration among scientists was unprecedented, cooperation among governments to distribute the vaccines equitably faltered in the initial (and most critical) stages, and vaccine allocation became a prestige issue in many countries. This hindered the vaccination effort, and possibly delayed the onset of herd immunity in several parts of the world. In such trying times, this nationalistic attitude was inexplicable.
A pleasant surprise pertaining to the response to both crises was that a concerted scientific effort on an international scale can be a game-changer. Developing a new vaccine typically takes between 5 to 10 years, and there are still no vaccines against malaria and HIV/AIDS. However, thanks to unprecedented scientific collaboration, generous government funding, and private sector innovativeness, vaccines were approved less than a year after the WHO declared a pandemic. Regarding climate change also, new technologies are necessary – but not sufficient – to cope with the challenges of reducing carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050. The rapid advances in solar panel technology and a large drop in prices over the past decade suggest that major progress in alternate and renewable energies can be quickly achieved if resources are committed and official policy is supportive.
Both Covid and climate change highlight the same basic fact – that people everywhere are living beyond their means, and that there is a limit to the capacity of the earth to support their extravagant lifestyles. Mahatma Gandhi put it well when he said that the world has enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed. We have some hard choices ahead of us and need to ask ourselves some tough questions. What better time to do so than in the most consequential global health mobilization effort in a century?