COVID-19 and Climate Change

by Saleemul Huq, Climate Advisor for Friendship

The COVID-19 virus pandemic is still making its way around the world and it will be some time before it is over. Nevertheless, we can draw from it some lessons on how to deal with Climate Change. The problems we are facing both at personal as well as national and even global levels show a number of parallels between viral pandemics and climate change.

The first lesson is about when to take actions with regards to an upcoming problem. The tendency of leaders is to wait for the problem to occur before taking action, despite being warned earlier by scientists about its imminence. Even at this early stage it is clear that early action to be better prepared for the problem before it occurs is much more effective. However, it does mean that our leaders accept what the scientists tell them and are then prepared to institute policies which may seem too much to their people even before the problem arises. It is better to overreact before the problem arises so that the problem is controlled, than to have to scramble to act once the problem becomes a crisis. Waiting for the problem to manifest itself before taking actions leads to many unnecessary lives being lost. This is just now playing out in Italy and Spain and may well also be the case in the United States and the United Kingdom. Let us hope it isn’t the case in Bangladesh. 

The second lesson we must now accept is that we cannot shut our borders to the problem. Of course we can try to do so, and perhaps it may even delay the problem somewhat, but it cannot prevent the problem from occurring over time. This is equally true at the personal and household level where we can try to protect ourselves only, but if others are being affected around us then we will also become affected sooner or later. Hence the overwhelming lesson is that we need to, both as individuals as well as countries, cooperate with each other before, during and after the events. The evidence of successful tackling of the COVID-19 virus pandemic in China, Taiwan, Singapore and Korea have all shown how collective action by everyone in the country together with pro-active leaders, was the key to overcoming the challenges that they faced. 

Every action by individuals, households, companies, cities, provinces and countries will count towards reducing the inevitable loss and damage from climate change that is yet to come. Time is of the essence as delayed action is almost as bad as no action.

The third lesson, for now, is to look at the economic costs and behaviour change that is required. Here there are indeed a couple of positive lessons where it has been shown that almost all the people in an entire country are prepared to change their behaviour quite drastically if they have to. This is a hopeful sign going forward. Also the need to work from home in many cases is demonstrating that the amount of travel we had been doing may indeed be reduced in future.

On the economic front there has already been widespread disruption of the global economy, but some unintended benefits include a significant reduction in air pollution as well as greenhouse gases. While such economic disruption is not desirable and hopefully we will recover from them, it is worth thinking whether the recovery can also be made in a much more environment friendly manner. 

The final lesson has to do with the inevitable economic chaos and recession that is starting to happen already and will get a lot worse before it gets better. Bangladesh, with its globally linked economy is likely to see significant negative impacts on manufacturing, exports and possibly even our own food production going forward. Hence, even though the worst is yet to come, we must both prepare for the immediate economic downturn as well as think about the future path to recovery once the worst is over.

The Bangladesh economy as well as the global economy have the opportunity to rebuild the post pandemic economy as an environment friendly green economy that doesn’t simply repeat the destruction of nature and spewing of greenhouse gases that the old economy used to do. Let us hope that both our national as well as global leaders are up to the challenge. 

The writer is Climate Advisor to Friendship and Director at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University Bangladesh.

A version of this article was published in the Daily Star

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