Climate Change, COVID-19, and the DNA of Crisis

COVID-19 has taught us the importance of long-term planning. Let’s see if we can apply that lesson to climate change.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been, first and foremost, a tragedy. Few other labels can so aptly describe 5.7 million worldwide deaths. However, the spread of coronavirus is far from humanity’s only calamity, with climate change, racial injustice, poverty, and gender inequality being just a few of the other crises on our societal to-do list. The dynamics of climate change between political and personal contexts are critical junctures of conversation, despite the string of equally tumultuous distractions the last few years have seen.  

The significant (albeit warranted) shift in political and scientific attention onto COVID-19 has distracted from other global crises. The narrative surrounding the recovery has largely centred on the economic rebound. For example, the 2021-22 Federal budget allocated $1-2 billion (approximately 0.1% of GDP) to each of the digital economy, tourism, and childcare. This sounds positive on paper. However, nearly 40% of families cannot afford childcare. Likewise, due to pandemic business closures and ongoing uncertainty surrounding travel restrictions, the tourism industry is struggling. Without consideration for these parallel concerns, the ‘get back to work’ incentives feel hollow and short-sighted. 

The strain on the health system has resulted in the disruption of care delivery. For example, the postponing of elective surgeries and closing breast cancer screening clinics could result in increased morbidity and mortality in the future. One UK study estimates that up to 50,000 British patients may have missed out on a cancer diagnosis during the pandemic, creating what can be viewed as a ‘health time bomb’. 

Clearly, COVID-19 is far from our only mortality concern. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported at the end of 2020 that noncommunicable diseases, such as ischaemic heart disease and stroke, still accounted for 74% of global deaths.

As the pandemic has sidetracked these aspects of our physical health, our mental health has also taken a battering. An Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) survey from 2021 revealed one in five Australians were experiencing “very high levels of psychological distress” linked to COVID-19; young people are considered one of the most affected groups. The devotion of resources toward immediate action has resulted in a deficit of preventative and long-term health measures.

The destructive short-term mindset both individuals and governments have adopted failed us during the pandemic and will fail us again if continually applied to the other crises we face. Susceptibility to pandemics and their consequences for modern society have been well understood for decades. Sadly, one could easily replace the word “pandemic” with “climate change” and be just as correct. 

This cruel reminder delivered by the pandemic has put us at a crossroads. Do governments and firms continue to wear blinkers, or do they adopt the long-term thinking necessary to combat the climate crisis and avoid planting more time bombs? With any luck, the moment of pause we collectively experienced over the last two years may provide the impetus to rise to the challenge.

Movements such as Australian Engineers Declare (AED), for example, look to disrupt the engineering industry’s modus operandi. Young employees of multibillion-dollar revenue firms like Arup are pressing their employers to “evaluate all new projects against the environmental necessity to mitigate climate change”. The most compelling factor of the AED has been the influence of employees, whose expertise is an asset the companies cannot afford to lose in a potential revolt.

The pandemic has also been an extraordinary time for science, with global responses rooted in unprecedented levels of scientific collaboration. Public money bankrolled extensive epidemiological and vaccine research at universities. Meanwhile, R&D heads of big pharma companies temporarily cast their enmity aside and collaborated throughout the pandemic. Third-party contract research organisations (to whom pharmaceutical and biotechnological development is often outsourced) also experienced record growth. These efforts (in tandem with other factors such as rapidly developing mRNA technologies) delivered us several vaccines in a record two years, rather than the standard 10-15.

Going forward, individuals and organisations can change their behaviour to better reflect our post-COVID values, capitalising on a bubbling impetus for change. Most notably, governments have an opportunity to move away from a model of jumping from one crisis to another. Instead, they should act preventatively and spotlight long-term interests. Now is not the time to anxiously ruminate on our past mistakes. Going forward, we must learn from them and focus on the path ahead.