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Why the COVID-19 Response Is No Model for Climate Action

Alex Trembath and Seaver Wang, The Breakthrough Institute

If the emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic is held up as a model for climate action, we should not be surprised if public support is less than enthusiastic.

A global emergency. Wartime mobilization. Calls to “listen to the scientists.” Demands for radical shifts in policy and human behavior. Tradeoffs between sacrifices today and larger suffering in the future. Politicization by all sides. 

The parallels between the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and climate change are obvious. But contrary to the received wisdom among many climate analysts and advocates, those parallels mostly reveal just how different the two challenges are. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is unfolding rapidly, demanding all of our attention. Climate change unfolds slowly, over decades, often so imperceptibly that we term the conditions of a changing climate as the “new normal.” COVID-19 presents as a frightening but conceptually simple problem: a novel virus that can be contained by quarantine, social distancing and, hopefully, immunization. Climate change presents as a “wicked” problem, which means its causes, impacts, key actors, and optimal levers for change are heavily contested. Responding to COVID-19 through behavioral shifts means putting our lives temporarily on hold for months to a year. Responding to climate change through behavioral shifts means a lifelong if not multi-generational commitment to population-wide lifestyle changes. 

Nonetheless, the rapid virus–induced decline in economic activity has turned some climate hawks’ heads. “If weeks of suspended high-carbon economic activity can cut China’s emissions by a quarter,” tweeted climate activist Genevieve Guenther, “I don’t want to hear one fucking word about how decarbonizing quickly enough to maintain a livable planet is ‘unrealistic.’”

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