Climate Change Take-Aways from the Global COVID Stress-Test

The COVID-19 pandemic is revealing how governments around the world respond to a global crisis. What lessons can it teach us about the international response to climate change?

When global cases of the COVID-19 virus first began accelerating at the end of February, the more optimistic among us thought that maybe this pandemic, for all of its devastating impacts on communities and economies, could serve as a unifier; reminding us that we are all in this together, and that the best way to overcome global crises is to foster international cooperation. We thought that maybe the defeat of COVID could finally lead us to a successful fight against the looming crisis of climate change. A month and a half later, this early wishful thinking looks positively naive.

On April 14th, the United States suggested that it may halt all funding to the World Health Organization as retaliation for what the President called a “very China-centric” response to the novel virus, going on to imply that the UN agency had mismanaged and even helped to bury information about the spread of the disease in China. This action is just one recent incarnation of a much broader geopolitical blame-game that seems to be steadily occurring both between governments, and in public discourse as the response to this pandemic continues to evolve.

As these early hopes of a unified global COVID coalition slowly slip away, it evokes a similar sense of loss and frustration that many of us have felt in regard to the enormous promise and recent faltering of the Paris Climate Agreement. In both cases, early sentiment was one of collaboration and hope, but as the need for cooperative action increased; competition, distrust, and cynicism crept in. Today, as tensions between China and the U.S. intensify over the respective handling of the fast-moving COVID pandemic, are we catching a glimpse of the inevitable response to climate change, or is there still time to salvage an international alliance and unify the world against our generation’s greatest challenges?

Many would argue that these missed opportunities for coordinated international responses to COVID and climate change fall largely on the current U.S. administration, which has consistently espoused isolationism and has largely abdicated its inherited role as an international leader, for example by temporarily suspending all immigration, cutting the CDC’s budget, and by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. The international response to COVID has demonstrated that these isolationist and even nativist impulses are not contained within the White House and are steadily growing around the world, from anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. and Europe to racist profiling of African immigrants, outwardly hostile nationalism, and anti-foreign propaganda in China.

In order to launch a coordinated response to COVID or climate change, nations need to be able to trust each another and set aside their economic and geopolitical differences. In past crises (The Great Recession, World War II, the Cold War) this has largely been possible because there was a strong global leader—the United States—that could ensure accountability and stability during trying times. That authority is slipping away, and in its absence, nations are turning inward, bracing for storms of our own making. This has hindered the ability of nations and international organizations to learn from one another and present consistent and truthful information to the public. It has also propagated an every-nation-for-itself mentality—especially when it comes to the economy—that has caused global market disruptions such as the price war between Russian and Saudi oil producers leading to negative oil future prices for the first time in history. This nationalist approach to an international crisis leaves the most vulnerable without refuge and leaves all of us worse-off in the end.

COVID has been an unexpected but valuable test of how our global society responds to a crisis, and with each passing day, we seem to be allowing fear and uncertainty to pull us further apart rather than bring us together.

Let COVID be a warning: we are not prepared for the ultimately much larger and diminishingly surmountable challenge of climate change. If we allow the COVID pandemic to entrench us in xenophobia and nationalism, we can be certain that we will respond to the millions of displaced climate migrants in the same way. If nations point fingers and argue over who is responsible for this pandemic, there is little chance that they will accept run-away carbon emissions as a mutual failing. If we penalize international institutions because they failed to contain this virus, what hope is there to implement international policy to soften the already colossal climate blows we will suffer over the coming decades. For the sake of our communities, the global economy, and our planet, we must emerge from this pandemic reminded of the importance of international cooperation.

Oscar Serpell

Associate Director of Academic Programming
Oscar Serpell oversees student engagement activities, new student programming, and alumni connections. He also participates in several key research projects at the center and also writes blog posts and policy digests on timely energy policy topics.