COVID-19 and climate change bear striking – and worrying – similarities and differences. Both are characterized by high uncertainty, but while COVID-19 has been identified as an immediate threat and action has been taken despite the absence of comprehensive knowledge, uncertainty has been touted as impeding concerted efforts to transform energy systems to combat climate change. The global economic system has strongly contributed to our failure to make radical changes. A different system – one that is not so fundamentally focused on maximizing profits over all other concerns – could have been better placed to make the undeniably painful economic adjustments we are forced to make, both before the emergence of COVID-19 and to prevent a catastrophe arising due to climate change. While both crises require dramatic societal transformations, we need to be aware of the potential negative political consequences of declaring them as emergencies.
One thing is certain about COVID-19: we simply do not know enough. Some aspects about it are simply unknown, on others we have conflicting information. Scientists are asked to take shortcuts from their rigorous methods and to offer their ‘best guess’ on hugely consequential questions. Policy makers then take decisions within a fog of uncertainty since experts have also argued that doing nothing is the absolute worst option. This is a terrifying situation for us all, but it is not entirely without precedent.
While the threat of COVID-19 might seem unique, there are some interesting parallels between this threat and that of climate change. At a general level, neither is simply a ‘natural’ phenomenon. This is not to suggest – as some have – that they are a ‘hoax’. Viruses exist, mutate, and infect ‘naturally’. Similarly, the climate of the earth shows variation due to various factors outside of human influence. But what imbues both COVID-19 and contemporary climate change with a catastrophic potential is the political economic context in which they are developing. More specifically, it is global capitalism that takes what is ‘natural’ and weaponizes it against humanity.
In the case of climate change, the problem is not that humans are extracting natural resources in order to secure their livelihoods. The manner in which this extraction is carried out, its continuous intensification and, most importantly, the extraction of resources not necessarily to meet the human need to exist and to thrive, but rather to fulfil the need of capitalism to continuously expand, is what transforms extraction into a planet-altering force captured in the concept of the Anthropocene.
Similarly, the astonishing spread of COVID-19 could not have been possible without the incredible powers of global capitalism. The virus has spread so quickly and so effectively on the back of a global structure that transports goods, humans and – let us not forget – ideas at almost magical speeds. But it is important to not fall into the trap of blaming connectivity and mobility for the spread of the virus but the underlying economic structures that made combatting it so difficult and painful. While such a pandemic could also occur under a different global economic order, the precarity of not just individuals or classes but even some of the richest and technologically sophisticated economies is what makes COVID-19 so dangerous. A different system – one that is not so fundamentally focused on maximizing profits over all other concerns – could have been better placed to make the undeniably painful economic adjustments we are forced to make.
The parallels between climate change and coronavirus do not end there. Climate scientists – those in the natural as well as the social sciences – have long been arguing that if drastic changes are not made to the way we produce and consume, in other words to the way we live, we can expect apocalyptic changes to global ecosystems. When these materialize, their impacts are likely to be just as and probably even more colossal than the toll that COVID-19 will have exacted. Yet scientists’ pleas for radical action have been rebuffed on two grounds – we do not know enough, and dramatic curbs to economic activities are fundamentally against public interest. The effectiveness of these arguments has been far greater in the case of climate change than in COVID-19! As the COVID-19 crisis shows, these two grounds have not prevented governments across the world from acting in response to the COVID-19 threat.
Can we expect a change in attitude to climate change politics once the COVID-19 crisis is over? That is certain though it is possible to expect two dramatically different responses which will depend on how, in the aftermath of COVID-19, societies around the world come to understand the now evolving response. If the response to COVID-19 comes to be seen as an overreaction or a form of mass delusion, this would have massively negative effects on ongoing efforts to respond to climate change. That would mean not only that scientific authorities – not just the epidemiologists or immunologists but the entire enterprise itself – will be discredited, opening the door to an ever-intensifying challenge that will dwarf the anti-vaccination movement. Worse still, such an impression will embolden the Trumps and Bolsanaros of the world (unfortunately not a rare breed!) to challenge and pull back all too necessary measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
However, if the experts as well as politicians and policy makers who follow them are vindicated in making draconian changes (and if those who do not do so are vilified), we can expect a new era in which scientific authority is once again celebrated and valorised (rather than challenged by baseless arguments as has been the case with the anti-vaccination movement). It can also be expected that the spectre of an ecological apocalypse will be taken more seriously, bringing it with it meaningful socio-economic and cultural transformations to adapt to and mitigate climate change.
Authoritarianism creeping in through the back door
Implementation of dramatic societal transformation in response to anticipated catastrophes might at first be seen as an entirely positive outcome. But it is important to remember that all appeals to emergency, such as the declaration of a state of emergency, regardless of how justified they are, contain within them the seed of authoritarianism. A call to urgent action is almost by definition a call to silence dissent, to short-circuit deliberative democracy and to privilege the opinion of a select few over all others.
While rare, the climate movement has long had an authoritarian streak as demonstrated by this statement by no less than the developer of the Gaia hypothesis, James Lovelock: “We need a more authoritative world. We’ve become a sort of cheeky, egalitarian world where everyone can have their say. It’s all very well, but there are certain circumstances – a war is a typical example – where you can’t do that. You’ve got to have a few people with authority who you trust who are running it”. A few years ago, such statements could have been considered fringe opinions intended more for provocation than for actual implementation. With countless leaders and scientists comparing COVID-19 to a war, there is genuine reason to be actively worried about ending up in a situation where climate change too becomes securitized in this manner.
This brings us back to the question of uncertainty and authority. While our knowledge of climate change – how it works, what its impacts are and how we can reverse it – are incomparably better than what we know about COVID-19, the socio-economic and ecological decisions that need to be taken are far from obvious if we are to avoid an economic crisis similar to the one brewing at the moment. How can we transition towards a carbon neutral economy? Which fossil fuel reserves need to be designated as ‘unburnable’? Where do we restore ecosystems and to what state? How, if at all, do we prevent flooding of cities and towns? What are the ecological tipping points and how can we prevent them if they remain largely unseen? These and countless other questions require not only authoritative scientific input but genuine deliberative discussion as well.
No society – regardless of how extensive its education and research attainment – is ready for this challenge. This is because the model of economic development that has dominated since World War II has created a relationship with science that Ulrich Beck has brilliantly described as “organized irresponsibility”, in which global capitalism has powerfully capitalized on the explosion of productivity enabled by modern science and technology while brushing under the metaphorical carpet its risks and uncertainties. Debates about the safety of genetically modified foods and nuclear power were harbingers of a brewing crisis of how science and technology can be socialized. COVID-19 is a stark reminder that the challenge remains great. If it is not addressed, we can expect many more war-like situations, not least in relation to climate change.
This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.
About the author:
Murat Arsel is Professor of Political Economy of Sustainable Development. His research and teaching focus on the tensions between nature, capitalism, and emancipatory socio-economic development. Additional details of his work can be found at www.marsel.me