Lessons from COVID-19 in tackling climate change and species extinction

Ben Balmford, PhD Candidate, Land, Environment, Economics and Policy Institute, presents four valuable lessons from COVID-19 that can be applied to the climate change and species extinction crises.

COVID-19 may at first have seemed like a relatively localised problem, far-removed from most people’s everyday lives. But a defining feature of a disease epidemic is the phenomenon of positive feedbacks – where every action causes more of that action to occur. In no time at all the impact becomes global.

Unfortunately, this is also true of the climate and the extinction crises. Unravelling ecological inter-dependencies and interacting threats accelerate the extinction of species. Anthropogenic warming triggers shifts in ecosystems, which further increase net emissions.

Importantly, there are significant time lags in the dynamics of crises. For example, between infection and the presentation of symptoms; between removal of habitat and the protracted extinction of species and between greenhouse gas emissions and the full effects of thermal expansion and icesheet melting on sea-level rises.

These time lags mean that all three global crises are characterised by considerable momentum. As a result, left unchecked for too long, our ecological and climate impacts, like those of COVID-19, swiftly grow to become existential threats.

The COVID-19 pandemic therefore gives us an opportunity to learn and reinforce some valuable lessons that must be applied to the longer-term threats of climate change and extinction crises.

The first lesson is simple – listen to the science.

Effective responses by government, policy makers and business depend on understanding, trusting, and acting on the recommendations of the scientific community. As we have seen with the current pandemic, there have been too many times when scientific voices have been ignored. Frustratingly, scientists have been warning for decades of the near certainty that human actions are triggering a sixth mass extinction, and of the dire consequences of human-induced shifts in the earth’s climate. This must change immediately. It is incumbent of all us to ensure that rigorous data, analysis, and facts are taken seriously, and are at the very heart of the global response to these crises.

Second, there is no substitute for early action.

Country-specific analysis highlights that the earlier a country locks down, the more lives it saves. New Zealand and Vietnam together have still only witnessed 60 deaths. On the other hand, countries which delayed lockdowns have paid an ever higher marginal cost from doing so. Had the UK locked down just three days earlier, 20,000 more people would still be alive. While a further three-day delay would have cost an additional 32,000 lives. Likewise, delaying action on climate change such that the world experiences +2.0°C rather than +1.5°C warming will expose an estimated 62–457 million more of the world’s poorest people to multi-sector climate risks.

Third, we need to act in the interests of all, including future generations.

It requires the wealthier sections of society to forgo extravagance today, to ensure that the present-day poor and all future generations avoid the direst consequences of the climate and extinction crises. Just as the ‘harvest’ of at-risk elderly people is not a socially acceptable price to pay for an early return to pre-pandemic economic activity, neither is giving pre-eminence to economic growth at the expense of thousands of species on earth or a stable climate. Instead, at the very least, the people, species, and ecosystems most vulnerable to our everyday behaviours must be safeguarded through deliberate and well-enforced protection.

More generally, viruses, circulating greenhouse gases and the processes by which we threaten nature are not confined to local or even national boundaries. Hence, tackling them effectively needs coordinated and simultaneous cooperation among individuals, subnational authorities, and nations.

Fourth, delayed action reduces prosperity

As the immense toll of the COVID crisis on livelihoods and the global economy becomes clearer, estimates suggest that delayed action may ironically have reduced prosperity as well as cost lives. IMF forecasts of economic growth through to the end of 2021 are lower in those countries with higher death rates. Preventive actions to reduce the risk of future pandemics should be highly cost-effective. The notion that paying short-term costs to securing longer-term prosperity is echoed in several assessments of the overall economic consequences of responding to the climate and extinction crises. On both environmental fronts, intervening now rather than delaying further is critical to securing our future wellbeing and that of our children and grandchildren.

Scientists are not inventing the threats of catastrophic climate change or of mass extinction; just as they were not inventing the very real threat of a zoonotic global pandemic. These threats are real and here with us now. There are many actions we can take to greatly diminish both crises. Government and individual responses to the COVID-19 pandemic show us that swift and decisive changes are quite possible. In this light, the consequences of continued environmental inaction are too frightening to contemplate.


Ben Balmford is a PhD Candidate at the University of Exeter Business School‘s Land, Environment, Economics and Policy (LEEP) Institute